Looking Ahead by Hanson R. Hosein
Off the Iraqi Coast, Tuesday, April 08, 2003
“It's a great way to get my makeup off!” I yelled to Lt. Commander Bill Travis as we bounced through the waves in the northern Persian Gulf.
“Well, at least it balances it out for putting makeup on in the first place,” he said with a salt-water smile. As it had done in the Navy, television news had once again rendered me a “pretty boy” in the slightly less macho Coast Guard.
We were both getting drenched from the splashing sea as a Coast Guard Zodiac boat whisked us away from a dilapidated Iraqi oil terminal just off the coast of Saddam Hussein's former empire, and within sight of Iran. The rough waters had stopped us from going out the day before. So I spent my time getting my equipment ready, watching DVD's and reading on the Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell. The greatest challenge yesterday was staying awake: condemned to a perpetual state of drowsiness because of the constantly rocking ship and the side-effects of the anti-seasickness pill I had taken.
But it was all worth it. We got out to Minah Al-Bakr Oil Terminal without too much difficulty. We had to climb onto a ladder from our small, unsteady boat, and then hoist our equipment up to the deck. Once we were there, it was like a set out of a James Bond movie. A half-mile long platform in the middle of the Persian Gulf, rusting away. On one end of the terminal was a huge oil painting of Saddam Hussein - turned upside down by the Coast Guard reservists who now manned the structure. Navy Seals took “MABOT” (everything is an acronym in the military, amazingly, this one existed even before the Americans got their hands on the terminal) on the second day of the war in what they called a textbook special ops procedure. And the Coast Guard followed.
It's said that after Saddam Hussein, this location was the coalition's next most important military target. Iraq pipes most of its oil to here and loads it onto supertankers. From a country that used to provide 15% of the world's petroleum, that makes it a key asset, one that the Americans were afraid the Iraqis were going to destroy, set on fire, or contaminate the Persian Gulf with.
I chatted a bit about British Columbia with MABOT's commanding officer, reservist Tim Shea. He's normally a police officer in Snohomish County in Washington State. Tim said he took his Triumph car up to Abbotsford once a year and tooled around with it there. He took me on a tour of the terminal, pointing out where the U.N. used to run it's “Oil for Food” program, and where the Iraqi workers used to sleep. The terminal was filthy when they took over Tim said, and it's still infested with cockroaches. They run a couple of generators for electricity, and there's still no running water. So once a week, these men and women get to travel over to one of the nearby warships and take a shower and have a decent meal. There's really no life like it.
If Iraq is close to being liberated, I feel as if we have been as well. Compared to the tight leash the Navy had us on while we were aboard the Lincoln, being with the Coast Guard, is like running free in the park. Their ship is obviously much smaller, with only 180 people and one helicopter. But they're also much more relaxed and collegial. The ladderwells and corridors are wider. I shared a berth with Bill Travis, our public affairs officer. We actually had a toilet and shower in our room. Most importantly, the captain was happy to accommodate our need to do a live shot, and brought the Boutwell to a standstill so we could get a fixed signal with our satellite phones. Everything was so much easier than it had been on the aircraft carrier. Still, I think MSNBC missed my aircraft carrier pictures, because the anchors kept referring back to the Lincoln when they were interviewing me. I wish I could have shown them the shot of me being hoisted down from the helicopter onto the Boutwell's deck when we got here - because the ship was too small for the chopper to land.
Planes, trains and automobiles? Meet helicopters, zodiacs and COD's. As you can probably tell from the tone of this essay, today, was a good day. We were able to also go live from the oil terminal, which was perfect timing as it looks like the war might be over soon. And MABOT will be crucial to the reconstruction of Iraq - oil exports will fund a post-Saddam nation. I was happy to be able to tell that story. As my colleague John Byrne said when we boarded the Boutwell after our choppy, wet ride back from the oil terminal, “I just wanted to yell out, `I can't believe we get paid to do this!'”
Hanson Hosein, NBC News correspondent, Northern Persian Gulf
The capture of Mina al-Bakr oil terminal was nearly the first “mission accomplished” of the war. On March 20th, U.S. Marines rushed over the border between Kuwait and Iraq, heralding the start of the ground war against Saddam Hussein.
At the same time, the Navy's elite SEALs, joined by British Royal Marines raided two massive oil terminals in the northern Persian Gulf, just off the coast of Iraq. More than a million barrels of oil a day had been flowing through Mina al-Bakr, or MABOT, before the war. But that evening, the oil workers had already fled, as had United Nations officials supervising the “Food for Oil” program from the terminal. Instead, the commandos captured fifteen Iraqi soldiers, armed with grenade launchers, AK-47's and Surface to Air Missiles.
Lieutenant-Commander Tim Shea was there that night. The Coast Guard reservist - and full-time police officer from Sonomish County, Wa. - was set to occupy the terminal along with a handful of other men and women from the Coast Guard. Before the war, eighty percent of Iraq's oil flowed through the two 48-inch pipelines from the Al-Faw Peninsula, directly into the holds of supertankers.
Shea says coalition leaders feared that the Iraqi military might quickly sabotage and blow up the terminals. That would cause an environmental catastrophe, and impede the naval assault against the Peninsula.
“If it was destroyed, the ecological disaster would have been of immense proportions,” Shea said. “The amount of oil that comes through the pipes here would have equalled an Exxon Valdez every two hours.”
But now, one of the first Iraqi targets to fall, may be one of the first to help get a post-Saddam Iraq on its feet again. That country has the world's second-largest reserve of crude oil. And it's oil that will provide the income Iraq needs to rebuild after the war. There's little detail about how this will be done right now, but the U.S. Coast Guard says it's doing its best to make sure MABOT is ready to go when they do. American oil giant Halliburton helped build the terminal in the 1970's, and it's nearly certain Americans will help once again, in one way or another, to get it working.
“There's a big push to get the Iraqi people on the gas and oil platforms,” Michael Kazek, executive officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell said. The Boutwell has been stationed near the oil terminal for weeks, providing security and support to the crew under Shea's command a few miles away. “The whole goal is to get Iraq back in control of their ports and platforms. So they can start exporting oil.”
The Coast Guard has spent a difficult few weeks aboard MABOT, in the shadow of a huge poster of Saddam Hussein, now turned upside down. The terminal is infested with cockroaches, the steel catwalks are rusting. Two small generators provide minimal electricity, and there's still no running water. Once a week, each member of the crew takes a boat through the choppy waters of the Persian Gulf and spends some time aboard a Navy ship, taking a hot shower and eating something other than “Meals Ready to Eat” from a box. Still, they are making headway: the Coast Guard have established radio facilities, and have cleaned up enough rooms to make their stay slightly more comfortable. And the computers are working - about the only things on the terminal that didn't require a massive overhaul when they arrived.
“We came here and found all the computer systems up,” Shea said. “All we had to do was change the language from Arabic to English. It's Microsoft!” [usual MS disclaimer here]
Some might wonder why the Coast Guard is involved in military operations so far from home. But it's been participating in force protection in the Persian Gulf for nearly two years. And smaller patrol boats that haven't been used since the Vietnam war have now been resurrected for this war - to search commercial vessels and small fishing boats near the Iraqi coast.
Almost as importantly, the Coast Guard is cruising along the potential flashpoint that is the Iraqi-Iranian maritime border. Some say its better they're engaged there than more heavily armed Navy ships, which may also explain why the Coast Guard has been escorting boats bearing humanitarian supplies into Iraq.
“We're not a gray hull going up the river,” Kazek said, referring to the color of a typical American or British warship. “We're a white hull with U.S. Coast Guard on it, with an orange stripe. And it's a little less intimidating.”
The Banality of War by Hanson R. Hosein
Sunday, March 30, 2003 USS Abraham Lincoln
Two bunker buster bombs rise momentously from the hangar below to the flight deck on a hydraulic platform. They're battleship gray, about four feet long, and resemble the obelisk-like Washington Monument on its side. Two black straps wrap around each one. Under the left strap, what looks like to be a packing list. Bombs are not “dropped” in the Navy. Rather, the “ordinance” is “delivered.” And they have waybills.
I wonder who has determined what will happen to those bombs? What plane will they go on? Where will they be “delivered.” How did they decide such was to be the fate of these particular instruments of destruction? Does anyone here on an aircraft carrier wonder what happens in the end? We all see what goes up, but only the pilots who carry “harm” see what goes down - and even then, there's little detail about what or who is actually hit.
It's all been going down for days. Two hundred and sixty sorties in the last twenty-four hours, over 1800 flown since it all began. The planes take off around the clock. There's never been an announcement “all hands to battle stations.” If it weren't for the television sets wired to CNN, NBC and FOX in the mess halls you couldn't really tell that this ship was at war. Aircraft took off regularly from the carrier before the war started, and they're taking off now.
But now, pilots are marking the sides of their planes with cartoon mice bearing bombs - each one of each successful strike. I should do the same for each successful live shot I've done. I've been averaging around six a day, and depending on the temperament of our satellite videophone, I'll get my face on TV, or just my voice. It doesn't matter, a lot of what I'm saying day in and day out is just variations on a theme. The carriers aren't the story anymore, what's happening on the ground is. But TV can't get enough of those great pictures of planes landing and taking off from a deck in the middle of the sea. For me, the novelty has nearly worn off.
The ship's crew go about their daily and nightly business without much interruption. They run aerobics classes in the hangar, among stacked up bombs and planes under repair. Pilots get their midnight fix in the officer's mess: hot dogs, egg and cheese sandwiches, sugary cereals. And “dog” - that's the chocolate ice milk masquerading as ice cream that spurts out of the dispenser like...well, you can understand why they like to call it “dog.”
The crew apply fresh coats of white and blue paint to the corridors. Mail from home still arrives regularly (another reason to resent the media: the more people and gear arrive on the air transports to the carrier, the less room for letters and packages from the people who really count). They usually find a place to sort through it, wearing gloves and surgical masks - just in case one of those envelopes contains a foul white powder or something worse. In any case, mail isn't as important as e-mail. They live and die by this technology. And divorce and break-up by it as well. I've heard of a number of “Dear John” and “Dear Jane” e-mail being received here. It's the painless, nearly real-time way for the break-upper to render the relationship null and void (yes, there've been a number of divorces filed since this ship began it's painfully long eight month-plus deployment).
We, the media, are also ending our relationship here aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. This ship may be heading home soon, so the embedded journalists have to leave ahead of time before they get out of air transport range. Our public affairs handlers are nearly giddy as they realize they'll soon be rid of us.
We share the same feeling. As my ABC News colleague commented, “this has been the hardest gig I've ever been on.” And he covered the first Persian Gulf war, the war in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. It all comes down to working conditions. It was virtually impossible to ever get a strong satellite signal to feed video and do our live shots. If you wanted to shoot anything, it involved a difficult, long walk through narrow corridors and up steep ladderwells, toting equipment. When we did, it was up on the eighth deck overlooking the planes as they landed or took off, so it was impossible to hear anything. This grew progressively worse as I began to lose my hearing. I had to eventually see the ship's doctor and get my ears looked at. In the end, it was because my ear plugs were forcing wax further down into my ear canals, which may have been a blessing in disguise because it gave me further protection from the infernal noise of the jets. Our colleagues on the ground could be getting shot at, eating rations and sleeping very little in the desert, but at least they could hear and get a signal through to New York!
Friday, April 4, 2003, Manama Bahrain
It's joyous to be back on land. My hotel room is three times the size of the berth that I shared with seven others on the carrier. And it's quiet. Unfortunately I won't be on dry land too long, we're heading out to spend some time with the Coast Guard this weekend in the northern Persian Gulf. They're busy inspecting ships and policing captured Iraqi oil rigs.
To celebrate our departure from the Lincoln, the ship's captain had a brief goodbye ceremony for us. It was the Navy way to assign us all vaguely derogatory and embarrassing “call signs” (nicknames), which they had embroidered on USS Abraham Lincoln baseball hats. Mine, was “Pretty Boy.”
Maybe it was because I would put on a bit of face powder before going on air. Or perhaps it was due to my well-pressed Banana Republic look, unlike the typical “War zone” correspondent who normally wears disheveled khakis and hiking boots. Or that I insisted on getting a hair cut at the officers' barbershop, where the only thing everyone was interested in was how many celebrities I had met in the course of my television career. And I may have mentioned my having missed having my heavy eyebrows thinned, which I would normally do every six weeks by my friend Teres at Mirror Mirror back home in Kelowna.
Still, I didn't mind the handle. As I ran out of the captain's ready room to do yet another live, he called out, “Don't forget to wear your hat on air Pretty Boy!” I think I'll just give it to my wife.
I was nearly ebullient on my last morning aboard the Lincoln. That's despite being woken up at 7 a.m. by the Executive Officer preaching over the public announcement system that it was “a fine day to serve our country” and that “we are winning the war.”
While I was shaving in the enlisted men's head one last time, a young man came in with a boom box. He put on Marvin Gaye's classic “What's Going On,” and then proceeded to tell me that his parents from Mississippi were catching me all the time on television and wanted to say `hi.' Which I thought was nice.
Then he volunteered something very surprising.
“You know, if I wasn't in the Navy, I'd be smoking pot and protesting this thing right now.”
Now that's freedom of expression.
The Zen (and Stress) of Solo TV Newsgathering
March 22, 2003 aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln
“We want the war live on TV, now.”
Thus was the request nearly three years ago from the NBC foreign desk at the beginning of the second Palestinian Intifada. As NBC's Middle East producer, I thought it was ludicrous at the time.
First, we were in Bethlehem, at least forty-five minutes away from Ramallah (where they wanted us to be, “now.”). Second, our satellite truck operators were Israelis and could well be lynched by furious Palestinians if they found out there were there. Third, why? Why did they want the war live on TV? So viewers safe at home could enjoy the video game-like images?
It was one of those moments of revelation when I realized that enough was enough. A few months later, I resigned my position at NBC. I simply wasn't enjoying myself anymore, despite being in a perceived high-profile, plum position with a top American network. After that, when I started mulling over national correspondent job offers in my native Canada, I took a position that made the least possible sense. I became a one-man television operation in the fabulously gorgeous British Columbia Interior for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I would learn how to shoot, edit and transmit my own images and stories. It would be the job of five, done now by one.
In the eyes of many, I had taken a step backwards. I was no longer adorned with the entourage of a traditional television crew. And I was shooting myself in the foot by selling myself to the networks as a cheap one-man band fix. In the eyes of a few who really understood the direction the TV news business was going, I had taken a step back in order to take two steps forward.
The few were right.
As I write this, I have just reported on the first twenty-four hours of the United States military operation against Iraq “Shock and Awe” from the deck of the carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. I've rejoined NBC News as a correspondent this time. They called me: partially to draw on my familiarity with the network, as well as my combat zone experience in the Middle East. But mostly because I knew how to shoot and edit my own stories. “We see what you do as the future,” a top network executive said to me.
I knew he was primarily thinking of my walking TV studio-like version of backpack journalism in terms of cost efficiencies. But while that's the cost to me, there's also a huge benefit. And that's the opportunity to do stories in a more independent, creative way. As well as have access to those places that a four-person crew could not go. Like the deck of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The Pentagon said it would give unprecedented access to journalists for this operation, and now this war. The catch: television could only provide teams of two. For the networks, that was seen as a huge challenge. When NBC told me I would be assigned to the Abraham Lincoln, and have a “tech” accompany me, I saw that has a huge luxury. I had grown accustomed to working by myself. Now I would have someone to help me get up live on the still volatile satellite videophone, shoot my stand-ups, and carry our gear up and down those steep ladderwells on the ship.
CBS and ABC were also assigned to the Lincoln. They also had techs, who were either accomplished cameramen or editors. But none of them were as familiar with the technology of a Mini DV camera and laptop editing system as I was. Suddenly I was being bombarded with requests for help and impromptu tutorials about how to navigate the menus of a Sony PD-150 (“how do I stop the radar interference from messing up my zoom?”) and Avid DV Express (“how do I digitize both tracks?”). And none of the other correspondents were able to shoot when their techs were busy with other things. I could grab my camera at a moment's notice and run off and shoot a plane landing or an impromptu interview.
Then the war happened. We had been struggling for weeks to get our satellite phone and antenna to work. Normally, to get a live shot from a location outside of a TV studio, you would have to get a microwave truck or set up a large satellite dish (if you were in another country, that dish could be transported in up to 40 heavy cases). Now, with technology that took up about three laptop computer-size cases, you could point your antenna at the right satellite and send a jerky live satellite signal back to home base. Except on a constantly moving war ship with powerful radar, it's hard to keep a signal. That's when this two-man band operation wished it could have had a third - a fully trained engineer - to help get us up. I found myself losing my temper more frequently as we struggled to get it right.
And then, the stars aligned. A few minutes before the first strike of F14 and F18 fighter jets were to return to the Lincoln, we got our signal up. Suddenly, NBC News had “exclusive” pictures of the first planes returning from the first “Shock and Awe” strikes - live, landing on an aircraft carrier somewhere in the middle of the Persian Gulf. And I was literally screaming through the microphone to be heard over the awesome din of the jet engines. We probably had made broadcast history in a very specific way: the first live shot of warplanes returning from a bombing mission as they landed on an aircraft carrier.
I thought, even then, that ten years from now, maybe even three, with the relentless march of technological progress, all this will seem archaic: the grainy pictures, the volatile videophone, digitizing from camcorder to laptop. But these are also pioneering days. During the so-called “liberation” of Iraq, the TV journalist is also being “liberated.” We can now be like print journalists, with a video camera with a pen. Fast, flexible and unobtrusive.
For sure, many in this industry will continue to deride “videojournalism.” I see it as noble as “photojournalism,” with moving pictures. They call me a “VJ” like some flash-in-the pan MTV 20-something. They say production and editorial standards drop when only one person does the job of many. In some instances this is true. But a videojournalist can capture stories and images that a camera crew would be too slow to react to. No one cares if the images are jerky or the sound quality is poor if you're capturing a moment. It's not TV until the camera in “on” and the tape is whirring. You don't need to convince the two young French documentarians who were in the right place at the right time when the World Trade Center came crumbling down. They were not great cameramen. But it didn't matter. They were there.
“After the fact” doesn't cut it anymore. Viewers, and networks, are willing to compromise production standards, and sometimes editorial standards for immediacy and what I call “reality TV” for news - spontaneous, unscripted, unpredictable, Hollywood-like - even if news was originally the closest thing we had to reality TV before the advent of the camcorder and Survivor.
But from a more personal, less world-weary point of view, I can tell you that despite the stress of having to do everything myself, I prefer working this way. Without the entourage and the trappings of TV News, I am more engaged in what I do. I'm accountable for every image I shoot, every edit I make, every question I ask. I'm with the story from beginning to end. Yes, I would benefit from another pair of eyes for guidance. But I no longer overwhelm interview subjects with a gang of colleagues descending upon them. I carry my camera in my shoulder bag wherever I go, just in case I see something worth shooting. And as I occupy myself with the mundane and the technical of switches, settings and focus and forget about the big picture of fame and ratings, I find myself lost in the near joy of mastering a craft. In the second by second stress of twenty-four hour broadcast news, that is the Zen of TV journalism. This, is fun.
March 20, 2003 11:36 p.m. The Inconvenience of War
The Navy says if we put our dirty laundry into a gold bag and affix our name to it with a huge safety pin, we're guaranteed to get it back the next day. I don't believe them. So, I do it myself. In the officer's self-serve laundry room. It's an extra effort, but it's still free.
I've slept one hour since this “war” began. That was nearly twenty four hours ago. And I can't go to bed just yet. Something might happen that might require me to report back to New York, eight hours behind. But really, nothing reportable is happening right now aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln (even if I suspect that some of the fighters of this ship have been involved in some of tonight's attacks on Baghdad). So, I'm seizing the night. I've decided to do my laundry.
As the war gets more intense, performing this personal act gets more crucial. I've heard stories that when there are intense flight operations off the deck of the carrier, hot water gets to be in short supply. That's because powerful steam catapults accelerate those 37-ton jets from zero to 180 miles-per-hour in less than three seconds. That requires a lot of hot water, even when the Abraham Lincoln is running four evaporators that distill more than 400,000 gallons of fresh water a day (from salty sea water). So when there's war, showers get shorter and clean clothes become a rarity. Which is why I'm planning ahead.
Except one hour after I put my laundry in the state-of-the-art front-loader washing machines, I couldn't get back to them to put the wet clothes in the driers. Because ordinance specialists were busy arming JDAM guided bombs right in the middle of the mess deck, which is in front of the door that leads to the laundry room. “Danger: Ammunition Handling” reads the red sign hung across the wire barring my way to clean clothes nirvana. No contest. I wasn't about to challenge the laws of explosives.
As I sit here contemplating my wet laundry, I'm also prohibited from communicating beyond this ship. In the past week, there have been general transmission bans from the Lincoln, for some reasons, known as “River City.” The idea is to make sure the enemy can't predict when an attack in imminent (usually prefaced by a communications blackout). If there are random cuts in transmissions, then the Navy's adversary will never know when JDAM hellfire is about to descend upon it. Tonight, for the first time, only we, the media, are not allowed to communicate with the outside world. We have no idea why. But River City or media ban, it makes it very difficult to do my job.
And so does my nagging earache. I'm worried it's from the awful din the fighter jets make when they take off and land. Our live shot location is right above the runway. And more often than not, I'm trying to go live at the exact moment when flight operations are underway. Which means I'm completely unable to hear the control room in New York. And from time to time I've got to take out my ear plugs to do the live shot, which is of course exactly when a jet decides to go screaming by. So along with the powerful radar close by frying my innards, I'm probably not doing much for my health. Happily, as “embedded media,” we're considered part of the crew. Which qualifies me for free medical care while on board. So a kind doctor has prescribed me ear drops which he hopes will melt the ear wax he suspects my earplugs have forced deep down into my aural cavities.
What is convenient about life in wartime isn't necessarily healthy either. And that's the plentiful amount of high-fat, high sugar food we eat every day. Hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, bacon, hash browns, eggs made to order, grilled cheese sandwiches during “mid-rats” (midnight rations not where the rodents hide), every possible sugared cereal Kellogg's has ever manufactured - this is all comfort food for an army that may march on its stomach, but really misses home in Main Street, USA. And it's just not good for the waistline, or one's complexion. I fantasize about what it might be on a French Navy ship (I've heard wonders about French field rations) - possibly high quality vegetables, small, delicate cuts of meat, and a glass of wine, oh wondrous wine? The U.S. Navy allows its crew two beers every forty-five days. It's okay to have your teeth disintegrate from tooth decay and your emotions leap up and down from sugar highs, but God Forbid not to enjoy a judgment-impairing drink along the way.
And now, we're forced to carry a gas mask with us everywhere we go - from the office, to the mess hall, to the “head” (washroom). I don't have access to the Web, just to Navy-hosted (and spied-upon) e-mail. And I'm miles from land, my wife, Okanagan wine and organic produce, as well as the sweet peace and quiet of my beloved British Columbia Interior. War here aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln may not necessarily be hell. Just darn difficult.
POSTSCRIPT: Saturday, March 21, 2003 2:07 a.m.
Operation “Shock and Awe” just ended its first successful night. I witnessed the countless jets take off from the deck of the Abraham Lincoln, and later, I did a (noisy) live report as they returned. I was much more careful in what I disclosed than the CNN reporter on board. Apparently, the Pentagon ordered the media blackout (mentioned above) two days ago on the Lincoln because the CNN correspondent was giving away too much sensitive information in her reports.
And I just coined a clever phrase while teasing my bunkmate, and Inside Edition cameraman, Steve. He developed a nasty case of athlete's foot because he made the grave mistake of taking a shower in the enlisted men's head without wearing his shower shoes. “Steve,” I said as he stepped into the bathroom to take a midnight shower. “If the deck of this aircraft carrier are the most dangerous 4 ½ acres on the face of the planet, then the floor of the enlisted men's showers is the most dangerous 4 ½ feet.
Faith at Sea: All in the same boat
by Hanson Hosein, NBC Correspondent
Sunday, March 16, 2003 U.S.S. ABRAHAM LINCOLN, PERSIAN GULF
On Friday at 12:45 p.m. one young man falls to his knees on his prayer rug, as he surrenders to Allah.
On Saturday at 9:00 a.m., in the same small chapel aboard the aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, a handful of sailors light Shabbat candles and read from a prayerbook in Hebrew and English.
This ship of 5,655 men and women is a floating slice of sovereign U.S. territory. It's also a small city of sea, that reflects American diversity as well as any cosmopolitan town back home. And with thirty-five different religious services a week, the Navy chaplaincy is determined to bring its crews into the faith - any faith.
“We're the primary support system for the crew,” Protestant Chaplain Lt. Commander Wesley Sloat said. “We give people the freedom to come to us whether they're religious or not.
In fact, since the Abraham Lincoln extended its mission in the Persian Gulf in January, Sloat phone starting ringing off the hook as the crew grappled with being away from home for so long. He estimates demand at the chaplaincy has risen around fifteen percent since then.
Something else has changed since the carrier left its home port in Everett, Washington last July. Chief Richard Kleiner, a Jewish reservist from New York City -- who directs the ship's “lay” services (the only ordained religious officials on board are Christian) -- insisted on establishing a formal Muslim service for Fireman Naveed Muhammed, a Pakistani-born man from Detroit.
“When you're away from home, you need something to feel that you're at home,” Kleiner said. “This is home. We're a community.”
Kleiner met Muhammed by chance one day when the young technician was working in the chapel. When he noticed the 20 year-old's last name, he suddenly realized the ship had a Muslim crewmember.
“How come you don't pick out a time? I can help you” Kleiner said he told Muhammed.
Until then, Muhammed had been praying five times a day in a corner of his workshop. Kleiner wanted him to at least have a chance to pray once a week in a more spiritual place, even if it was the noisy room below the flight deck that did double duty as a Christian chapel and Jewish synagogue. Why couldn't it also serve as a mosque on Fridays as well?
“I was surprised when Chief Kleiner overlooked everything else and said, you know what? Every Friday, you can come here and pray,” the soft-spoken Muhammed said. “And I was like, wait a minute, aren't you Jewish? All my life, I've been taught that Jewish people don't really like Muslims. Since then I've thanked him many times.”
Naveed Muhammed joined the Navy on August 15, 2001, for the training, so he could go to college, and so he could “see the world.” Less than a month later, his motivation changed.
“After 9/11, I was really motivated to stay even more,” Muhammed said. “I was actually doing something for the country that gave mem so much. When I came to the U.S. in 1992, my dad's first job was fifty dollars a week. This is the country that gave me so much. And this is my homeland.”
He says no one has questioned his loyalties as America faces a possible war with Iraq. Instead, the Navy goes out of its way to allow him to worship freely.
“Fireman Muhammed said it quite correctly,” Kleiner said. “'Do you realize that if everybody worked as well as we work here, there would be no strife in the world, there would be no wars?'”
But there are wars, and the Abraham Lincoln is one of the most powerful warships on the planet. How do these men of faith reconcile their spirituality with their mission?
Chaplain Sloat said it simply, “Even warriors merit the ministry, and the right to worship”
The Persian Gulf, aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, March 12, 2003-03-12
“Somebody really doesn't like you guys,” was the less than supportive remark we got from the gung-ho weapons specialist who showed us to our berth when we arrived on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln.
Even he couldn't find the place where we were supposed to sleep. A number of inquires to enlisted men later, we found it - a nine-bunk steel room nestled behind a mess room in some dark hallway. They call it “Safety Berthing 2-54-5-L.” I call it “Summer Camp” meets “College Dorm”...hell.
Somehow the other networks got two or four-person berths. Suddenly, today, we're sharing with the BBC, Lebanese TV, and Inside Edition. We'll see what snorefest occurs in the three-story bunk beds. On the bright side, we're in a quiet part of the ship, so you don't hear the fighter jets plunking down onto the flight deck as much as elsewhere. And Paul, the Inside Edition reporter is a Vancouver native. So at least he knows where Kelowna is located. And when people expect to hear you're based out of New York City or London, that's a big thing for me.
Heather tells me everyone at home wants to know what's it like? And I know she means the food.
The answer: not as bad as you think, but I won't know until I weigh myself when this military embedment is over (three to five weeks from now they say). We eat in the wardroom, and so do the officers. Breakfast is made to order omelettes, sausage, bacon, cereal, pancakes. The other meals can be pizza, lasagne, Salisbury steak, chicken - remind you of university yet? The Frosh 15? (or Freshman 15 if you're American, either way, it's a lot of weight to gain the first year of enlightened education). Want to think you're doing the right thing and hit the salad bar. No way, the bane of all raw vegetables resides there: the entirely vacuous iceberg lettuce.
Believe it or not, the enlisted men and women (there are 500 of these, compared to about 5000 men) eat better. It's some traditional Navy thing that there's got to be some perk for being on the bottom of the ladder. And in some true perversion of tradition, the highest ranking enlisted crew, the chief petty officers, get their own mess. And this is supposed to be the best on the boat (don't let anyone around me hear me call this mammoth nuclear-powered carrier a “boat”). I managed to get into the petty officers' mess this evening. And so it was that I ate fajitas, iceberg lettuce salad with ham, washed down with some desalinated water. You know what, there's no difference.
But I did have a truly marvellous double cheeseburger (shhhh, don't tell my wife) for lunch. It's what my NBC colleague, John Byrne brought me while I was rushing to edit my story on my laptop to get it done in time for the helicopter that was about to leave for the “beach” (Navy-ese for Bahrain, the closest port from which an NBC producer who's living more comfortably there, can feed our material by satellite to the States). When we parted and I headed for our cramped work space as John headed for the cafeteria, I told him to get me anything, as long as there were no mushrooms. So lo and behold, I open up this huge tinfoil package twenty minutes later and the first thing I see: two ceremonial mushrooms, just to get my goat. Happily, the cheeseburger and fries made up for the joke.
No, I'm not working out. I believe I don't have to. Everyday, we do a near-jog through the narrow hallways of the carrier, weighed down by cameras and tripods, trying to shoot our stories. This is a nineteen story ship, but we never go lower than two below the hangar. Still, the bridge, I think is on 10. And the only elevator I've seen carries an F-18 killing machine, not an exhausted television correspondent who can't handle yet another steep set of stairs that really looks more like a ladder.
I was tempted to go for a run on the flight deck when they suspended flight operations for two days, just to say I did it. But I didn't do it. Instead, I loitered around the jets and took pictures to show to people back home later. It's hot and humid during the day here. But near dusk, a nice breeze picks up. And even though you're riding along in a nuclear powered aircraft carrier carrying billions of dollars of explosive stuff on it in one of the most dangerous parts of the world, it actually feels quite peaceful and serene for a moment. It helps that I'm a boy who likes my toys. And I have to say, those planes are an amazing sight to behold.
Today, CNN and some big name anchor arrived. She was flanked by two immense flyboys. I'm certain they weren't going to take her to some backwater berth. CNN had installed a huge tracking dome for their satellite videophone weeks ago, well before we even found out we'd have a spot on the Lincoln. We got our own dome, a day before we boarded the ship. And so it sits in Bahrain, as we wonder how to transport a box, the size of a Volkswagen Golf, to the ship.
Not that it's going to work. The carrier's powerful radar constantly interferes with our equipment when we're outside. You've got to wrap your camera in tinfoil to deflect the radiation. As I write this, I don't have access to any e-mail or telephone (the 30+ press who live here share six computers and telephones among us), because it's River City yet again. That means the ship is not allowing any transmissions. You never know if it's a drill or if it's actually because we're going to war. And that's the point I guess. If the enemy is monitoring, you don't want them to know that whenever you shut the lines down it means you're going to attack. This way you keep them guessing. And it keeps us from working. I already missed one telephone interview with NBC. And I could even call them to tell them I was going to miss it.
No matter how much better anyone of us sleeps, we all have to share bathrooms with the rest of the crew. It's not any better or worse than the run-of-the-mill gym. Except that every day, from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m., they have “Happy Hour.” That's some perverse Navy terminology where a gang of people descend upon the bathroom, turn on some music and scrub it down. If you're sleeping, you're woken up. If you're waiting to shower, you have to wait longer. As some well-known commercial goes, “in the armed forces, we get more done by 10 a.m. than most people get done in a day.”
No, it's not as dreadful as it sounds. There are some good stories here. It beats hanging out with the Army in the middle of the desert eating rations. And it beats not being part of this story at all. The Navy have been pretty good hosts. I treat it like I'm a guest in someone's house (someone's very large house). I've lived through far worse living conditions. It'll pretty cool to tell my grandchildren about it one day. Yes, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And it's one I don't intend to repeat again - in this lifetime, or the next. There's no life like it. Thank goodness.
The Persian Gulf, March 7 2003
I made sure I got a window seat. No easy task since there were only two windows on the plane. And all the passengers sat facing the tail-side of the plane. And the safety announcement included "if we should land in the water, exit through the hatch in the ceiling, and then inflate your vest. "
This was the first flight announcement I truly paid attention to I had to, it was my first flight aboard a C-2 Greyhound, or C.O.D. -- a "Carrier On-Board Delivery" aircraft. it's what they use to get freight -- and now journalists -- onto aircraft carriers out at sea. Like the USS Lincoln in the middle of the Persian Gulf.
It's an experience some may choose to miss. While taking off and landing in the COD, you're strapped in at the waist and shoulder, and you have to wear earplugs and protective headphones. No issues about hand luggage on this flight -- you're not allowed any. I dropped my small hard-covered notebook on the floor. My more experienced seatmate, a Reuters camerawoman alerted the military escort immediately. Not to tattle, but to .be on the safe side. Because when this aircraft lands abruptly on an aircraft carrier at 150 mph and stops, loose notebooks and paperclips sink ships. Well not really, but they become deadly projectiles.
And the landing took me by complete surprised. It was as if the plane just plunked down on the deck, it's tailhook grabbing the arresting cables on deck, stopping the plane within 320 feet. A few minutes later, below deck, the Public Affairs Officer briefed us. And every minute or so, I would hear the sound of a chain dragging, and then a throbbing boom as another plane got hooked on the carrier's cable, and transferred the energy of its incoming velocity to the ship itself. It may have also been the noise of the ship's catapault, launching fighter jets from zero to 165 miles an hour within two seconds. During flight operations, two aircraft can take off and one can land every 37 seconds.
I took advantage of my partial view through the window not to get motion sickness and to take in the sight. Within an hour of taking off from Bahrain, I caught sight of the Lincoln battle group -- large ships steaming through the water. The Nimitz-class nuclear-powered carrier is the group's flagship. It's also the largest warship in service in the world.
And it's been out from its home port in Everett, WA since July 20. The Pentagon extended its mission in January. And as one sailor told me, they're keeping a careful eye on the deployment at sea record. Right now, they're at 58th in the standings.
So I'm sure it doesn't make anyone aboard none happier to play host to a gaggle of journalists who have forced a good many of them from their bunks into even more communal accomodations. It's all part of what the Armed Forces call "media embedding," and they say the access we'll have is unprecedented.
I'm looking forward to taking care of that, once I lose my intense disorientation. The Lincoln is huge and bustling. I nearly ran into the nose of an F-18 fighter jet, pushed a guy waiting in line in the mess hall with my unruly luggage, and nearly tripped over a chain or two. As we were told before setting out on our embedment, Lloyds of London calls the Lincoln the most dangerous four and a half acres (about three football fields) on the face of the planet. It may be right.
But it also may be the most awesome. Later this evening, our kind escort Ted Scott showed us his favourite areas of the ship. He led us to the fantail at the rear of the Lincoln. We stepped outside. The stars shone bright over the water. Plankton glowed below in the ship's wake. And further away, but quickly approaching, blinking red and green lights signalling the formation ready to land. I had to put my hands around my ears, and hold my breath as they roared by, and landed on the deck. I can't believe I'm here.
LETTER FROM THE MIDDLE EAST, by Hanson Hosein March 6, 2003
Sailors jokingly call Bahrain “the bar at the end of the pier.” That's a handy reference to this Middle Eastern island's long-standing role as an important trading port. But it also describes the Arab nation's relatively liberal social policies. Unlike neighbouring Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, you can easily get a drink here. In fact many locals say Bahrain is a convenient satellite of austere Saudi Arabia. Linked by the King Fahd Causeway, this is where Saudis come to have fun.
It's a good place for me to start my expedition in the Persian Gulf. Okanagan shopping malls have Starbucks, Radio Shacks and Sony Stores. Bahraini malls have the same. With the slight distinction that they reflect the opulence and wealth of some of the people who live and play here. Gilded doors slide away majestically if you want to enter one of the many jewelry stores in the Al-Seef mall. And you'll have to negotiate among the many late-model Mercedes, Range Rovers, Porsches and BMW's in the parking lot before you can enter retail heaven.
But I didn't discover the malls until later in my stay here in Bahrain. I had to get here quickly, just in case the U.S. Navy said I had to board the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lincoln sooner than later. The Navy's Fifth Fleet has been based here since the late 1940's, and this was the jumping-off point for correspondents who wanted to get in on whatever action might or might not be happening in Iraq.
My rush to get to Bahrain meant I was short of the equipment and supplies one would normally need to report on a possible war. I had done what I could before leaving Canada, but I still had to go for cables, notepads, sun goggles and aluminum foil (which we hope will shield the camera from the devastating interference of American radar aboard the carrier).
Accustomed to the souks of the Arab world from the three years I lived in the Middle East prior to moving to Kelowna, I thought I should start in the old market downtown.
And you can buy nearly anything in the narrow alleyways of Manama's souk. This city, after all, is the capital of an island kingdom that has been a Middle Eastern trading mecca for thousands of years. So it should not surprise that among a souvenir stall's wares, a shopper can purchase an Iron Maiden t-shirt, side by side with “No War with Iraq” and “9-11-2001 `American Under Attack'” shirts. I returned a few days later to film this odd juxtaposition for a story. The shop owner immediately removed the 9-11 shirt while I was preparing my camera. It seems that in this diverse nation that tries to be all things to Arab and Westerner alike, no one wants to offend, nor be misinterpreted.
This great diversity, and some might say, unique open-mindedness in the Arab world, is further fuelled by a population that is forty percent foreign - among them Indians, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Philipinos, British and Americans. I've even been told that three hundred Jewish people call Bahrain home - a unique regional phenomenon these days.
Still, a great number of Bahrainis decided to take a stand recently, when thousands of anti-war protestors took to the street. The lead up to this demonstration after mid-day mosque was the talk of the town all week. The U.S. Embassy had warned American nationals to avoid the neighborhood where the protest would occur, as had at least one other American corporation doing business in Bahrain. Meanwhile, Jawad Al Ferooz from the Al Wefaq Islamic Society and the man behind the demonstration said no one had cause to be frightened.
“We are really very civilized,” Al Ferooz told me outside of the Ras Ruman Mosque prior to the protest. “We are not against the American people. We even invite them to join us.”
And by Middle East standards (as well as mine, having witnessed my fair share in the West Bank and Gaza), it was a well-mannered public demonstration. There was the traditional burning of the American flag and stomping on the Israeli one. There were a few chants in support of the Palestinians. But on this day, the megaphones were louder than the people, who were more than happy to be herded along by a solitary uniformed policeman. There was something genteel in their outrage. As the crowd walked down the wide boulevard, they were followed by a few men in yellow suits carrying brooms and garbage bags.
A partial explanation for this respect for law and order lies in the relatively open Bahraini government, led by King Hamad. The monarch appears to have the respect of his subjects, especially after he instituted key political reforms a few years ago after violent unrest in the mid-1990's.
Bahraini opposition to American action against Iraq is not a knee-jerk Middle East Arab reaction here. Many people seem genuinely afraid of what a war could bring. The last few days have seen a number of emergency drills in preparation for the possibility of a chemical attack in the event of war. Bahrain was hit by a few stray Iraqi missiles in the last Gulf War. And some are also afraid of what an American-inspired attack could stir up in this volatile, inflamed part of the world. There's nothing certain about what comes next.
Unusually open gulf nation worries about Iraq war
Thousands of Bahrainis gathered Friday to protest the threat of a U.S.-led war on Iraq.
By Hanson Hosein
MANAMA, Bahrain, Feb. 28 -- You can buy nearly anything in the narrow alleyways of Manama's souk. This city, after all, is the capital of an island kingdom that has been a Middle Eastern trading mecca for thousands of years. So it should not surprise that among a souvenir stall's wares, a shopper can purchase an Iron Maiden t-shirt, side by side with “No War with Iraq” and “9-11-2001 `American Under Attack'” shirts.
This great diversity, and some might say, unique open-mindedness in the Arab world, is further fuelled by a population that is forty percent foreign, as well as an American military presence in the guise of the U.S. Navy's Fifth fleet that has found a port of call in Bahrain since 1949.
But “No war with Iraq” was the flavor of the day on Friday here as thousands of protestors took to the street. The lead up to this demonstration after mid-day mosque was the talk of the town all week. The U.S. Embassy had warned American nationals to avoid the neighborhood where the protest would occur, as had at least one other American corporation doing business in Bahrain. Meanwhile, Jawad Al Ferooz from the Al Wefaq Islamic Society and the man behind the demonstration said no one had cause to be frightened.
“We are really very civilized,” Al Ferooz told MSNBC outside of the Ras Ruman Mosque prior to the protest. “We are not against the American people. We even invite them to join us.”
And by Middle East standards, it was a well-mannered public demonstration. There was the traditional burning of the American flag and stomping on the Israeli one. There were a few chants in support of the Palestinians. But on this day, the megaphones were louder than the people, who were more than happy to be herded along by a solitary uniformed policeman. There was something genteel in their outrage. As the crowd walked down the wide boulevard, they were followed by a couple of men in yellow suits carrying brooms and garbage bags.
A partial explanation for this respect for law and order lies in the relatively liberal Bahraini government, led by King Hamad. The monarch appears to have the respect of his subjects, especially after he instituted key political reforms a few years ago after violent unrest in the mid-1990's. Hamad is off to Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt this weekend to chair the 15th annual Arab League summit, which will deal primarily with the focus of Friday's demonstration: Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Bahraini opposition to American action against Iraq is not a knee-jerk Middle East Arab reaction here. Many people seem genuinely afraid of what a war could bring. The last few days have seen a number of emergency drills in preparation for the possiblity of a chemical attack in the event of war. Bahrain was hit by Iraqi missiles in the last Gulf War. And some are also afraid of what an American-inspired attack could stir up in this volatile, inflamed part of the world.
“More fanatics and pressure groups will start up in these countries,” the Al Wefaq Islamic Society's Al Ferroz said. He also called on his government to end its long-running lease with the U.S. Navy. “The people are really against it. They don't want this base to be here in Bahrain.”