Sleepless aboard the Bataan

Published 9:28 pm Friday, April 9, 2010

There’s something about the rocking of a boat that makes sleep easy and deep for me.

On the other hand, there’s something about foghorn blasts and intercom announcements every minute and a half that make it impossible to get a good night’s rest.

Such was the muddle I found myself in during the wee hours of the morning last Saturday.

After a long day Friday interviewing sailors aboard the USS Bataan, I just wanted to get some rest to prepare myself to rise early on Saturday and join the crew in preparation for their return to Naval Station Norfolk.

Reveille would come at 6 a.m. (significantly earlier than my normal wakeup time), and I wanted to be rested enough to be on my toes for the reunion at Pier 14 following the crew’s 80-day deployment to Haiti.

All that was required was that I hit the rack early and drift into a restful slumber.

Someone described the experience the next morning as being similar to sleeping on a factory floor. Given the choice, I might opt for the factory next time.

As I reflected this week on my visit with the men and women who serve with such distinction aboard the Norfolk-based amphibious assault ship, I came to an important conclusion about myself: I made the right decision all those years ago when I chose to skip military service. Never, perhaps, has there been a person less cut out for life on a Navy ship. The nation should be glad that I was never subject to the draft.

Not that the wonderful folks of the Bataan didn’t go out of their way to make me comfortable. Indeed, the captain told all of us media folks that we could have the run of the ship; a public information officer got me in touch with a hospital corpsman from Suffolk so I’d have a local story to tell; we were given the Marine officers’ quarters, since most of the Marines had been offloaded in North Carolina, meaning that there were “only” four bunks to a stateroom, rather than the normal six; and the food was tasty and cheap — just $10.80 for three meals.

In short, I couldn’t have asked for better hospitality. Which is at least partly the point. Even with the commodore of naval operations in Haiti willing to tweak his schedule for a chat, I still never felt quite comfortable aboard the ship. I can’t imagine how hard I’d have had it as a seaman apprentice back in my younger days.

Folks have told me that I would have adapted and that the service would have shaped my character early on. I suspect both points are valid, but it makes me tired to imagine that life.

Having spent a day getting the slightest taste of their lives (and freely observing that I may have been observing the loosest day of an average deployment), I have gained even more respect than ever for the men and women who serve our nation at sea.

The conditions are physically and mentally demanding, comforts are few and even brief deployments take them away from their homes for weeks at a time. And by definition the work can be fraught with danger.

With the U.S. Navy having such a vast presence in Hampton Roads, it is sometimes hard to forget the individual sacrifices that our nation’s military servants make to help keep us safe.

Despite the foghorn, I appreciated the opportunity see firsthand just how professional one small group of those fighting men and women can be and how willing they are to do what it takes to complete their mission. We should be proud to have them representing us around the world.