Flight deck

It’s not often that I read news items about the President where I sit up and say, “I’ve been there,” but that’s exactly what I did today when I read about President Bush’s Veterans Day ceremony on the USS Intrepid, a World War II aircraft carrier that’s being recommissioned as a museum. Although I’ve never set foot on the Intrepid, I have set foot on the USS Bataan, the amphibious assault ship that was docked in New York harbor next to the Intrepid during today’s official recommissioning ceremony. In my book, that’s close enough.

Open doors before starting engines

I rarely have reason to hang around aircraft carriers or amphibious assault ships, the latter being (slightly) smaller vessels designed to carry the helicopters that deliver and support ground troops in an amphibious attack. But this past summer, J and I jumped at the chance to tour the USS Bataan while it was docked in Boston Harbor over Independence Day weekend. When else, we figured, would we have the opportunity to tour a vessel we automatically began referring to (at least when we were out of earshot of any of its crew) as the “big-ass boat”?

As a civilian, I typically take for granted (read: don’t take time to consider) the things enlisted men and women do for their “day job.” In my online teaching, I frequently encounter military personnel (many of them in the Navy) who rely on distance education to pursue their degrees during deployment, but I don’t often consider how these students’ day-to-day lives differ from those of my civilian students.

Weapons staging area

Touring the USS Bataan gave me a renewed sense of respect for the men and women who choose to serve in the armed forces. As a college instructor, I know the enlisted men and women in my online classes are usually my most dependable students: they do their work, they submit it on time, and they don’t complain about busy schedules or other distractions. As befits their military training, my enlisted students simply Do Their Job without excuses. Having visited the Bataan, I now have a mental image of what life for my Navy students might look like as they live and study at sea, the big-ass ships they call home serving as self-contained cities. Juggling the demands of my adjunct teaching load seems downright simple when compared to the demands of juggling school and military service, but my enlisted students seldom complain: they just get the job done.

Flight deck with Boston skyline

As a civilian, I’m often ambivalent when it comes to military matters. On the one hand, my inner-pacifist believes any loss of life in the defense of any cause is a price too high; on the other hand, my inner realist realizes freedom is not free. The very fact that I don’t normally have to think about who is protecting my freedom–the very fact that I and other civilians can rest in the bliss of ignorance while someone else guards the ship–is itself a luxury paid by someone else’s sacrifice. Although the USS Bataan is designed as a warship, perhaps its finest hour happened here at home, when it was among the first to deliver aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While the rest of us were wringing our hands, helpless, at the horrendous images of natural destruction we saw on TV, the sailors aboard the Bataan sprung into action, rescuing stranded citizens, delivering water and relief supplies, and providing medical treatment.

Although I can’t see myself serving on either an aircraft carrier or an amphibious assault ship, I’m grateful for the men and women who have chosen that path. As President Bush prepares to pass the baton of leadership to President-Elect Obama, I know that the men and women aboard the Bataan will continue to get their job done, their service and commitment transcending the vagaries of mere politics.

Click here for a photo-set of images from the USS Bataan, and a special thank you to veterans past and present.