Warship Work, Cruiseship Perks

Life on board changes subtly as the US Navy focuses on 'quality of life' issues

There are some pretty hefty differences between an aircraft carrier and an ocean liner:

One has bombs and the other has deck chairs. One warns "Don't tread on me," and the other wonders "Where else in the world." One is like a floating monastery, the other, well, isn't.

But in some small ways, life on the USS Independence has become more like a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth 2.

These days the Navy is trying to make its ships nicer places to live and work. Sailors and their supervisors do things like talk about their problems. And they have been encouraged - particularly when they are on land - to behave differently.

Partly the Navy wants to improve its image, in order to ensure public appreciation and a steady flow of tax dollars from Congress in an era of uncertain roles for the military. Commanders also want to manage their personnel better. "You're not going to retain your best people if you don't treat them well," says Capt. Hardy Kircher, the carrier's second-in-command and its chief administrative officer.

The Navy has made "quality of life" a buzzword on its ships, installing gyms and ATMs, hosting ice cream parties, and allowing sailors and marines easy access to satellite phones and e-mail to keep in touch with the folks on land. This year the Independence even created a sports memorabilia corner - featuring souvenirs, photographs, and pennants - in one of its mess areas.

"It's all part of trying to make it more like a home," says Chief Warrant Officer Glenn Davis, a security officer on the Independence, which is based in Japan and is the oldest active-duty ship in the Navy.

"It's a lot more of what we call a 'touchy-feely' Navy," adds Chief Petty Officer Richard Smith, who manages the maintenance of a squadron of radar-jamming aircraft.

These changes began years ago. Beards, a symbol of the rowdy, randy sailor, were outlawed in the early 1980s, ostensibly for safety reasons. In the middle of that decade, smoking aboard ship was dramatically curtailed. Gradually long-standing rules banning liquor have been tightened or more rigorously enforced.

The 1991 Tailhook scandal boosted efforts to correct sexual misbehavior. The era of sailors running amok in port is finished, or at least on the wane, to hear a half-dozen men on the Independence tell it. The patronage of prostitutes is discouraged, and the open display of pornography on board is banned.

The obvious thing to marvel at on an aircraft carrier is technology. There are high-tech fighters, massive engines, mighty catapults. But the human drama of the ship is in some ways more awesome.

About 4,400 sailors and marines staff the Independence. The average age is 20, and with one or two exceptions the entire crew is male. When the ship is at sea the standard workday is 12 hours, but many people work longer than that, and there are generally no days off.

The ship is a windowless steel hulk of narrow corridors, small rooms, and steep stairways. Crewmen can go days without seeing the sea or the sky. "It's like being in prison," says one junior officer. "It's gray and you lose track of time."

Many members of the crew - particularly the pilots - are involved in challenging jobs that require a high level of skill and carry the built-in satisfaction of being the sharp edge of the nation's resolve. But many more do ordinary things: cleaning the officers' wardrooms, washing dirty uniforms, maintaining the airconditioning.

Privacy is nonexistent - personal space for all but a few is limited to a locker and a bunk - and leisure is mostly a memory of something that takes place on land.

It all adds up to a certain amount of stress. "People are transitioning from being a teenager to becoming a man with a lot of responsibility," says Lt. Com. Derek Ross, one of the ship's chaplains. "We play a key role in facilitating that rite of passage." Sometimes that means listening and sometimes it means tough love. "There are times when I have to tell a kid, 'You have to face up to the decision you made to be in the military,' " says Lieutenant Commander Ross.

Sometimes crewmen founder. Chief Warrant Officer Davis, one of the men responsible for keeping peace on the ship, runs a spotless brig. There he administers some old-fashioned punishments, such as three days' bread and water, that the commanding officer is empowered to order. "A lot of times, it'll help [a sailor] refocus himself," Davis explains.

Chief Petty Officer Smith, who manages a crew of subordinates, says he works differently than his predecessors. Years ago, a supervisor might ignore a sailor with a problem or make a point of getting drunk with him on the next shore leave. These days, Smith adds, "I have to get to know my team and know what I can do for them and what the Navy can do for them."

Smith says he appreciates the material improvements in shipboard life - especially the easier access to telephones - although he worries about some of the more far-reaching changes now taking hold. He shrugs his shoulders and smiles with uncertainty when asked about the effect of having more women on board.

And he offers a reminder that in many ways, the lot of the sailor is fundamentally unchanged. When Smith joined the Navy, he slept in a bunkroom that held 120 men. Twenty years and several carriers later, he's moved up the ranks: Now his bunkroom holds 30 "chiefs," or non-commissioned officers.

"You're still sleeping in a rack and living out of a locker," he says. "In my opinion that hasn't changed at all."

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