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US Military Personnel Watch and Wait Aboard Aircraft Carriers - 2003-02-18

The U.S. military buildup in the Gulf now includes the biggest concentration of American aircraft carriers in the region since the 1991 Gulf War. The USS Abraham Lincoln, one of five aircraft carriers preparing for a possible military campaign in Iraq.

For many of the 5,500 men and women aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, the Persian Gulf is familiar territory.

For the past 12 years, the carrier and its 70 aircraft have participated in Operation Southern Watch, the name given to coalition patrols of the no-fly zone over southern Iraq. The no-fly zone was established after the 1991 Gulf War to protect Iraqi Shiites from Saddam Hussein's forces.

The Lincoln was in the region again last September to December for more Operation Southern Watch missions. The ship was headed back to the United States when it was ordered to turn around and join the aircraft carrier USS Constellation as part of a U.S. buildup in the Gulf.

Six months is usually the maximum amount of time a U.S. carrier is deployed at sea. Petty Officer Lisa Dougherty, 22, said the sudden extension of the ship's tour as well as not knowing when that tour might end is hard for the crew to adjust to.

"Everyone is tired. We need a break, so we're just all waiting to see what's going to happen," Ms. Dougherty said.

Adding to the anxiety on board the carrier, some crew members say, are television broadcasts of U.N. Security Council meetings, anti-war demonstrations and anti-American protests.

Some of the crew say the demonstrations could pressure the Bush administration to back down. Others say a war against Iraq is inevitable, given the huge and continuing military buildup in the Gulf.

Another aircraft carrier, the USS Kitty Hawk, is on its way from the Pacific to join the Lincoln and the Constellation in the Persian Gulf. Two other carriers have been deployed to the eastern Mediterranean Sea. By early next month, nearly 200,000 U.S. troops could be in the region.

The Abraham Lincoln's commanding officer, Captain Kendall Card, said he has no doubt that the ship is ready for full-scale combat, but he acknowledges that there is little he can do to relieve the effect weeks of waiting is having on his crew.

"There is only so much you can ask folks to do. There will come a time where the sacrifices you are making and your family is making will start to override mission effectiveness and the patriotic feelings that you have. Do I think that's close? No, I don't think that's real close," Mr. Card said.

While the Lincoln waits for a decision from Washington on a war with Iraq, its fighter jets are continuing to participate in the daily patrols over Iraq's southern no-fly zone.

All day long, heavily armed jets scream off the carrier's massive 300-meter long flight deck. Returning planes slam to a halt on the other side of the ship, hooking onto one of four cables laid across the deck. The missions often continue well into the night.

The pilots and sailors know that in this dangerous, frenetic environment, not being mentally focused could mean disaster for the entire ship. The most senior non-comissioned officer on the Lincoln, John O'Banion, said that he is confident that being homesick and stressed will not keep the men and women from performing their duties properly.

"They train consistently, day in and day out. Not only do they train to do their specific jobs, but they train on rights, responsibilities, the Navy's core values of honor, courage and commitment," Mr. O'Banion said.

President Bush has warned that time is running out for Baghdad to disarm or face war. The crew of the USS Abraham Lincoln hopes there will be a resolution to the standoff soon.