On the frontline of a new
By Pilar Wolfsteller
flight deck of an aircraft carrier is one of the most dangerous
places on earth. Seventy aircraft—many loaded withlive
ammunition—taxi, take off and land at one time. The
smell of aviation fuel permeates the air as hundreds of humans
engage in an elegant dance with the multi-million dollar
machines, demanding exact choreography and sharp concentration.
The noise is infernal, but there is no other place Jeff
Bender ’81 would rather be. “I wouldn’t trade this for any
of the jobs I have had before,” Bender says. “The
pace is frenetic and each day brings something new. It really
has been an experience of a lifetime.”
Twenty-two years after he left Glassboro with a degree in
communications/radio, television and film, Lieutenant Commander
Bender is living out
a dream as the public affairs officer onboard the aircraft carrier
USS Abraham Lincoln. His job is to host journalists and distinguished
guests who visit the ship. His office is the carrier’s
four-acre flight deck on the open sea.
Bender starts every morning at 6 a.m.—but his commute
is only a few hundred-feet from his quarters. He turns some corners,
climbs some stairs and goes through a few doors. Along the way,
he passes the restaurant, barbershop, grocery store and chapel.
His job comes with hardships, including spending months at a
time away from his family and living in a tiny, windowless cube
about the size of a walk-in closet, just under the flight deck.
Jet engines blare at all hours of the day and night just six
feet above his room.
Since the aircraft carrier left its home port of Everett, Wash.
on July 20, 2002, the world of the 8,000 men and women at sea
has been exactly 1,092 feet long, 252 feet wide and 24 stories
high. Port calls have been few and far between. For the crew,
life onboard is an exercise in sacrifice—a nonstop rotation
of work, little sleep and almost no free time. The longest period
the crew was underway without a break (and without a beer) was
After spending several months supporting Operation Enduring Freedom
and Operation Southern Watch in late 2002, the carrier Lincoln
was on her way home when she was re-deployed to the Arabian Gulf
in February. “On New Year’s Day, the crew was told
we were going to be extended indefinitely,” Bender says. “It
really came as a shock for all 8,000 sailors in our battle group
who had just spent Thanksgiving and Christmas so far away from
our loved ones. It was really hard for everyone.”
It’s a long way from South Jersey to what the Navy likes
to call its “95,000 tons of diplomacy.” A native
of Elmer, Bender joined the Navy in 1982 and continued as a reservist
after completing his active service requirement. For eight years,
Bender was the director of public relations at Elmer Hospital,
which underwent a merger in 1994; a few years later he returned
to active duty.
His Naval career has taken him around the world. A few months
before the Lincoln deployed last year, the Navy dispatched Bender
to Pearl Harbor to direct the public affairs effort for the recovery
of the Ehime Maru, the Japanese fishing vessel sunk by a Navy
submarine in 2001. Prior to that, he was on the Navy’s
press relations team when the crew of an intelligence plane returned
to its squadron’s base in Washington State after it collided
with a Chinese fighter jet.
But no matter how exciting the mission or how far away the ship
is from home, Bender’s thoughts are with his wife Heather
and his three sons, Jeffrey, Joshua and Jarett. They smile from
dozens of photographs taped to the walls of his stateroom and
hundreds more on his computer’s hard drive.
“One of the hardest things about being away is being so far from
family,” he says. “Not being able to have a lengthy
conversation with my boys makes me wonder what I am missing out
on and how they are doing. I know I am missing just everyday
things that parents who are with their children on a daily basis
take for granted,” says Bender, who has spent almost 18
months out of his two-year tour underway.
When his tour ends in April, Bender will move to southern California
to take charge of the public affairs work for the elite Navy
Seals (Special Warfare Command), based in Coronado. “I
never imagined I would come this far and I am thankful the military
gave me the opportunity to apply what I learned in college and
put it to use doing something I totally enjoy,” he says.
Another aircraft lines up to launch off the deck and Bender watches
as two journalists prepare to film what, for them, is an adventure
of a lifetime. For him it is just another day at the office;
but with one significant difference. In the past, it has been
training and this time it is war.
“No one, not even those of us serving in uniform, likes war. But
when years of negotiation and diplomacy fail, the only answer
will be to use military might,” Bender says. “We’ve
trained for it, we’ve lived it for the last seven months
and we’re ready when we get the call.”
a former resident of Vineland, works as a television news producer
at Reuters Television, based in Berlin, Germany. She has traveled
to the Arabian Gulf several times in the past year to cover
US military operations and regional politics.