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What's life like on board

the USS Abraham Lincoln during wartime? Check out this abcnews.com article.



On the frontline of a new Gulf War
By Pilar Wolfsteller

The 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 52 days.

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.” Endpoint

Pilar Wolfsteller, 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.

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