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AFTER THE WAR

Carrier's Crew Hears Magic Word: Home

Troops are thrilled to hear Bush speak from the Lincoln's deck, but they are even more excited to be returning to their families.

May 02, 2003|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN — The sailors cheered when President Bush said the main combat was over. They clapped when he said the nation was more secure because of them.

But the loudest and most enthusiastic applause from the aircraft carrier's flight deck Thursday night came when Bush said four simple words: "You are homeward bound."

The Lincoln, which has been deployed for nearly 10 months, was going to drop off its San Diego sailors today before heading back to its home port in Everett, Wash.

Sailors standing on the flight deck 30 miles off the coast could see land on the horizon as the president spoke to the crowd.

They stood at attention behind yellow ropes as Bush, dressed in a dark suit and red tie, strode up to a lectern and congratulated them. The president stood below a tower adorned with a banner that read: "Mission Accomplished."

Andrew Padro, 25, an electronics technician, said the president's words made everything worthwhile -- the time spent at sea and living so long in close quarters with thousands of other people.

"After hearing his words, it makes me feel like I'm part of something bigger," Padro said.

Padro's fiancee, DaleLarracey, 24, a fellow member of the crew, said Bush's mention of the troops still deployed touched her.

"I hope nobody forgets about them," she said.

Larracey, who works ship security, said the president's words were "right on."

The Lincoln, which houses more than 5,000 sailors and airmen, had been on its way home in December when it was ordered back to the Persian Gulf. The ship and its aircraft conducted reconnaissance flights, gathered intelligence, provided support to ground forces and sent out planes that bombed communications and administrative buildings in Iraq.

The Lincoln is scheduled to arrive in Washington state Tuesday, making its deployment one of the Navy's longest since the Vietnam War three decades ago.

The carrier's crew had been gearing up for the presidential visit since receiving word that Bush would be coming on board.

The night before Bush's arrival, the flight deck bustled with activity. White House staff and the carrier's crew tried out the music that would be played, assembled the stage and checked the microphones.

Meanwhile, the helmsmen turned the carrier until they found the spot with the least wind.

"You don't want the president chattering his teeth and freezing," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Brianna Haney.

Haney, a 20-year-old electronics technician, helped set up the speakers for the president's speech and said she was thrilled about the visit by the commander in chief.

"Having the president here is the ultimate pat on the back," Haney said. "Yeah, he's speaking to the nation, but he's doing it from our ship. That's the coolest part."

But not everyone on board was eager to hear Bush speak.

Airman Peter Hecht, an F-18 mechanic, said he didn't vote for Bush.

"I'm not all overexcited," Hecht said.

A few other sailors complained about the added rules and hassle because of the visit by the president, including blocked passageways and stairwells.

Over a loudspeaker early Thursday morning, Cmdr. Ronald Horton announced the rules to be observed during the president's speech: No jackets. No hats. No cameras.

"This is not a rock concert," Horton said sternly.

Horton urged the sailors to be on time, look sharp and give the president a "firm Lincoln handshake."

During his visit, the president toured the ship, which has been called a "mini city," complete with a gym, barbershop and library. He also donned a red, white and blue helmet and watched several F-18s fly off the deck to their base in Lemoore, Calif.

Bush ate dinner with about 200 enlisted sailors and slept in the captain's cabin, which is decorated with Abraham Lincoln memorabilia.

The cabin, much more luxurious than the dorm-style rooms of the enlisted personnel, has a living room, bedroom and bathroom.

Airman Ruben Torres, 29, said listening to the president speak was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

But asked whether he was more excited about seeing Bush or seeing his wife and children at home in Washington, Torres shook his head and smiled.

"I can do without the president," Torres said. "I need to go home."

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