ABOARD THE USS CONSTELLATION"Constellation, come home." That's what Prince Hughes, a 22-year-old photographer's mate on the aircraft carrier Constellation, hoped President Bush would say to the world in his press conference Thursday night. That was 4 a.m. Friday on this 42-year-old ship, and nearly 20 sailors had crammed onto two beat-up white leather couches in front of a blurry, live satellite broadcast in the ship's photography lab. Sitting in the shadow of a large American flag in the corner, amid the muffled din of planes landing and taking off several decks above, the sailors watched intently to see whether their commander in chief would order them to war.
For the duration of the speech and the Q&A that followed, the sailorsmostly 20-something enlisted men, clad in standard-issue navy blue jumpsuits and sporting square-shaved heads straight out of Top Gunleaned forward in their seats, attention riveted to the president's words. Under a ceiling maze of white pipes labeled "air supply" and "plumb drain," opposite a poster of a camouflaged Nicolas Cage in the action flick Windtalkers, seamen young and seasoned waited to hear whether the president would put an end to the Connie's five-month state of indecision. Deployed to the Persian Gulf from its base in San Diego last November, the Constellation and its over-5,000-strong crew have been laboring long, hard hoursmany of the gathered sailors were on the 10th of a 12-hour stintmade longer and harder by the lingering state of uncertainty. "It's hard, especially for younger sailors, to sustain momentum when there's no end date in sight," says Lt. Jim Russell, a 23-year veteran.
Overall, though the president's speech met with many of the sailors' approval, interpretations of his intentions varied. Some saw a certain, and swiftly dawning, future in Bush's carefully chosen words. "I'm pretty confident we'll be seeing some action here soon," predicted Chief Petty Officer Tom Costello, serving his 13th Navy year. "He sounds committed to the cause." Others felt frustrated at the president's protracted wait-and-see stance: The fact that Bush "didn't come out and say whether we were going to war or not," was the major complaint of 24-year-old photographer's mate Marshall Tavares.
If war started tomorrow, many of these young sailors say they don't fear for themselves. "I really feel safer being here," said Casey Tweedell, "rather than back in the States, [dealing] with the unconventional terrorist threat." Reflecting on the relative safety of a 4.5-acre, 88,000-ton steel aircraft carrier stationed far beyond the stated range of Iraqi missiles, Tavares mused on the Marines and the front-line lot of an infantryman buddy: "Those guys are in lots more danger than us." Young but not naive to the war's human costs, especially on the toll to his comrades-in-arms, Tavares acknowledged that "there will be military lives lost" if war ensues. Asked whether the price is worth the prize, Tavares answered without hesitation: "Worth the freedoms of our country being protected? Yes."