ABOARD THE USS CONSTELLATIONHe who would build bombs must cultivate detachment. Deep inside this aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, far below the glory of the flight deck and the bustle of the mess halls, young men in red turtlenecks and camouflage pants assemble the weapons that will rain on Iraq if the United States declares war. It's not hard, says Fernando Espinosa, a 20-year-old airman apprentice from San Diego, of his daily work in the chapellike quiet of the "armored box" that houses the Constellation's munitions several decks below the water line: "I get up, I shower, I make muster, I build a bomb. That's my day."
On a warship, reminders of death are everywhere; most sailors, for instance, stroll serenely by metal first-aid lockers clearly labeled "mass casualty box" on their way to chow. But being an ordiethe nickname for those who build, move, and buy ordnance on Navy shipsrequires a particular kind of discipline. "I don't think about what it'll do when it drops," says Colorado native Clayton Duncan, a 31-year-old aviation ordnanceman, first class, of the possibility that his day's work might mean the end of someone else's days. "I can't change that fact, so I block it out, like I do missing my family."
Dealingor not dealingwith death on a daily basis makes such matter-of-factness common among ordies, who are among the Navy's tightest-knit groups. "Most of our hiccups are written in blood," says Chief Warrant Officer Buster Clarke, a 22-year Navy veteran from San Diego who manages the Constellation's "bomb farm," a city-block-size strip on the ship's landing deck where beefy JDAM bombs wait alongside button-nosed Hellfire missiles to be loaded onto aircraft. One team of on-deck ordies might lift 50,000 pounds of ammunition in a single flight cycle, loading and unloading planes that can carry as many as four 2,000-pound bombs apiece. Heavy JDAMsjoint direct attack munitionsgo up on a motorized hoist, but for lighter munitions like the 500-pound Sparrow missile, six ordies stand across from one another, bomb between them, and lock forearms to lift and secure the weapon under a wing in less than two minutes. "I put my trust in him, and he puts his in me," says AO Third Class Terry Knapp, 23, of Centralia, Wash., of his teammates. "We're bound by the danger of what we do."
Many ordies say their job is a boy's dream come true. "I get to blow stuff up," says AO Second Class Bryan Sanders, 23, of Dallas, "and mess with million-dollar weapons." This brand of machismo, along with ordies' reputation as near-obsessive regulars in the gym, long ago earned them the nickname "Knuckledraggers." "People thought we were only good for lifting heavy things and blowing stuff up," says Clarke, whose greatest professional pride is the increasing number of college degrees earned by his ordie subordinates. But ordnancemenone of the few naval divisions with their own professional organizationstill cultivate a kind of playing-with-fire mystique. On the wall outside one of the ship's several magazines, a crude painting of a young boy against an exploding backdrop proudly proclaims the ordie creed: "IYAOYAS." ("If you ain't ordnance, you ain't s---.")
Standing in a magazine, amid hundreds of squat, neatly stacked bombs that look like beached whales, Lt. "Gunner" Joe Thompson, a 17-year Navy veteran from Virginia Beach, protests the pyromaniacal stereotype: "We're not warmongers. We're out here to be a deterrent. And the way to be a deterrent is to have superior firepower." In fact, Thompson, who manages the ship's magazines, views his bombs as a recyclable commodity. In peacetime, most of the munitions his staff buildsworking on a waisthigh assembly line, ordies can add the tail, fins, nose, and fuse to a benign bomb body in about 20 minutesreturn to the magazine eventually, or are sent to other ships.
One concrete-hulled weapon now in his arsenal came from its manufacturer bearing a Dr. Seuss-like ode. Called "The Little Bomb's Prayer," the poem begins, "I pray that I might/Be dropped when in sight/of Saddam's weapons pile!" Before this precision-guided explosive goes anywhere, Thompson's staff will scrub off the scribbled elegy. "I hate that," says Thompson. "I just think it gives an unprofessional image."
Lately, ordnance work on the Constellation has been steady. But if war ensues, the nearly 500 ordies on board will go into overdrive keeping the ship's aircraft battle ready. "They'll be running on adrenaline for the first 18 hours," says Lt. Cmdr. Lewis Carver, a "gun boss" in his 21st Navy year, of the wartime energy level of his 200-plus charges. For Hour 19 and beyond, Carver is depending on TV: "They'll watch CNN, they'll see those detonations," he says. The sight of "their" bombs exploding, combined with "seeing aircraft come back empty," will be stimulation enough to bolster stamina for the war's duration, he predicts.
For many ordnancemen, Carver is most likely right. "I'll get the rush of being the last human to touch these bombs," says Sanders. But others may have trouble with the doctrine of detachment during wartime. "I believe I'm here to defend freedom," says airman Don Burdette, 23, a former theater manager with 5-month-old twin daughters who was lured to the Navy, in part, by the promise of job security. A bomb assemblyman, Burdette loves his work, feels his colleagues are family, and believes "someone has to step up to the plate" against Saddam. Still, he says, sometimes he thinks: "God, I hope you're with me on this. I hope this is for the good."