Imagery of Regent people and campus

From 130 to Zero in 3.8 Seconds

By Dr. Carlos Campo | September 28, 2009

Regent Vice Presidents join civilians, and participate in the Aircraft Carrier Distinguished Visitor (DV) program.

The plane's cabin floor began filling up with a vapor so thick I could not see my feet. Across the aisle sat my two colleagues, Regent University Vice Presidents Tracy Stewart and Sherri Stocks, who were all but unrecognizable: Around their necks hung green, burlap self-inflating life preservers; their be-goggled heads wrapped in protective helmets with double ear protection against deafening engine noise.

The sole object of my focus for the next hour was the tan, riveted metal seat back in front of me—I was in one of the many seats that lacked a view of the plane's tiny windows. There would be no drink service. No snack boxes, headsets, magazines, pillows or any of the other in-flight amenities we have come to expect (though most now come with a price). We were traveling on a C2-A Greyhound, commonly referred to as a "COD," a military term used to describe the type of aircraft that ferry personnel, mail and high-priority cargo (like replacement parts) on and off a Navy ship. This flight was clearly unlike any we had ever taken, and the best—or worst, depending on your perspective—was yet to come. Our four-point seat belts hinted at what awaited us: an "arrestor landing" aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman.

The three of us were among 11 civilians ("landlubbers" was one of the kind terms used to describe us) invited to participate in the Aircraft Carrier Distinguished Visitor (DV) program, which takes regional leaders to sea to familiarize them with what Navy men and women do day in and day out. We knew we were in for a variety of experiences over the next two days, but at this moment, one event fastened itself like a vise upon our imaginations, the landing which relies on a small tailhook, a few arrestor wires stretched out across the ship's deck, and the expertise of our very young-looking pilot. The landing that will take us from 130 to zero in 3.8 seconds. The landing that has been variously described to us by not-so-well-meaning colleagues as something in between a rollercoaster ride and bone-jarring stop that will likely result in substantial bodily harm. The landing. Here it comes...

By the time our collapsed lungs refill with air it is over, and we are quickly ushered out of the plane, across the deck of the ship, and into the labyrinth of hallways and stairs that make up the Truman. Through my goggles, I see sailors clad in multi-colored suits, the grey deck peppered with sleek aircraft, mingling with the eternal blue of the sea stretching to the horizon. Up two flights of steep metal steps, we are in a control tower, munching some fresh fruit and being welcomed by the ship's "CO," Captain Joe Clarkson. Captain Clarkson sets a tone that will be mirrored for the next two days, a professionalism and sense of purpose undergirded by a politeness and authenticity that defines the exemplary leadership here on the Truman.

Our schedule was packed with events, and thanks to Executive Officer John F. Meier and Command Master Chief Allen R. Walker, each of them was fascinating. From the bakery to dental operations, from media to engineering, we clearly understood why this barge is described as a "floating city." Throughout our stay, we realized that these brave men and women were surely destined for deployment, and that—someday soon—these "practice operations" would take on a completely different tenor where the stakes would be far higher.

Highlights? How to pick just one? Standing 30 feet from an F-18 landing on the deck in front of us? Having breakfast with a young sailor from a tiny village in Kentucky who now oversees more men and women than live in his home town? Watching night operations in the stillness along a catwalk, the breeze blowing off the blackness of the ocean, and then the sudden roar of a jet landing? Any of these would qualify, but I am haunted by another memory. It is not of any individual moment, but a collective reminiscence. The grease-stained face of a young, uniformed woman peering out from under a helicopter's engine, two sailors clad in bright green signaling to a fighter jet pilot preparing for takeoff, three sailors huddled together in a hallway talking about their families, others standing erect and saluting the captain as we walk past, repairing engines, praying in chapel, studying in the library, sending e-mails, sharing a meal, and in them all, the bright strength of America's future, this unparalleled volunteer force who have left behind family and friend, hearth and home, for our sakes, for freedom's sake; yes, they will stay with us many days after this visit ends, these young heroes we cannot begin to thank.

We cinch down the straps of our restraints, preparing for the catapult launch that will fling us past the slate-colored deck and out over the unchanging Atlantic. I glance out the window for one last glimpse of the carrier. We surely do not yet know all its intricacies, and it will go on with its mission unchanged by our presence, but we cannot say the same. They may have called us "Distinguished Visitors," but it is they who have distinguished themselves in our memories and in our hearts, and through this visit we have been transformed by their courage and commitment.

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