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E-mail changes life for U.S. sailors

October 25, 2001

ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON — In smeared khakis and scuffed boots, they click away. With grease under their fingernails, goggles shoved high on their foreheads, helmets dropped at their feet, the sailors are studies in silent concentration in the northern Arabian Sea.

They sign up a day in advance to spend a half-hour at a computer in the ship's sweltering library. In spite of war, hunger and sleeplessness - or perhaps because of them - they steal this electronic pause beneath the eaves of the flight deck.

The Internet's power to revamp the landscape is obvious aboard the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, where more than 5,000 men and women are at sea.

In the tight rooms of this labyrinth, men and women face bleak conditions: the innate loneliness and claustrophobia of a sailor's life; sinister tales of hijackings and anthrax back home; the roar of warplanes heading off across the Arabian Sea to bomb Afghanistan.

If the Internet holds a promise for the crew, it's this: Even on the edge of war, life goes on.

A father and son swap Navy tales in a macho match of one-upmanship. With Halloween on the way, sailors order candy corn and a copy of Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw." A young man downloads applications to Yale Law School.

"This is the first Internet war," said Barry, a 25-year-old lieutenant from the N.C. town of Tryon, in Polk County, about 80 miles west of Charlotte. "This is the first time the sailors are logging on from the ship to get news from home. It's made it a lot more bearable."

Working under wartime conditions, the sailors aboard gave only their first names or nicknames.

Just a few years back, sailors jostled to glimpse a summary of current events tacked to a bulletin board. Not so now. These sailors watched the World Trade Center towers collapse on satellite television, read newspaper accounts on the Internet and exchanged instant letters with worried family members.

"Without e-mail," said a 20-year-old sailor named Malcolm, "I'd be going even crazier than I already am."

Malcolm recently slipped into the library, logged on and pored over his mother's electronic account of an aunt's birthday party. He read intently, then smiled a little.

Beloved privilege it may be, but Internet access is also a tenuously held pleasure. The computers are off limits for days at a time, to stamp out viruses and prevent leaks of strategic information.

When the digital plug is pulled, there is plenty of grumbling. Crew members write and read a total of about 60,000 e-mails a day. When the Internet is shut down, sailors say, morale dips palpably.

Getting cut off is a threat for sailors.

They can lose their e-mail privileges for breaking security rules. This month, a sailor lost his account for describing the ship's location.

Before e-mail leaves the ship, computerized scanners look for geographical and political terms. If a word or phrase triggers the scanners, the e-mail is passed to security workers. Commanders are unapologetic for the rigorous censorship.

"This is a government-owned ship," said Deb, who oversees Internet access on board. "We can monitor it, and we do monitor it."

Back in the library, where a lone electric fan did growling battle against the midday heat, John Paul slid before a computer. His earplugs were poked behind his ears like cigarette butts - he had only a few minutes before he was due back on the flight deck.

He opened a message from his father, a retired sailor. The two have taken to trading tales about misadventures in port. "We've actually gotten closer through e-mail than we were at home," John Paul said. "We're able to swap stories about things we've both been through. We kind of laugh."

Meanwhile, Barry was perusing law school Web sites, musing over Duke and Harvard as alternatives as the roar of jets rattled the ship's walls.

"Look, I'm applying to law school from the middle of the Arabian Sea, in the middle of a war," he said, chuckling. "A deployment is no longer a gap. You can get on with your life."


By MEGAN K. STACK, Los Angeles Times.


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