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War in Iraq: Military Operations
With Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, April 4, 2003; 3:30 p.m. ET

The Post's Lyndsey Layton spent several weeks aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln as the U.S.-led war in Iraq began and pilots performed scores of bombing runs from the decks of the aircraft carrier on targets in Iraq.

Layton was online Friday, April 4 at 3:30 p.m. ET, to discuss her experience aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln and the war in Iraq.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Lyndsey Layton: Hi everyone! Yesterday, I flew off the USS Abraham Lincoln after a month at sea and I'm still acclimating to dry land. Thanks very much for logging on. Let's go to your questions.

Washington, D.C.: Early in the war coverage, I saw a clip of a commanding officer giving a pep talk to some soldiers by telling them to remember 9/11, etc. Did you hear much discussion about 9/11 and, if so, were any of the soldiers treating this war as some sort of reaction to 9/11? This seems to be a falsity that has gained a life of its own.

Lyndsey Layton: Actually there were many references to 9/11 on board the Lincoln. I was closely following a squadron of Super Hornet pilots and they all wore patches on their flight suits they were given by a NYFD unit from mid-town Manhattan. They painted the names of lost firefighters from that station house on their jets.

Washington, D.C.: Hi Lyndsey! I'm a big fan of your work and loved your stories from the Lincoln. A logistical question: How did you get off the carrier? Is it true that they catapult planes off the flight deck? What did that feel like?

Lyndsey Layton: Hi DC! I flew off the carrier on an ancient military transport plane known as a COD and yes, there's a steam-powered catapult that basically flings the plane in the air so you go from 0 to 125 miles per hour in 2 seconds. This is because the flight deck is too short for a normal take-off. It's a pretty bizarre sensation but I loved it and thought they should sell tickets. It's as if you're being yanked up by your collar really really fast. We wore helmets and were strapped into seats backwards with harnesses, so we were pretty well protected.

Bowie, Md.: Was it hard to be a woman in such a testosterone-laden environment?

Lyndsey Layton: I was expecting that it would be, but there are enough women on board (about 10 percent of the crew of 5,500) that it didn't feel as strange as I thought. There were some logistical problems - the women's bathrooms, or heads, are few and far between and none of the protective gear we were issued (chem suits, the jackets and cranial helmets you have to wear on the flight deck) came in women's sizes. But overall, it was never uncomfortable.

Washington, D.C.: Lyndsey, what do the troops crave (or miss) most while they're at sea? I imagine that they have pretty good access to a lot of the creature comforts of American life, but were there things that came up in conversation?

Lyndsey Layton: I'd have to say that alcohol was a major topic of conversation and fixation. If the crew is at sea for more than 45 days without a port visit, it's entitled to a Beer Day, when each crew member is issued 2 beers a piece. For some reason, the Lincoln's crew was owed a Beer Day and hadn't gotten it yet. The ship is in its 8th month of deployment - one of the longest in Navy history and those sailors are thirsty!

Washington, D.C.: Don't you usually write about Metro? How did you get selected to join the Lincoln's crew?

Lyndsey Layton: I'm not exactly sure how I ended up on a ship in a war zone. Either the editors at this paper really like me, or they think I'm completely expendable.

Virginia Beach, Va.: Did you get a chance to fly in any of the fighter jets?

Lyndsey Layton: No, it's a little hard for the Navy to manage joy rides in the middle of a war. But I did ride in a Navy helicopter and they let me fire the 50-caliber machine gun into the ocean!

Bethesda, Md.: How did your experience above the war ship affect your coverage? I would think that seeing the war from the "aggressive end" as opposed to the receiving end would influence your reporting.

I think one of the disadvantages of being embedded is lack of mobility, independence (as you won't know what's happening unless you're told); and an inability to corroborate information.

Lyndsey Layton: Bethesda, you got that exactly right. In a way, the access is incredible. You're living alongside these sailors and pilots and they can't escape you, which seems ideal for reporting. But I was frustrated by the fact that we had no ability to get the other side of the story and were completely dependent on what the Navy chose to tell us.

Ontario, N.Y.: What's it like trying to sleep on a carrier? Great stories, by the way.

P.S. Where are you now?

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Ontario, I'm writing this from a hotel room in Bahrain and have to say that last night it was so quiet in this room, I was completely disoriented. For the past month, I've been "berthing" directly under the flight deck of the ship. Actually, I was under the no. 4 catapult, which hurls the planes into the air. Imagine trying to sleep on a runway. The room would shake after every catapult, which was would produce the most horrific roar. And these planes were taking off every few minutes. I wasn't getting a lot of rest.

Hyde Park, Chicago, Ill.: Dear Lyndsey,

Thanks for taking time for this chat! Have coalition forces detected non-coalition ships in the theatre that were observing our activities? Thanks!

Lyndsey Layton: Hello HP, Yes, there were lots of non-coalition ships in the Gulf, at least in the early days of the war. Most of these were dhows, run by smugglers who were moving dates (I'm not kidding) out of Iraq and the region. The other ships that make up the Lincoln's carrier were boarding these small boats to check them out. It wasn't so much a concern that they were monitoring the US battleship. The big worry was whether any of these were carrying mines, planning to detonate near the American ships. There were several that were found to be mined.

Long Island, N.Y.: Is it true that it's not unusual for female sailors, despite the Navy's ban on sex on board, end up getting pregnant out at sea and get booted off the carrier?

Lyndsey Layton: I wrote a story about women in the Navy a few weeks ago that touched on this. On the Lincoln, the number of pregnancies was considered fairly low - about a dozen, if I'm recalling correctly - since the ship left its homeport some eight months ago.

Washington, D.C.: With the death of your colleague Michael Kelly just a few hours ago, have you given much thought to your personal safety while being embedded? What did your family think of the idea?

washingtonpost.com: Post Columnist Michael Kelly Killed in Iraq, (April 4)

Lyndsey Layton: The only reminder of danger that we had on board was the fact we had to wear gas masks strapped to our hips everywhere we went, all the time. Being on an aircraft carrier surrounded by destroyers, frigates and submarines creates a feeling of safety. The dangers I faced are nothing compared to what my colleagues on the ground have been dealing with.

Washington, D.C.: Is there a danger that with so many widely dispersed embedded journalists, we are getting a great deal of "snapshots" of the war (those on TV being repeated over and over), but less on the big picture (and almost nothing on the historical/political/cultural background of the region Americans know so little about)?

Lyndsey Layton: Yes, certainly, there's a risk of that. But, and here's my print bias, I think it depends on the medium.

Austin, Tex.: Did the ship and planes have any unusual maintenance issues caused by the sandstorm actually reaching this ship? That has got to be a situation they don't often contemplate.

Lyndsey Layton: The sand was so fine, that it coated the equipment, the flight deck and was sucked into the engines - all of that is very bad news. But the mechanics who work through the night to revive those planes and get them ready for the next morning are impressive. The sandstorm didn't create any serious problems for that maintenance crew.

Your friends on the 5th floor: Hey, Lyndsey! When are you coming back to work?

Lyndsey Layton: You guys are the best! I'll see you next week, hopefully..

Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C.: How much free reign did the press get on the Lincoln? Did the military ever try to dictate the kinds of stories you wrote? And how did so many members of the media get along with each other crammed into such a small area for so long?

Lyndsey Layton: The Lincoln was actually the most restrictive ship, in terms of access. That was due to the fact that the Admiral didn't want media embeds and he set up ground rules that were far more restrictive than the ones we signed with the Pentagon. It was so bad that after a few days, the media mutinied and things improved somewhat after that.
Early on, the Admiral's public relations staff tried to dissuade us from writing stories they didn't like, we had escorts who followed us everywhere and sat in on interviews and took notes on what our subjects said and filed nightly reports to the Admiral about the stories we were working on. It was pretty bad.
I think because the circumstances were so difficult, the media on board bonded pretty well. I was one of 6 reporters who lived in a "berthing" designed for 4 people and we got along surprisingly well.

Washington, D.C.: Re: Embedded journalists. Can you explain your comment that it depends on the medium?

Lyndsey Layton: Sure. Onboard the ship, the only outside news sources we got were CNN and FoxNews on television. I very much felt that was "snapshot" coverage. I wished I had access to newspapers because I felt that was one way to get some sort of context, history, perspective.

Falls Church, Va.: Why did you leave the ship? Were you replaced by anyone? Did you rethink your career choices while out there on the water? Wish you'd joined the Navy?

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Falls Church! I left the ship because the media was kicked off. The Lincoln is due to be relieved soon by the USS Nimitz and so the Navy moved us off the Lincoln, which is hoping to go back to its homeport in Washington state. I can say with certainty that I didn't wish I had joined the Navy.

Silver Spring, Md.: I'm curious whether spending so much time in close quarters with people engaged in combat changed your views one way or another about war, servicemen/women, etc.

Lyndsey Layton: That's an excellent question, SS. I got a deeper appreciation of the sacrifices many of those sailors and pilots are making - and I suppose that was one of the Pentagon's goals for this embed program. They work 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week, at very intense and often dangerous jobs. But I also seemed to me that the Navy is insulated from the realities of combat. The pilots fly off, drop bombs, come back. On the ship, you couldn't really tell the difference between the wartime and peacetime.

Phoenix, Ariz.: As a reporter covering a war, did you feel like you were working 24 hours, all the time?

Lyndsey Layton: Yes, there wasn't really any downtime or any days off. I was sleeping only four or five hours a night.

Lexington, Ky.: During your time onboard, what was the most dramatic war preparation experience you witnessed? And what is the level of morale onboard?

Lyndsey Layton: Hi Lexington! The most dramatic war preparation I saw was probably the classified briefings that the pilots got before they flew their missions. They go through two briefings. The first is a group brief where they're told about weather conditions, targeting, the threats they were likely to face. The second is a conversation between the leader of the strike and the other pilots involved and that's when they talk strategy - exactly how they're going to fly in, drop their bombs, and fly out alive. And while they do this, they also run through all the what-ifs - how to handle any of a zillion complications that could arise.

Lyndsey Layton: Hey everyone, it's getting late here in Bahrain and I'm afraid I've got to go. Thanks so much for reading, and for taking the time to write.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company