Midshipman 1st Class Yuval Fleming of Tucson, Ariz., enjoys the view from vulture's row as an SH-60 Seahawk helicopter from Helicopter Anti-submarine Squadron 14 prepares to launch from the flight deck of the USS Kitty Hawk.

Midshipman 1st Class Yuval Fleming of Tucson, Ariz., enjoys the view from vulture's row as an SH-60 Seahawk helicopter from Helicopter Anti-submarine Squadron 14 prepares to launch from the flight deck of the USS Kitty Hawk. (Lamel J. Hinton / Courtesy of U.S. Navy)

For the past several days, 17 college students have been roaming around the USS Kitty Hawk, through the warren of hatches and hallways and up and down the hundreds of steep staircases called ladderwells.

They’ve been down in engineering and up on the flight deck. They’ve stood watch, seen Super Hornets roar off and roar back onto the ship — and heard them do the same directly over their heads in rattling quarters one deck below the flight deck.

They’ve gotten lost, started to wander out onto the flight deck without the proper protective gear, and worried frequently they were in the way.

“I don’t know how they perceive us,” said Yuval Fleming, a senior at the University of Colorado and midshipman in Navy ROTC, referring to sailors and aviators on the ship. “The only thing we can do is mess stuff up. I just try to stay out of people’s way.”

“They expect us to get lost,” added Jason Mason, from Miami University in Ohio. “They’ll lead us back.”

The midshipmen, from academies and ROTC programs across the United States, are spending nearly three weeks aboard the carrier to get a hint of what life at sea is like and a look at all the jobs that might be theirs after they become commissioned officers. And for many, the time aboard is helping them make a major life decision: Will they be aviators or ship drivers?

Aviators, on the one hand, are undeniably cool, seem to have a lot of fun, always sit together in the wardroom and may even have nicer, softer overalls, Fleming noticed. “It’s almost like a fraternity,” he said.

Ship drivers — on carriers, at least — work tremendously long hours in often uncomfortable conditions to support the aviators, in weapons systems, engineering and navigation.

One officer, an aviator who declined to be named, suggested to the midshipmen to think of it this way: You have a frosty mug of beer. And you have an old rusty nail.

You drink down the frosty beer. That’s what being an aviator is like.

“Then you take the rusty nail and poke it in your eye,” the aviator told the midshipmen.

That’s what being a ship driver is like.

But then, not all ships are carriers, designed to support the aviators, the midshipmen noted.

And smaller ships provide a more traditional seafaring life than that on the carrier — a vast floating city with an airport on top — including more visits to more exotic foreign ports.

“On a small ship you can go out one hatch and you’re 15 feet from the water,” said Cmdr. Joe Klein, surface operations officer, who plans the deployments of all 10 ships in the Kitty Hawk strike group. “Like what inspired people in ‘Master and Commander.’

“You can see the sea. You can smell it. It’s not about being on a carrier, for us.”

And surface warfare officers get to lead sooner. “I had 12 people working for me as an ensign. As a lieutenant junior grade, I had 30 people working for me,” Klein said.

Some of the midshipmen already had decided their paths. Mason, who spent five years as an enlisted sailor on submarines, was most intrigued with the ship’s command information center, where one can see the “whole battle picture. That’s what I’m in it for,” he said. “I’m in it for the action.”

Tyler Croft, from the University of Washington, already is thinking ahead to his post-Navy career, after the required four years of service. Aviators must serve years longer to repay their extra training. “I was thinking of getting on a cruise ship later,” Croft said.

After a leisurely Sunday brunch, the group clambered up staircases, down hallways and through hatches to check out Vultures’ Row, a primary flight operations viewing spot. The group watched numerous Super Hornets roar off the runway and into the sky.

But Daniel Tischler was going to try for something even more exciting. He’d run into a pilot who told him to stop by the ready room, he said, and maybe he could get a ride on a Seahawk helicopter. “They’ll probably say ‘no,’ but who knows?” Tischler said.

Lt. Brook DeWalt, ship spokesman, said on such a giant ship, with more than 5,000 people aboard, and one in which foreign navies, visiting dignitaries and a variety of civilians are often streaming through, 17 midshipmen go more or less unnoticed by the majority of the sailors.

DeWalt said having the midshipmen aboard is part of the responsibility to grow the Navy and help junior people advance. And Lt. Cmdr. John Bernard, spokesman for the Kitty Hawk strike group, once a midshipman himself, said they were a pleasure to have aboard. “It’s fun to watch them get lost,” he said.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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