ABOARD THE USS KITTY HAWK — Breathing fresh air isn’t a priority for sailors who bust their butts as many as 20 hours a day below the aircraft carrier’s flight deck.

It’s all about food and sleep. Some grab a catnap when they can, even if it means crashing on a hard linoleum floor.

Their jobs aren’t the most glamorous.

They bake bread, stock soda machines and wash other sailors’ sweat- and grease-stained clothes, all part of an effort for a war they can’t see.

Concerned parents who haven’t heard much, or anything, from their children e-mail reporters for news: “If you see my son, give him a hug for me.”

Um … I’m not sure what kind of reaction that would get from a sailor who’s been at sea for more than two months without a port call.

Seriously, though, your sailor isn’t ignoring you, mom. There’s just not much time for phone calls and e-mails.

Besides, for the nearly 5,500 people on board, there are about five computers and only a dozen or so phones set aside for personal use. Sailors wait in line as long as two hours to call home, hoping that by the time they pick up a phone the line hasn’t gone down.

This is where having connections is key; you just might get computer access if you hook up a buddy with a hot meal.

While parents are eager for news of their children, sailors are curious about what’s happening outside their steel-walled world in the Persian Gulf. They approach the couple of dozen reporters on board, hungry for any word on the States and Iraq.

“Sir, did we get Saddam?” one asked a Canadian reporter.

The carrier has plenty of televisions, showing news and movies around the clock. The signal comes and goes, freezing Bill O’Reilly mid-rant (a blessing, some would say). Sailors wanting to know the latest on the prisoners of war stare at the frozen screen, willing it to restart.

While war rages just across “the beach,” those not flying in aircraft don’t see any of it except what’s on CNN and Fox News.

Most sailors, except those affected by increased flight operations, say the war hasn’t changed their work schedules. But they say it has given them a renewed sense of purpose for why they’re here and why their jobs are important.

The sailor in the laundry room washes the cook’s clothes. The cook makes sandwiches for the sailors who work the catapults, slinging planes off the flight deck for the skies over Iraq.

From those planes, sailors jam radar and take out Iraqi artillery aimed at Marines and soldiers.

No, most of these sailors sweating away below decks may not see the war.

But they are very much a part of it.

— Kendra Helmer is embedded on the USS Kitty Hawk.

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