Last year Guy Kawasaki visited the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier and hatched a plan with Dennis Hall and Bill Reichert to bring a group of bloggers on a embark the following year. As a result, a group of bloggers was chosen for that mission. I was thrilled to receive the official invite from Lieutenant Commander Charlie Brown, Public Affairs Director for the Commander – Naval Air Forces – Pacific (COMNAVAIRPAC) to be part of the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) Embark May 29-30.
The USS Nimitz is an aircraft supercarrier in the United States Navy. We were invited on the Nimitz as bloggers to experience life on the carrier and bring that perspective back to our audiences, an opportunity I could not resist. Also, when the Navy invites you to go, you go – its your duty! Not to mention the excitement of leaving my mom sweats at home and wearing a flightsuit instead, flying in a C-2A Greyhound to land on the carrier deck, watching the aircraft hooks catch the cable as they land on the flight deck (called “traps”), touring the carrier, talking with the crew and spending one night on board.
Here is a picture of Charlene Li (left) and me in pilot flight suits. I was singing the Top Gun theme song in my head while smiling for this picture.
Although the original invite list was a bigger group, the real adventurers who accepted the challenge to embark on the USS Nimitz were:
Captain (Mr.) Carroll LeFon, USN (ret.) (not pictured) was also on the Embark. He not only wore his cool flight style leather jacket throughout the embark, but also is a (dad) blogger himself and wrote a great post with details about the USS Nimitz. Guy Kawaski’s post provides chronological details of the trip and Jennifer Van Grove with her impressions. Jennifer Jones was the trip podcaster. Charlene Li’s post has a summary with links to all of our posts. Andrew Nystrom from the LA Times and Robert Scoble have Flickr groups. Andy Sernovitz and Pamela Slim posted with lessons learned. Chris Pirillo went on an Embark the weekend after our trip.
I loaded my pictures to Flickr the day after I returned from the trip. But it took me a few of weeks to post. First I had end of school year activities to manage and then a week with all three boys at home to deal with. Any working mom knows that time with their kids is priceless but exhausting. My prime blogging time (9pm – 12am) was impacted after spending full days with my boys. I just sat in bed each night next to my computer with no energy to type. Instead, I turned on episodes of my favorite shows recorded on TIVO including The Daily Show and The Stephen Colbert show. Luckily I found the final motivation to write my Nimitz post after seeing that Stephen Colbert had also ventured on a trip to support our troops with his four-day (U.S.O. tour) “Operation Iraqi Stephen: Going Commando”.
Stephen Colbert had his head shaved by Gen. Ray Odierno and I similarly had my bangs cut short (not a big sacrifice but sort of symbolic). My post on the night before our trip dinner documented the interesting discussions we had that evening about social media and a picture of my short bangs. Eek..
My goal on board the USS Nimitz was to see what online social media technology was used and give feedback on any other platforms that can help Naval families communicate while their loved ones are on deployment. Interestingly, the recent New York Times article by Alessandra Stanley covered Stephen Colbert’s tour and mentioned that “Today’s troops are hardly starved for entertainment; they have laptops, video cameras, satellite phones and every iteration of the Internet, including Skype, Facebook and Gchats“. A recent post on Wired covered the Army orders for bases to stop blocking social media use. My experience on the USS Nimitz helped me realize that on Naval carriers the biggest limitation for online social networking is satellite bandwidth at sea, not regulations. Especially on carriers that are moving and need to use multiple satellites that are location dependent.
The Navy has external social media presences on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter (@flynavy is the US Naval Twitter ID, @navynews is for news). The USS Nimitz even has it’s own Twitter ID (@USS_Nimitz). During the briefing at the Navel base before we boarded Lieutenant Commander Charlie Brown explained that the Navy uses blogs, YouTube, Flickr, podcasts, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and RSS.
Before I left for the Embark, I researched some of the ways military families are using social media and posted with the details, including blogs and social networks. For example, I found Ning based networks such as Navy for Moms, Navy Wives and even Navy Dads. I was excited to find connections to the military community in my own community at the Silicon Valley Moms Group. Kimberly Petro (Petroville) is working on a project with her cousin Meredith Novario called “Now Serving℠”. Her cousin is married to a Marine officer at Quantico. Together they are building the Now Serving℠ sites using Ning as well, the first three are Quantico, Okinawa Hai and Now Serving Okinawa. Some other DC Metro Moms Bloggers are Stephanie (LawyerMama), who is of Blue Star Families.org and Devra from Parentopia.com whose husband is Active Duty Air Force. Devra consults for a program serving military families for Zero To Three (www.zerotothree.org/military) and blogs for Blue Star Families as well! Jess M. was in the army from 2001-2004. Her personal blog is A hug around the neck. LA Moms Blogger’s Melissa Davis served from 1993-1998, actually 5 years. She was a cook in the Navy, serving in Guam (on a ship) and Italy. Her personal blog is Melissa Davis Food Blog.
Within my own family, my Father-in-law served in the Army and my Dad spent years working for the Veterans Administration Hospitals.
For the Nimitz Embark, I set out to observe daily activities and social media used on the carrier. From the moment I stepped out of the C2A Greyhound and onto the USS Nimitz, I witnessed that it was a well run ship with a clearly defined mission. Every person had their task and worked to accomplish their goals as a team, whether it was working the flight deck or serving food to the crew. I also was impressed with how clean everything was, especially since I can’t seem to keep a house with three boys clean. The carrier was also a model of ethnic diversity with men and women working together. And when I say working, I mean WORKING long days with challenging jobs.
The crew I met were intelligent, committed and responsible (and somehow all seemed to be wearing clothes that were pressed while my jeans had wrinkles). Although the pressure is undoubtedly high and the days are long, the system of checks and balances in place seemed to make sure the crew knew their jobs and received feedback for improvement. Talking about checks and balances, the presence of the Brig was a good reminder to follow the rules. I even asked the Brig crew for some hints on keeping my boys in line, but they just said “Patience, Love and Listen to them”. Which I try to do, but the brig sounds much more effective then my “time out” spot. I think Guy Kawaski and Jenny Lawson agreed.
We had the opportunity to watch Captain Michael C. Manazir in charge at the flight deck, calmly giving multiple directions to ship crew while sharing his wealth of knowledge and posing for pictures at the same time (a true multitasker). Captain Manazir’s sign may be “Nasty”, but he was so much better then Captain Kirk could ever be. Captain Christopher E. Bolt enjoyed talking with Charlene Li about her book “Groundswell“. When we asked Rear Admiral John W. Miller what he thought of the Obama Administration versus the Bush Administration, he smartly answered “While we all have our political affiliations, on this ship – we just took down the picture of President Bush and put up a picture of President Obama. We serve our government”. Darn, we were hoping for a juicier answer.
But there is a cost to everything, and as my friends with husbands who travel often for business know – being away from your family is hard on many levels. The crew members of the USS Nimitz experience the difficulty of being apart as well as the challenge of communicating to those back home while deployed at sea. Especially considering deployment can last 6 – 8 months at a time. When they come back to their families, there is an adjustment on both sides. Overall there is no easy answer, being separated from loved ones can certainly be isolating and put pressure on relationships.
I discussed this topic with multiple Nimitz crew members, all of whom understandably asked not to be recorded. However, I did film several crew members who wanted to say hello to their families. But the sea air must have messed with my video camera because the “on” button is now locked. The good news is that the footage survived and I will soon be uploading that in a separate post.
The USS Nimitz library area has multiple computer stations. When the crew is off duty they can sign up to use the stations. During specific times of the day they will have general internet access (to a vetted group of websites) and they have open access to their email. They can’t load or download files for safety purposes.
The internet access is all direct, no wireless exists on the ship that crew can use for social communications. They can have laptops in their rooms without Internet access. The picture on the right shows someone waiting in the library area holding their laptop.
Crew wanting to communicate with their family and friends either use regular mail (aircrafts pickup and deliver mail at sea), email, view approved sites or make videos to send to their family in a special video room in the library. Although the video would be pre-recorded and not live, it can be sent to family members. A section in the library has video cameras and childrens books for parents to use when they want to “read a book to their kids”. While use of Facebook and other social networks is not officially approved for use, some did access those sites during general internet access times. Lately I have talked to some major corporations that have also been trying to restrict employee access to online social networks at work, but all have admitted that their employees – like some of the Nimitz crew – feel that online social networking is an important part of how they communicate.
The family communication “wish list” of some crew members varied.
- Some wished they could live video chat with their families.
- Others were happy with being able to email their families on a daily basis and have access to websites like Flickr to view pictures.
- Some found it so difficult being away from their families that they just wanted to focus on their job while on the carrier, have regular email or mail communications, and save the bigger interaction for when they are home. Those crew members had a sincere way of discussing their love for their families, I could see it in their eyes. Because some of the jobs can be dangerous, I could understand their need to keep focused on the job at hand.
The USS Nimitz, with upwards of 5000 crew members, has similar issues to corporations, with the added challenge that all Internet access is enabled via location dependent satellites. The big questions in my mind were:
- What type of internal social networking should be implemented for crew “behind the firewall”? What policies would be required to ensure the proper “behind the wall” communication can take place.
- What online social networking applications should crew members be allowed to access during their recreation time?
- Keeping in mind the limitations of satellite bandwidth – is there a way to enable live video chat or VOIP transmissions such as Skype? Most of the current bandwidth needs to be assigned for Navy communications.
After talking with the crew I felt like heading right back to Silicon Valley to see if some company can help the Navy get the extra satellite bandwidth to enable improved online social networking while at sea. Surely some companies are working on data transmissions at sea. There must be civilian providers who can spare some extra bandwidth or special video compression tools to maximize bandwith? Or maybe some type of partnership with Oceanographers or Semesters At Sea College Administration would be helpful. Doesn’t it seem these organizations face similar challenges of Internet access at sea?
The good news is that the Navy is searching for ways for their crew to further participate in social media. The fact that they invited a group of bloggers to stay on the ship and not only get a full tour except for classified areas, but also have open discussions with the crew is a really good step. The Public Affairs Officers (PAO) LTJG Dave Bennett and LCDR Jason Salata had endless energy, enthusiasm and knew every factoid about the carrier while they took us on a whirlwind tour.
But the best part is that the PAO Officers told us what is the holy grail for bloggers: to share what we want. That openness was brave considering the assorted cast of blogging characters we were, and more open then many corporations would be in the same situation! Charlene Li posted with an interview by Lieutenant Commander Charlie Brown on why the Navy invited bloggers to visit the Nimitz.
“Having a big, meaningful goal is a tremendous force for inspiration, motivation, and cohesion. The Navy’s mission is not some vague, abstract, feel-good paragraph in a business plan; it is very concrete, and very easy to understand and internalize. In addition to defending America, fighting terrorists, and rescuing victims of piracy, the Navy takes enormous pride in their role in helping the tsunami victims in 2004, and in helping the Katrina victims in 2005. While everyone I talked with had his or her own particular story, everyone had a distinct and powerful pride in what they had accomplished and in the people around them.”
“Still, I think there’s some useful thinking to be done about placing blogs and social networking tools behind the router on the shipboard local area networks, and firewalling them from offboard dissemination. It’d be another path of information exchange for leadership, and a good way for like-minded souls on a city of 5000 to pass the time and share common interests.
Of course, the possibilities for abuse are ripe – we are talking about fairly young people here – but let no one doubt that there are disgruntled folks using serial vice IP channels to trash talk each other, their division chief or the entire chain-of-command. Once it’s online, at least it’s traceable, and intrusive mentoring can work wonders, while the CO gets to benefit from direct exposure to what his people really feel.”
I left this adventure feeling exhausted but exhilarated, gaining not only tremendous respect for the Leadership, Public Affairs Officers, Dennis Hall (volunteer organizer) and Crew of the USS Nimitz but also a deep appreciation for the sacrifice they make to serve and protect our country.