HOUSTON – It's a vessel that can change the tone of international relations with its very presence, a behemoth on the sea that strikes fear in the hearts of America's enemies -- and brings hope to her friends.
Welcome aboard the USS Harry S. Truman -- the 75th aircraft carrier in the history of the United States Navy.
With 5,700 sailors and pilots aboard, the Truman functions as a fortress on the sea from its home port at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia to the oceans across the globe.
"We can take 4 1/2 acres of sovereign U.S. territory, in accordance with international law, to wherever our leadership in Washington will divert us to do so," Capt. Nicholas Dienna, the Truman's commanding officer, said.
Channel 2 recently was invited aboard the Truman to witness sustainment exercises about 100 miles off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida.
The 74 aircraft on the Truman would make the carrier the 12th most powerful air force in the world if it were its own country, and it's only one of 11 carriers owned by the United States.
Petty Officer Naia Armstead is a native of Houston's Northside. He graduated from Carver High School a few years ago. Her first job in the Navy was helping launch and land fighter jets on the flight deck.
"It was kind of dangerous there, but it's also exciting because it's things you had never seen before," Armstead said. "I never thought I'd be up there with jets just flying past me all every day."
The average age of those on the flight deck is 26 years, but the average age of the crew of the entire ship is 22 years. Those young legs come in handy on the hundreds of narrow passageways and ladders throughout this ship, as sailors can easily rack up 3 miles or more walking through this ship in one day. It can sometimes take weeks -- even months -- before a sailor learns to navigate the ship's labyrinth of passageways. What you find below deck is a virtual small city with office space and living quarters. In addition to the chow halls, they even have a Starbucks aboard the Truman. To keep sailors fit and active, they have exercise classes and several workout stations.
"Any job here, there's a stress level," Petty Officer Tim McCurry, of The Woodlands, said. "You gotta find ways to get rid of that stress. Like for me, it's just working out and relaxing."
But the carrier's main focus is launching aircraft anywhere in the world. Operations run around the clock to simulate a wartime pace. Many sailors we spoke to say they joined the Navy to serve their country and see the world. Aboard an aircraft carrier, they wake up every day looking forward to adventures and challenges. Being away from family up to nine months at a time or even longer is difficult, but sailors like Waller's Marcus Servin, an airman, say knowing they are sacrificing for their nation makes the separation a little easier to bear.
"I am very proud," Servin said. "I can't believe that I'm actually serving, but I'm very proud. Like, it's a dream come true."
When Channel 2 was on the ship, there was talk in Washington that the Truman might be retired early, but Congress recently made the decision to keep the Truman in the carrier rotation. So after it undergoes a complex, four-year refueling and overhaul process, the Truman should be able to sail for another 25 years.