(CNN)In this exclusive Reporter's Notebook, Brooke Baldwin details her teeth-rattling, two-day embed aboard the USS Harry S. Truman, the very vessel tasked with protecting America from ISIS.
4 flights, an aircraft carrier, and a helicopter: CNN anchor's 'great American friendship story'
The most important assignment of my career took me to a place where your teeth rattle, the first rumbles against ISIS begin and 6,600 people leave home to make America proud. The official email arrived from the U.S. Navy after I sneaked off to Asia for a quick vacation. I'd clocked 22 days in a row of work in five cities (which is nothing compared to our campaign trail crews) but I needed a break. I turned on my "out of office" but couldn't help sneak a peek at work email here and there. I'm glad I did, because there it was: an invitation from the U.S. Navy to bring a CNN crew to the Persian Gulf and get a firsthand look at Operation Inherent Resolve. This would turn into the biggest assignment of my 17 years in journalism. My instant response: "I would be honored. YES!!!"
The quick backstory: A few months ago, CNN ran a story about my friendship with Bobby Rashad Jones. It details how we met, instantly clicked back in the seventh grade in our hometown of Atlanta, and how over the years, we've only grown closer. Rashad is now Lt. Cmdr. Jones and the executive officer on the USS Anzio, a guided missile cruiser currently deployed in the Persian Gulf. Someone at the Pentagon was watching CNN the day I told our story — phone calls got made, ultimately to U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Bret Batchelder, who decided an invitation should be extended to me as a way of telling (as he later told me in person) "this great American friendship story."
My journey began in New York; several thousand miles and three flights later, our CNN crew landed in Bahrain. From there, I was strapped into a C-2 COD, the Navy's plane used to cart cargo or humans and ferry them to the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier positioned in the Gulf. I sat backward next to one of only two tiny windows, helmet on, plugs shoved in my ears and four seat belts holding me down. About an hour into the flight, two pilots/sailors seated near us begin shouting "go go go!" That was the cue to brace ourselves for the landing ("Don't put your tongue in between your teeth or you'll lose it" was the advice we got before being strapped in both for landing and later taking off on the catapult). Because a pilot has just a small strip of runway to land on a carrier, there's a tailhook that lowers below the aircraft to then "catch" one of the four sturdy cable wires attached to the deck of the carrier. That's how the plane ultimately comes to a halt! So, in a successful "catch," you suddenly go from 150 knots to zero in five seconds. Take it from me, your stomach just drops. Think about your favorite ride at Six Flags as a kid and multiply that by 100!
The Navy allowed my CNN crew nearly two days to shoot — both on the USS Truman and then the USS Anzio, where my friend is stationed nearby. During that time I interviewed a number of sailors, including the 22-year-old helmsman who drives the carrier — and all 5,300 people on board. (Think about that: She'd just gotten her drivers license six years ago!). I spoke with the senior female aviator on the USS Truman, call name "Osprey." We watched F-18 after F-18 take off, with bombs strapped under their wings, to go strike ISIS in nearby Iraq and Syria. Standing on the "foul line," feet from those fighter jets, I felt the after-burn in my chest. It was so loud, so violent, so powerful — it made my teeth rattle. I spoke to the admiral, who had a huge hand in bringing me out there, as he talked about eradicating violent extremism in the region and how this mission is "righteous." There I was, literally standing on the U.S. Navy's front lines in the war against terror in the Persian Gulf.
I asked sailor after sailor: "Tell me why you want to be here, thousands of miles from home?" Their answers varied but the common thread was it's a "calling," "something bigger than myself," "I want to see the world." Men and women — average age 27 — left families, children, spouses behind, so they could be here (seven months and counting on deployment) to serve the United States of America. These twenty-somethings exuded a maturity, a sense of integrity and purpose far beyond their years. The more time I spent with them — eating meals with them, seeing the tight quarters where they sleep, talking to them late at night when the cameras weren't rolling — I came to a profound appreciation for our men and women in the military. I grew up knowing my grandfather had served our country for decades in the Navy, buried in his whites in Arlington; I have family members who are veterans. But to witness this firsthand was — in a word — extraordinary.
Seeing my dear friend Rashad — a husband and father of two — at work as the XO and disciplinarian/dad on the Anzio is something I'll carry with me for the rest of my life. I awoke on our last day around 5 a.m. Rashad came bursting in to bring me coffee — his "Starbucks stash for special occasions" -- and we walked to the rear of the ship for some quiet camera-free time on the water. Typical Rashad, he was peppering me with questions about my career and love life, and I was asking about his future ambitions back home in Atlanta. Then suddenly a massive barrel of a gun started swinging over our heads. "Just Sunday morning training exercise," he assured me, unfazed. I took it all in: "Rashad, this is surreal," I responded. "We're a far way from home." We were indeed. And hours later as I had to dash into an awaiting helo to return our crew to the aircraft carrier and ultimately home, Rashad threw his arms around me, thanked me for making the trip out and asked me to make sure I told everyone back home why they're out there. Tears welled in my eyes as I made him a promise that I would do precisely that. And this week, I am carrying out that promise with three pieces airing about my journey to the Middle East. And I am full of gratitude for Rashad, my new sailor friends and our men and women in the military.