Boarding a Navy ship is a little like traveling to England: The fact that people are speaking English veils how different things really are -- from the culture to the way people live to even how the language is used.
When I first boarded the USS Tortuga to shoot a short documentary film, entire conversations eluded me due to their strange vocabulary and acronym-laced verbiage. Sure, I had read books on the military before my departure, but I had focused on strategic issues, like why the U.S. military was in certain countries or where it was training foreign militaries, not the day-to-day lives of sailors. After all, we were there to witness the Navy's exercises with six Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea.
But within the first day or two, co-producer Lee Wang and I realized the big Navy strategy story we hoped to record was only the backdrop to what was much more fascinating -- the lives of ordinary sailors who make the ship run.
So we followed three sailors -- Ensign John Cobb, Undesignated Seaman Mike Plitt, and Boatswain's Mate Seaman Noelle Tschudy -- as they went about their lives.
I spent the night in a women's "berthing" (dormitory-style rooms with bunk beds and lockers) and watched Noelle, a 21-year-old New Jersey native with red streaks in her hair, wake up at 3 a.m. for her shift to watch for small boats that the ship's radars might miss. When Mike's boss ordered him to fix a broken water machine in the mess hall, I watched him find the clogged pipe and without a moment of hesitation, put his mouth to the pipe to suction what looked like gunk at the bottom of a drain.
I had never seen people in their early 20s work so hard and give so much of themselves. Many nights, Lee and I struggled with the question, "What is this all for?" But the more we got to know the individual sailors and their reasons for joining the Navy, the less the big naval strategy questions seemed to matter. It might have been a troubled family or a life of partying leading to nowhere. But the people I met were those who had the gumption to get away and do something interesting with their lives.
(Watch Emily and Lee's documentary on life on a Navy ship -- 10:28