ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON — When they brought the body of Osama Bin Laden aboard the Carl Vinson in May and buried the terrorist in the North Arabian Sea, Lt. Peter Locklear was standing watch on the bridge.
You might call that a front-row seat to history, but the radar-navigation officer from Pembroke is more excited about his front-row seats when North Carolina takes on Michigan State today on the aircraft carrier in San Diego.
"This is the most exciting thing I've seen yet," said Locklear, a 16-year Navy veteran who is bringing a friend from Lumberton to the game.
The Carl Vinson has seen its share of history, from the epochal (the burial at sea of Bin Laden), to the tragic (the humanitarian effort after the Haiti earthquake). After supporting military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it now supports a college basketball game on the flight deck.
For this one, the sailors of the Carl Vinson will get a good look. Every member of the 2,941-person crew who requested a ticket got one in the 7,000-seat makeshift arena. If any of them had a good look at the Bin Laden burial, they're not saying.
The security, even by military standards, was tight.
"The most I can say about that, yes, it was pretty quick. From letting us know, to execution and completion, was pretty quick," said Petty Officer Isaac Paddock, who is the ship's chief aircraft handler but wouldn't say whether he was on the flight deck when they brought Bin Laden's body aboard.
"It's incredible. Forever, we will be known, as the ship and the crew that did that. It's a history-book kind of thing. I'm assuming that later in life, we'll be a part of someone's history book."
For many on the ship, the whirlwind tour that culminated in the Bin Laden burial began with Haiti. The Carl Vinson had just redeployed in January 2010 after a four-year overhaul and was ordered to speed to Haiti in the wake of the earthquake.
Two-thirds of the crew had never been to sea before.
The Carl Vinson delivered more than a million pounds of food and conducted more than 1,000 medical airlifts. The ship's surgeon operated for 40 hours straight.
"That was incredible. I was proud of that," Paddock said. "A woman who was pregnant on a helo (helicopter) coming to our ship, she had the child either when she got here or en route here, so she named her child Carl Vinson."
After all that, the basketball game is a novelty. The crew of the Carl Vinson plays basketball in the hangar deck, and will occasionally try to throw a football around on the flight deck, but even they have never seen anything like this.
"It's right there at the top," said Capt. Bruce Lindsey, the Carl Vinson's commanding officer.
Lindsey may be a bit biased. He attended Reidsville High for one year after his parents moved to Caswell County and has a daughter, Blair, enrolled at North Carolina.
As far as he's concerned, the Tar Heels are the home team at this most neutral of sites.
"I will admit, I came from North Carolina, I'm rooting for North Carolina," Lindsey said.
Petty Officer Jonathan Howard will be rooting for the Tar Heels as well after growing up a Michael Jordan fan in Chicago. Veterans Day will have a little different meaning for him. After 71/2 years in the Navy, almost all of it aboard the Carl Vinson, today will be his last.
"It'll be pretty cool for me, spending my last day watching a basketball game on top of the carrier," Howard said.
He has visited ports from Peru to Singapore and just about everywhere between. After all the time he's spent on the flight deck as an aircraft handler, it'll end not with planes taking off and landing, but with a basketball game - once again, as a witness to history.