NORFOLK, Va. (WHNT) - A few weeks ago, the United States Navy gave WHNT News 19 unrestricted access on board the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier.
The ship recently returned from an 8 month deployment, and is currently serving as a "standby ship" in the Atlantic - meaning if the U.S. engages in a new military conflict, they're the first ship to be sent.
The days on board can be long, with few off days.
WHNT News 19's Chris Davis and Photojournalist Gregg Stone take us below deck on the "Mighty Ike" to show us what life is like for a few Tennessee Valley Natives on board.
Miles of hallways and sea doors connect different ends of this cavernous ship.
Several stories below, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jonathan Uhl shows us their sleeping quarters.
Chris quickly discovered, getting to the top rack requires some flexibility.
Doing this while there's no one else in bed makes it easier. You have to keep in mind, one missed step, and you've kicked your roomie in the head.
Chris found, once he determined his footholds, getting up to the third bunk isn't too hard.
The bunks themselves aren't spacious.
"It is very tight. Being 6’2 the racks are barely 6’4 maybe so it’s a tight squeeze," said Uhl, from Ardmore, Alabama.
The cramped quarters make the dismount even trickier. Chris managed to put his foot on, not one, but both of his hypothetical bunkmates.
Such tight quarters create even closer friendships during long deployments.
"The military is like a family and we take care of one another," said Chief Petty Officer Owen Key, from New Market, Ala.
Chief Key is nearing his 20 year mark in the Navy - a long way from his roots in rural Madison County.
"I lived in a trailer from the time I was born up until I joined the Navy. Now, I’ve been able to travel the world. I’ve been to France, Italy, Spain, Norway, Bahrain," he said.
The sailors may be the ones out at sea, but tough sacrifices have also made their way to dry land.
There’s times we have to celebrate Christmas in January, sometimes we don’t even get to celebrate Christmas at all," said Dee Johnson, Chief Key's mother.
In her eyes, he's still a 19-year-old Senior at Buckhorn High School.
"He’s just the typical country boy that loves to fish and hunt and tinker with his car," said Johnson.
It was during his Senior year, that me made a transformational decision.
"He came home and said mom, I enlisted in the service," said Johnson.
"So there wasn’t a conversation?" asked Chris.
"There wasn’t a conversation," she chuckled.
Her initially apprehension quickly faded as she saw her country boy transition into a leader of men.
“We’re very proud of him, what he’s done, commitments he’s made, the sacrifices he’s made as well,” said Johnson.
Like any mother, she'll always worry a little, but says, she's found her own way to release her fears.
"I can’t control it but I can pray for him, so that’s how I get through is laying him in the Lord’s hands," she said.
Owen Key's family is just one of many that find ways to push through the pain.
Every sailor WHNT News 19 spoke to, said the hardest part of Naval Life is the siren call, beckoning them home.
"You miss family a lot. I’ve been married now 2 years so having a new marriage, it was rough going through that, but just part of the job," said Uhl.
So the strategy becomes remembering why they joined in the first place.
"Always been kind of what I was going to do, not a question if I was going to do it," said Austin Fritellle, a Huntsville native.
"Just about everything I do, trying to make my family and him proud," said Uhl. "Him" is Uhl's grandfather, who served in World War II under Gen. Patton during D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge.
Yes, at times, the hallways can be long and lonely, but as with any challenge, the Navy has prepared them to face it head on.
"The navy’s not going to throw anything at you that they don’t believe you can handle, it’s just sometimes they throw a lot of things you can handle at the same time," said Fritelle.
WHNT News 19 is giving you a glimpse on board the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower all week long. Tune in each morning, to WHNT News 19 This Morning, during the 6 am hour.