Proceedings : Yes. And that actually leads to our first question. What was different this time?
Lauer : The first time I was there, we caught the crew after coming off five days of R&R, heading back into duty. So there was more of a game face on them; they knew what they were going to do the next day. This time, I was dealing with a crew that was ready to blow off a little steam. They’d been on a 188-day deployment, and as you know, so many of those days were without a break.
Now, they were two days away from being home, in port. I think there just was a great sense of accomplishment and longing for home that perhaps wasn’t there my first visit. This first time they were heading back into battle.
Proceedings : Would you say any of the 11 September revenge attitude was still there?
Lauer : I don’t think everybody wore it on their sleeves. There were a few moments when I saw it. One of the most touching things for me was when we were on board with two foremen from New York City, a police officer from New York City, and Port Authority cops from New York and New Jersey. I think they got the warmest welcome of anyone on the whole ship, which was really great, especially during the flag ceremony.
One thing that was interesting was that a lot of the crew came up to me and asked the same question: “What are things like back in the States?” They had left a week after the attacks and were kind of curious as to what kind of mood and atmosphere they were coming home to.
Proceedings : What impresses you most about the people serving on board this warship?
Lauer : It’s really the same as it was last time. When you look at these people – average age 19 – whom we entrust with our national security, and our foreign diplomacy in some ways, it’s amazing how proficient they are. And it’s phenomenal how mature they become after getting a taste of combat experience. You have 19- and 20-year-olds doing maintenance on a $40-million airplane. Even the captain made a joke as we were leaving and about to fly off in a COD[carrier on-board delivery aircraft]. He said, “All right, I’m going to put you guys in the COD and you’re going to trust your lives to a 19-year-old.”
But you know what? We did. I think what’s as admirable as their youth is their dedication and their willingness to sacrifice. It’s also their willingness to be away from home and under those hardships for an awfully long period of time. Let’s face it, it’s a big ship, but it’s cramped quarters. And they all do it because they have this feeling that it’s the right thing to do.
Proceedings : What do you think most people in this country don’t understand about the military, in particular sea service professionals, today?
Lauer : That’s a hard question for me to answer, because I have a pretty good understanding of it. And I haven’t talked to enough people who don’t. That’s a question you’d have to ask Americans. I witnessed it on so many occasions now, between Norfolk and the TR and in other places, that I’m not someone who has a lot of doubts about these people.
Proceedings : As you know, the relationship between the military and the media hasn’t been healthy all the time. What would you say the reason is for that sometimes tense relationship?
Lauer : The reason for it is, we’re in the business of getting information, and the military is in the business of protecting its people. Too much information can be deadly. So I think we’ve butted heads in the past because we want to know more, and the military can be very close-mouthed. But it often has to be.
Proceedings : What can military people do better to help journalists?
Lauer : I think they can do what they did with me. They can give access to journalists during times when it’s appropriate, to let us see exactly what it takes to run a ship like the Theodore Roosevelt , or to man a base like Fort Bragg. If we can get to meet some of the people and see their lifestyles and hear their personal stories of sacrifice, I think you’ll find us eminently satisfied.
But, you know, that can’t always happen. We’re in a business that wants information now. And the military works on a different timetable.
Proceedings : Did you have any surprises during your visit this time?
Lauer : Not really. The biggest surprise for me was that I didn’t, technically, throw up during my ride in an F-14, although I came as close as a human being can come.
For me, this was much more of a nostalgic visit than a “wow” visit. The “wow” was the first time I was on a carrier. I’d never seen anything like it. I was blown away by the assault on your senses that the deck of a carrier is. This time it was nostalgic, going back and revisiting people, some of whom were on the ship three years ago when I was there. They would come up and say so. The story really is just what this country projects as a show of force in a time of need. It’s these 5,500 people.
Proceedings : What preparation did you have before your flight on the Tomcat?
Lauer : I had done the full prep last time. But the Navy is very specific about how long you can go before you have to do it again. So I had to go back through the whole water-survival training.
I went to Norfolk about two weeks ago and did the parachute training and ejector-seat training. I did the classes about hypoxia. Then they took me in the pool and tried to drown me a few different ways. So it was very thorough. And that’s impressive, too. It’s not like they say, “Oh, he’s a journalist. Don’t worry, we’ll just let him go.” They don’t want somebody to have a catastrophe on their watch. So they’re very careful about what you can and can’t do.
Proceedings : This morning, we saw your interview with “Yank,” the pilot who took you for your ride in the Tomcat. What is your most vivid memory of the flight yesterday?
Lauer : There were two very vivid memories. The sensations during the catapult shot and the landing were something I had before, so those were great. But the first memory I have is once we took off, we went to about 20,000 feet, then Yank took us into a dive turn and pulled about six or seven Gs. That was pretty intense. That was an eye opener, if nothing else. And I was really struggling. I was grunting and “hooking,” as they say, as much as I could to try and keep my head about me. But I was extremely happy when that turn ended.
The second one was when he came down for the fly-by over the ship, and we were going supersonic at the time. He brought it back to just under supersonic, because I think that’s the rule, and flew right across the bow of the ship basically 200 feet above the water. Then immediately, when he passed the ship, he went into a vertical climb. That was unbelievable. And at the top of it, he turned it and rolled it over and put me so that I was looking straight up at the ship. That was it. I was done. After that, I said, “Check, please.” It was either that or the bag.
But Yank was great. I think he was trying to impress me a little bit, show off what the plane could do, and have a little fun at the same time. But I think he was also respectful of not making me miserable.
Proceedings : Did the Navy initiate this visit, or did NBC ask for it?
Lauer : I think we did. I had been out on the TR three years ago, and Ann [Curry] was out a few months ago. So we feel a little bit of a connection to this ship in particular and the crew. And knowing that their deployment was over and they were coming back to Norfolk, we just thought it would be kind of a nice way to close the loop.
Proceedings : Have you heard from any of the people you visited the last time you were on the ship?
Lauer : I did get a lot of letters from them. And I got a couple of letters from the hierarchy of the Navy, saying how thrilled they were with it. I’ve kept in contact with the guy who flew me last time, Sam Richardson. I talk to him from time to time. And he and his wife have come to New York on occasion and we’ve seen each other. So yeah, it’s nice. Some friendships have developed.
Proceedings : We noticed when you talked about the ship you seemed purposely to avoid saying “Teddy” Roosevelt. You either said “Theodore Roosevelt” or “TR.” Did somebody give you a course in that?
Lauer : They don’t call it the Teddy Roosevelt.
Proceedings : Theodore Roosevelt was never called “Teddy,” either.
Lauer : Right, he didn’t like it. No one really started calling him that until after his death. So yeah, we’re very careful that it’s either of the two names you mentioned and not the Teddy Roosevelt.
Proceedings : Did you ever have any military aspirations?
Lauer : No, I have to say I didn’t. I’m lucky to have been born at a time that when I came of age, the Vietnam War was over. And then I was too old to face anything that’s happened since then. So no, I never had an overwhelming desire to join the military. But I’m certainly impressed by what I’ve been seeing.
I must say that I want to thank the Navy for its hospitality on several occasions. And I want to stress that the most important thing to come out of this is not that I took a ride on an F-14. I feel very strongly about that. It’s what these 5,500 men and women just did for that last six months.