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  April 28, 2003

Journalism Instructor Brings Back
News From The Front

Bob Hamilton was still winding down from his harrowing trip, getting acclimated to life aboard the 6,900-ton submarine USS Providence in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, when a thought occurred to him.

"Suddenly it dawned on me," Hamilton said Tuesday, three weeks after returning from the war on Iraq, "a lot of these kids were younger than my students at UConn, and they were driving a multi-billio n dollar submarine, maintaining it, and making repairs that nobody expected would be necessary. They were amazing."

Hamilton, an adjunct instructor of journalism at UConn for the past decade and military reporter for the award-winning newspaper The Day of New London, last month was one of 600 reporters embedded in American military units during the first stage of the war on Iraq. After covering the U.S. Naval Submarine Base and Electric Boat shipyard in Groton for years, he and The Day photographer Tim Cook were good candidates to be invited on board the Providence for the journey to the combat theater.

It was quite a journey, said Hamilton. When the call came from the Defense Department that it was time to go, the father of three had about five hours to leave work, pack, travel to Boston's Logan Airport, and check in.

"They told us they would try to give us three days' notice," Hamilton, "but I got the call about 11:30 a.m., and they said I had to catch a flight out of Logan at 7 p.m. Tim (his photographer) had it much worse. He was in New Hampshire, so he had to get back to New London, pack, and get out. The Day chartered a plane to get him to Boston on time."

Hamilton and Cook caught their plane and flew to Europe, where they were met by their Navy escort and taken to the Mediterranean home of the Sixth Fleet. From there, a helicopter brought them to the cruiser USS Winston Churchill, and that carried them to the USS Providence, which was already in the Mediterranean Sea steaming toward the war zone.

Within days, the ship was firing Tomahawk cruise missiles into the embattled nation.

It was eerie each time a cruise missile was launched, Hamilton said.

"The entire ship shimmies and shakes when the Tomahawks are fired," he noted. "It makes you realize the immense power of the missiles - they each carry 1,000 pounds of explosives, and they're using solid rocket propellent. If anything went wrong ..."

Hamilton and the crew, using monitors on the ship, could watch the missiles bursting through the water and turning toward their targets, but learned nothing more of the cruise missiles' flight.

"You can only see the rocket for a limited time, and we never received a battle damage assessment," Hamilton said. "They keep a psychological

separation between the guys and the people they're firing at."

Hamilton said he was so focused on taking notes about everything he heard, saw, or felt that it never occurred to him to be frightened or, at the moment the missile left the submarine, to wonder where it was heading. "Afterward, it would occur to me, and I'd think 'Oh my God, we just rained death and destruction down on someone,'" he said.

"But everyone handled the situation well. They were so well trained, the effort was workmanlike and routine," he said. "I think that was the biggest factor. Your reaction is based on the cues you get from the people around you, and with these guys, the attitude was 'we're going to do our job, do it well, and we're going to go home.'"

Hamilton said that was a testament to the skipper of the 140-man crew, Capt. Jonathan Kan, who inspired them all to do their best.

Four weeks after arriving in the combat zone, with all the submarine's missiles fired - Hamilton still is not allowed to divulge how many there were - they pulled out and, finally, saw daylight. It had been three weeks since the USS Providence and its crew had surfaced.

For Hamilton, the worst thing about the experience was being away from his family. "I really respect these guys," he said. "They're out here for six months at a time, away from their families. It's tough."

During the entire time the Providence was below the surface, neither the sailors nor Hamilton had any contact with home. He was, however, able to file a story for The Day every night, using technology known as SIPRNet - the Secret Internet Protocol Router.

Now Hamilton, who teaches an introductory journalism class, hopes to pass on his experience to future UConn journalism students. "I try to turn everything I do into something in the classroom," he said.

"One thing I see on virtually all my (student) evaluations, every year, is that I bring real life experiences to the course, and I'm proud of that," Hamilton said. "I like to tell them 'Here's where I used this, here's where this is important to me'" when reporting a story. "I want them to understand that what I'm teaching them isn't just because it's in a textbook - they're doing it for a reason."

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