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From cartoons to a carrier's last line of defense

ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN—Chris Starks stands watch on forward lookout, scanning the horizon, looking for ships and planes and bomb-toting dolphins.

He's perched 10 stories above the flight deck, more than 13 stories above the choppy waters of the Persian Gulf, looking through powerful binoculars and trying to protect an aircraft carrier with more than 5,000 sailors.

In the distance, he spots a ship.

"One of ours," he says, confidently.

Starks, 19, from Scranton, Pa., is stationed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. He is a seaman apprentice, the second-lowest rank in the Navy, one step higher than a Navy recruit.

"You gotta be on top of your game out here," he says. "You have to have great vision and sharp eyes to spot things in the distance. If the radar fails, they are depending on me. I'm the last line of defense.

"If there is a dolphin or whale in the water, we have to report it. It sounds corny, but you never know because it could be something electrical, some kind of weird bomb."

He considers it an awesome responsibility to protect the ship, and for the first time in his life he can handle it.

"The Navy has changed my life," he says. "If I wasn't doing this, I'd be in a gutter someplace."

On Sept. 11, 2001, Starks was switching television channels, looking for cartoons. "I was mad because the cartoons weren't on," he remembers.

He stopped on a channel and watched the second hijacked airplane crash into the World Trade Center. That moment changed his life. He felt anger, sadness, frustration and a rush of patriotism.

After the towers collapsed, he called a Navy recruiting office and asked if he could join. "Why the Navy? I wouldn't have made it through Marine boot camp," says Starks.

Starks met with a recruiter that afternoon and took a series of tests. He was still a senior in high school, but he had enough credits to graduate. He enlisted, and the school superintendent allowed him to graduate early. Five months after Sept. 11, Starks was in the Navy.

"Boot camp was surprisingly easy, a lot easier than I thought it was going to be," Starks says. "I thought it would be like `Full Metal Jacket.' I thought they would be in your face, yelling at you every two seconds."

He reported to the Lincoln on June 7 and it has been deployed since July 20. "It's been the time of my life," Starks says. "I've gotten a chance to do things other people can only dream of."

The Lincoln has visited San Diego, Hawaii, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and Bahrain. "The coolest part was probably Australia because I didn't go out and just get drunk," he says. "I bought a camera and some film; I participated in a tour. I got to pet and feed kangaroos, which is pretty cool."

The Lincoln has been deployed for more than 200 days, one of the longest deployments ever for a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, and there is no end in sight.

The time away has given Starks a chance to reflect on a difficult upbringing.

His parents split up a year after he was born. "My mom was only 15 or 16 when she had me," Starks says. "My dad was something like 18."

Starks ended up in group homes and residential treatment facilities. "A resident treatment facility is for kids who have nowhere else to go," Starks says. "It's not like an orphanage; it's worse. I was in five or six of `em."

When he was 16, Starks moved in with his uncle, Bill Seeley, in Scranton, Pa. "I always got in trouble, like drinking when I wasn't supposed to," Starks says. "It was your usual teenaged stuff. They'd ground me. Take away the phone. Standard stuff. It sucked."

He knew his life was out of control. He wanted to go to college, but didn't have any money.

"It was a bad situation," Starks says. "I decided to do something with my life. I made a spur of the moment decision and joined the Navy."

The time away has changed him. "I've learned work ethic and responsibility, how to be an adult," Starks says.

He experienced his first real heartbreak after leaving a girlfriend back home. "When we got to Japan, I called her and she was like, `You haven't called or written in a month, so I've moved on.' "

He still keeps her picture taped to the wall above his bunk. "Wishful thinking, I guess," he says.

There was a time when Starks wanted to get away from his family, to leave and keep on running. Now, he misses them all: "There is stuff you want to tell them, that you love them, that you miss them and are thinking about them."

Sometimes, when he talks to his mother, Shelley DeGroat, all of a sudden she'll say, "You've changed so much. I'm proud of you."

"Nobody in my family, except for maybe two of them, ever thought I'd do anything in my life," he says. "Ha. Now, I'm doing something. It might not be the greatest thing, but it's a step in the right direction."

He hopes to be in the Navy for the next 25 years. "I want to be Master Chief Petty Officer in the Navy," he says, his eyes tightening with determination and resolve. "Yes!"

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Name: Chris Starks, 19

Hometown: Scranton, Pa.

Age: 19

Branch: Navy

Rank: Seaman Apprentice

Location: Aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, somewhere in the Persian Gulf

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ILLUSTRATIONS (from KRT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): Chris Starks

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