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Missing home, family and privacy

ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN—JP Ratuita stands on a milk crate, painting a star on an F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet.

"I view it as an art form," he says.

Ratuita, 21, works slowly, precisely, taping a border around the star, wanting it to look just right.

The Hornet is an all-weather attack jet that can double as a fighter. It is used as an escort and for close air support of ground troops. It's 56 feet long with a wingspan of 37.5 feet, but when Ratuita stands next to it, working inside the Lincoln's massive hangar bay just below the flight deck, the jet looks much smaller.

Ratuita, a Petty Officer 2nd Class from Los Angeles, joined the Navy to go to school. "I miss my family, friends and home-cooked meals," he says.

And, the same as everybody aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, he misses his privacy on a ship with 5,600 sailors.

The hangar bay is buzzing with activity, all day and all night. About 50 feet from Ratuita, several sailors stand at attention, wearing dress whites. They are being disciplined for breaking a ship rule.

Not far away, about 30 sailors are doing aerobics. Others are jumping rope. The Navy encourages its sailors to exercise, but only a few have time to do it.

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

ILLUSTRATION (from KRT Illustration Bank, 202-383-6064): iraqfaces+ Ratuita

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