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Weekend Pass

Fleet Week in New York City

Kelly McEvers

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Opening day of Fleet Week
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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Huge warships are floating alongside Manhattan this weekend, and thousands of sailors and Marines have come ashore for a little... indulgence. That's right, it's Fleet Week in the Big Apple, the setting for the latest installment of our Weekend Pass series -- stories about time off in the military.

Reporter Kelly McEvers checked out how New Yorkers take to men and women in uniform:

There's something about a man in a uniform, right? It's like being afraid of snakes -- it's in our genes.

Felice Santorelli and Rachel Lee are just now discovering this primal instinct. Felice asks me if I know which uniform is which. I tell her the khaki shirts are Marines.

"Oooh," the girls say in unison.

"The light bulb goes on!" Rachel says.

"This is the group we wanna be with," Felice says.

Felice and Rachel are both dancers but have day jobs. This night, they've camped out at the Hard Rock Cafe for the Fleet Week kickoff party, where hundreds of servicemen and women are crowding in for free food and happy hour beer prices.

Felice says she likes to imagine it's the '40s: "Like wartime, and they were heroes and they were coming back and it was sexy and heroic and exciting."

Right about then, the cheerleaders for the Washington Redskins hit the stage in way-short shorts. They dance to a Christina Aguilera song that's supposed to be a raunchy version of an old WWII-era number.

Pretty soon, Marines start hovering around our table. Besides the Redskinettes and a handful of wives, we're the only civilian women in here. Felice and Rachel flirt with corporals Chris Barnes and Brandal Harrington. After these guys graduated high school, they left home in Virginia and Louisiana to join the military.

"I partied for pretty much about six months," Chris says. "Then I ran out of money, so I had to join."

Right now, Chris and Brandal serve on an amphibious assault ship that's done some time in Iraq.

Felice asks if they're glad they joined. They say yes.

"So what't the next step," asks Felice. "What are your plans for the long haul?"

"I have a year and a half left," Brandal says. "And then I'll go back to college and use my GI Bill."

Pretty soon, the table gets quiet. Chris's eyes get big and he points to the next act in the show -- an Iraq veteran in dress blues, with heavy braces strapped to his arms, dragging himself and his two lame legs to the front of the stage.

Marines and sailors line up to shake the vet's hand. Felice says the sexual fantasy of Fleet Week is starting to wear off and the reality of the vet's situation is setting in.

"I just feel like really a slap in the face," she says. "It's like, 'You're honoring me, because you sent me off in one piece and now I'm coming home like this. Would you be honoring me otherwise?'"

Brandal tries to convince her it's not like that. "It's to show sacrifice," he says.

"I understand what you're saying," Felice says. "It's not that I don't respect you for going out and doing what you do. It's just hard for me to accept that it's happening at all."

Another Marine at the table, Nicholas Smith, says he was moved by the vet's appearance. He hasn't been to Iraq yet. But he says he's ready.

"My dream in life has always been a martyr or a savior of a cause -- and he gave his," Nicholas says of the vet onstage. "The worst of my worst days don't compare to his. But at the same time, the best of my best days won't compare to him either, when he sits there at night like, 'I gave my best for my country.'"

The girls admit they've never really thought about it this much before. By now, both sides have forgotten about who's hooking up with who -- at this point, they just want to talk.

"I have a lot of respect for the military," says Felice and Rachel's friend, Pareesa Nickpourfard. She says she feels like she's learning a lot this night.

Felice says this night makes her think about her parents, who protested the Vietnam war. "What are we doing? Nothing," she says. "We're much more concerned with things that just don't matter. I don't even disconnect myself from that. I know I'm part of that. I'm doing that, too. But like, do you wake up every morning and you're like, 'God we're in the middle of a war?' No. But why not? Like, why aren't we thinking that way?"

The girls eventually invite the guys to the midnight premiere of Indiana Jones. But the guys say they don't want to spend their first night in New York inside a movie theater. So we walk outside, into Times Square. The girls head uptown.

I ask Brandal what he thought about the night. "Do you feel like you learned something?" I say.

"Uh, yes," he says. "I learned how the women of New York are... very strong. Independent."

Next thing we know, the guys are being accosted by another woman on the sidewalk. This one's a mom from Jersey who wants to know whether her son should join the Marines.

"As a citizen, love him. The best thing -- you guys are the heroes," she says. "But the mom in me? Aaahhhh!"

Nicholas re-starts his spiel about being a martyr. After a several-minute speech, the guys start walking east, to a quieter neighborhood.

In September, these Marines are headed to Iraq.

More stories from our Weekend Pass series


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