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It is 00:36 EST…Do you know exactly where you were ten years ago, this very second?

March 7, 2013

c130 leaving

Hey Y’all,


For the next few months, I am going to do a series of posts intended for my children. This will be a written diary of what I experienced in Iraq during the spring and summer of 2003. These are stories that I don’t want to tell them now and in twenty years I might be a vegetable so now is a good time to get these stories down. These will be glimpse into what life was like in a real shooting war from the perspective of a pilot. I will be using my flawed memory as the primary source. I also have my Loadmaster’s diary that I will use a reference when needed. These thoughts and comments are all mine, and I will only refer to my crew by the first name. In the future, I will offer them the opportunity to submit anything they wish.


Do you remember where you were at 00:36 EST on 7 March 2003? I was sitting in the back of a C-130, heading out on my first deployment to that area that is referred to as the cradle of civilization. I might have some thoughts on that statement in the future as well but for now I will stay on topic.


I pretended to slept on the cargo ramp, next to my co-pilot and best friend Scott. I was wrapped in my blue sleeping bag wondering if my arm was going to get infected and fall off. That afternoon, I got the smallpox immunization. My left buttock hurt because I also got my second anthrax shot. The drone of the engines, the dark, cold tail section felt like a fitting end to a horribly long day.


Because of the number of aircraft transiting the Atlantic, our slot time to arrive in Lajes (An Portuguese joint use Air Base in the Azores Island chain) was sunrise. To meet that arrival time, we left in the late afternoon. That day was one of the longest day of my life. That is the closest I ever hope to know what a death row inmate feels on their final day. We had to be at the Squadron about 3PM. My wife and I went to eat at Applebee’s for lunch. I was wearing my brown flight suit, and I felt out of place as we entered. I ordered a nasty steak, and just picked at my last real meal for the next six months.


Four days earlier on Sunday, my unit was activated and given our departure orders. The first wave of two aircraft left 72 hours after the notification. My crew was in the second wave. I packed rather quickly and she took time off from work. From that point forward, we tried to forget what was coming our way. I have never asked her what she did after I left. Honestly, I don’t want to know.


After a horribly emotional good-bye we went to the airplane and departed. My good friend, Morgan and his crew won the coin flip and they got to take us to Lajes. I am glad he won, because we landed in near hurricane type winds. A storm of epic proportions was rocking the island. We knew before we left, we knew we were twelve thousand pounds over maximum peacetime take-off weight. We knew that we were going to fly twenty-four hours in a thirty-six hour window. The winds whipped the C-130, shaking the airplane in all three axis and forcing Morgan to have his toughest landing of his career, so he said later. The first lesson of war was a shock to us. The lesson is that in a real war there are no rules, there are only laws. The laws of physics, gravity, and so on.


From the back, I sat behind the left wheel well. I am not a nervous flyer, but the tension raised for me dramatically when all the Loadmasters sat down and buckled in. Normally, they stand during landing. Scott and I looked at each other before tightening our lap belts. Morgan made a perfect crosswind landing, it was smooth, deliberate and impressive. His Loadmaster, Paul bragged on his Aircraft Commander. That day (night whatever you want to say, it was still just 12 hours), Morgan and I shared a room. He confessed that he had never landed in winds that severe. Morgan was the hero of the day and proved my belief. “If it is your time to die, you die. If it is the pilot’s time to die, it is your time too.” That day it wasn’t Morgan’s time. Little did I know that in 30 days I would find out if it was my time.


Somehow we all knew what a dead men walking felt like.

From → military

  1. worldsbeforethedoor permalink

    Thanks so much Rob for sharing this. As a civilian who has family and friends in the service I know enough about serving to feel like it’s not my place to ask. I’ve never asked my Father-in-law about serving in Vietnam, and I’ve never really sat down with my brother and asked him about serving on the DMZ in South Korea. I know that it can be really hard for those who have served to talk about that service and I don’t want to pry. So, since I don’t feel like it’s my place to pry I’m thankful you are willing to share! Keep it coming! And you’re a great writer! I could totally see and feel exactly what you were talking about! (As much as one can if they haven’t been there.)
    Thank you for your service!

    • Abby,

      Thanks for saying hi. It is always tough to start a conversation with people about their experiences. Our society makes it difficult for us to go behind the curtain, if you will. I am the same way, it is a little easier for me to talk about that because of a shared background but the conversation is still very uncomfortable to start. I am glad to be able to share these thoughts, and my hope is that my kids will have a much better understand of why their crazy old man acts the way he does. By the way, I am not crazy yet.

      Also, this is cathartic for me in that I have never forced myself to revisit this period of life. To be honest, I am slightly anxious about mentally relieving this period. Two years ago, when I started writing, I scratched the surface of this period and I found that on many levels all was well, my thoughts were well received and I didn’t find myself on the couch of a therapist. So now I am going to jump into the deep end of the pool.

      Another of my goals is to reach out to people who struggle with this time of year. I can tell a difference in my attitude during the Springtime and the cause of that change is this first deployment. I know there are others who feel the same way, and if I can foster some healing with them, then this is a worthwhile exercise.

      Thanks for the kind comments about my writing skills.

      • worldsbeforethedoor permalink

        Worthy goals all sir!!!

  2. Karlene permalink

    Rob, what a wonderful post…and your children will love them all. Okay… we all will!

  3. What a great memory to share, Rob. Tense, thrilling, and I loved your last line.

    • I was wondering if my feelings came through to you as a reader. I am glad you picked up on it.

      The last line sums up the experience pretty well for me. I think you may see a theme as a dead man walking/prisoner.

  4. Rob…great story. Check out Poacher’s poopy suit story…same deal going into Lajes.

    • Thanks AJAX, I want to thank you for inspiring me to tell more stories. You tell a great story and I hope my stories are as enjoyable.

      I have a story much like Poacher except different. I will tell it in the future. But let me say that being a C-130 pilot ain’t glamorous but it is comfortable. Slow and ugly, for the guys up front it rides like a Cadillac. Nice comfortable sheepskin seats, plenty of room for important things like food and drinks, two bunks to sleep in, places to stand up and stretch, and a fully operational toilet in the back. Life was good.

  5. Erica permalink

    Nicely told. Your kids are lucky they’ll get to see this side of you.

    • Thanks Erica,

      In many respects I don’t want to grow old and then be the guy that no one will dare to ask what happened in the war. I know that you know people like that, Abby said she has people in her family like that and I would bet that most of us know someone who served somewhere.

      For years my wife has been trying to get me to write down these stories. I wasn’t ready for many reasons. I am still not ready but now I am in the habit of writing daily so I don’t have any more excuses. I hope to inspire other vets to share their stories with their kids, friends. Family or just each other.

  6. Rob,

    A tense, harrowing ride. Thanks for giving us a glimpse, and of course, thanks for your service.
    My favorite line…

    “…in a real war there are no rules, there are only laws. The laws of physics, gravity, and so on.”

    • Big Joe,

      Thanks for the kind words but on thiat night, all of the credit goes to my friend Morgan. I was self loading baggage. Morgan was the hero of the day.

      Lake on one of my battle cries would be “You know the rules, there are no rules.” Yes we could not over come the laws.

  7. Icabu permalink

    Rob –
    Enjoyed the Lajes Field landing story. I say ‘enjoyed’ because I also landed there when deployed in 8/90 for the first sandbox war. Not being a pilot, I wasn’t aware of the peril of landing on a spit of rock in the big, rolling ocean. It wasn’t much better in the C-141 we were strapped into. I could see out of a small round window and the choppy waves kept getting closer and closer. As we were all getting ready to take the crash position (and kiss our sorry butts good-bye), a wall of rock rose to meet us and the big plane plunked down. Several in our group kissed the tarmac when we could walk well enough to exit.

    Good idea to write those events out. I’m sure your kids will appreciate it.

    • “Where have you been young lady? You can’t just disappear like that, you need to call home because your father and I have been worried sick…” Just helping you out with the guilt bombs you will need to throw at your son from time to time. Ha ha.

      You have been missed and I hope all is well on your side of the country. Thanks for your comments and your service back in the war that started it all. I don’t care who you are, when you sit in the back your life is at the mercy of the person driving. I always liked Lajes, I had the great pleasure of going downtown several times on other trips. It was always nice to get off base and eat some great swordfish. I saw the local version of running with the bulls. They lasso a huge rope around a bull’s neck then they let it loose on the street. Brave young souls would try to hold the bull back from running. Other equally brave people would run in front of the beast. This would go on for an hour through the town. I never asked how it ended. But, I am sure the bull was the main course at the local restaurants.

      The only time I kissed the ground was when I landed in Ireland after every rotation over there. I was always so happy to have left the heat of the “Holy Land” behind and see some green.

      • Icabu permalink

        Still writing those WD prompts …

    • I never knew. Thanks for your service, as well. You have led quite a life.

      • Icabu permalink

        Thank you, Joe. Hoping to keep adding to the life thing.

  8. Scott lowe permalink

    I was there when rob sat on the overflowing porta potty. I laughed till I cried. Funniest thing I think I have ever seen!

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