The worst kept secret in the military was that a war was coming with Iraq. In August 2002, I made a trip to Germany taking some people overseas. It was a hard trip for a number of reasons, but what is important to you is that I witnessed firsthand the build-up that was taking place.
We landed in Frankfurt, Germany and dropped off our passengers. The entire ramp was stuffed with large C-5 and C-17 airlift aircraft. Walking through Base Ops and a quick run to the BX to grab a descent lunch for the crew, my co-pilot and I saw hundreds of Tanks, Humvees, Helicopters, and thousands of pallets waiting to be taken down to Kuwait. Yes, in 2002 the invasion was in full swing and there was very little that would stop the assault.
I always thought that Saddam and his boys should have left Iraq and retired to a chalet on the coast of France. They would have lived like Kings, free to manipulate the world. Like knuckleheads, they were too stupid or too stubborn to accept the fact that their world was changing. Like I wrote about a couple weeks ago, it is better to sit in the relative safety of a lifeboat than to go down with the ship. Oh well, they are hanging out with Allah now. I hope that is working out for them.
Fast forward to early February 2003. Colin Powell hasn’t testified to the United Nations yet, but the war drums are banging loudly. My Operations Group Commander, Lodi M, I called him Lodi. And the Squadron Commander Robert I, I called him Bobby and the Director of Operations, Seaborn C, I called him Seabass, they were meeting to select their sixteen Aircraft Commanders to lead the crews in the upcoming war.
Fortunately, I was on the list to be an Aircraft Commander. This meant that I would be responsible for leading my crew into Iraq. Seabass’ idea was to get the crews put together early so that when the order came down, that was one thing off the list to do. Also, he wanted the crews to start to fly together as much as possible so that we could work on our crew coordination before the shooting started.
I don’t know if Seabass is a regular visitor to my blog, but know this. From my perspective, he was the best commander a pilot could ever ask to serve with. Over the years, he took a lot of daggers from above and he did an amazing job of protecting his guys. Eventually, he had enough and walked away. There was no shame in that, and he put up with ten thousand percent more than I would have ever put up with. I salute him as he flies the friendly skies with Delta Airlines.
So I am called into the office and informed that I was going to be one of the Aircraft Commanders. I was asked if I had any requests/suggestions for crew members. I suspected that I was going to be one of the ACs. The rumor mill was cranking at max efficiency during those days. When asked the question, I had a plan. There were a couple of co-pilots that I knew most guys didn’t want to fly with. Not that they were bad guys, but their quirks were more than most wanted to deal with. There was one guy who is a good dude, he is just different. He knew the book side of everything but some days he just had trouble flying his way out of a paper bag. I am going to name him “Rob” because it doesn’t make any difference what his name is.
When asked who I wanted to be my co-pilot. I said “Rob.” Lodi, Bobby and Seabass nearly fell out of their chairs. When they composed themselves, I added the caveat that I got to pick the rest of my crew. They all nodded in agreement, and I was convinced when I left the room that “Rob” was going to be my co-pilot and the rest of the guys I asked for were going to be with me.
I asked for Gary S. to be my Navigator. The reason I asked for “Rob” to be my co-pilot was that I figured that it “Rob” turned into a bag of doughnuts when it went bad, I could fly and the rest of the crew could pick up the slack. If anyone else on the crew turned into a doughnut when it went bad, I might not be able to replicate their abilities.
The Navigators get a bad rap from pilots, and sometimes it is justified. Some of the things I have said about a bad Navigator are considered mean, hurtful and I say them knowing it is the truth. I have called bad Navigators self-loading baggage. I have said that pound for pound, I would rather have the extra gas. I used to carry a handheld GPS that I called my Nav in a box. I always wanted a Nav with glasses, so you would know what was wrong with them. What do you call two Navs talking in flight? Lost!
My unit was blessed to have some great Navs and cursed to have some guys that would not have found America if they were Columbus, and were given a map. We called one guy Magellan, because he was always lost. Another guy we called penguin because he had wings but never flew. Another was afraid to fly through a cloud. Another was afraid to compare what they saw in their radar with what they saw outside the window. I’m sure you get the idea.
A good Navigator could save the pilot from making a mistake. A great Navigator made everyone look good. An exceptional Navigator was the glue that would hold a crew together. Gary was an exceptional Navigator. Standing at 6-2, this 220 pound black man from West Virginia was naturally strong, and could bench press a truck. He shaved his head and wore a smile that light up a tent. He was funny, witty, and highly intelligent, looking the part when he was decked out in Harry Potter style glasses. He was gifted with an artistic side and he found a way to make a little extra money in Tabuk. He started drawing charcoal pictures for everyone. For 20 dollars, he would take any picture and sketch out a drawing. He made a picture of my dogs and another picture of my wife. He retired from the Guard about five years ago.
The worst kept secret in the Squadron was about Gary and how he spent his off time. Since I don’t have his approval to speak about this topic, I will simply say that there were questions about his sexual orientation. He was always discreet about it and in the age of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He was the poster child of everything that was right and wrong about that policy. In my opinion, I don’t care what a person does in their private time, I care about how they will be able to do their job when bullets are in the air. I also think that many people spend too much time wondering about what someone does behind a bedroom door. What does it matter? Nothing to me. I wanted Gary to be my Navigator, and first round draft pick.
I asked for Shane C. who I called Crummy. An easy going, well respected Flight Engineer. Crummy and I came to the Squadron about the same time and spent hours flying all over the world, terrorizing the natives. Quick story about Crummy and another Great Navigator called Harry. We landed in Honduras in 2001, bringing in a civil engineering team to do something. There was an American media crew, filming the arrival of the CE team to the jungle town. A member of the media asked if they could interview some of our crew for the news report. Crummy agreed to be interviewed, so he stepped off the airplane for the interview. They were directly below my window. I watched everything in secret from five feet above.
News Guy. “Tell me about the mission you are doing?”
Crummy. “Blah, Blah, Blah, giving a well composed intelligent answer he continued. We are glad to help the good people of Nicaragua. Things are tough over here and we are glad to be able to respond…
News Guy, putting down the camera. “That was great, but you are in Honduras.”
Crummy. “No, we are in Nicaragua.”
They bantered back and forth for a moment before Harry intentionally walked near them.
Crummy. “Harry, what country are we in?”
Harry. “Nicaragua. I’m the Navigator and I should know.” Together they walked off. I was literally in tears laughing.
One more quick Crummy story. On a weekend layover, somewhere in the world. The elevator door opens and it is an Army General, in uniform. Stars and all. Crummy looks at him with a straight face. “How is it going, Sarge?” I knew that when things got tough in Iraq, I wanted Crummy and his lighthearted attitude.
I asked for two guys to be my Loadmasters. Deron T. and Tracy J. They are best friends and have been Loadmasters for several years. Like the upfront crew, the guys in the back were a team and it they worked together things always went smoother.
Tracy is a high energy guy that sees the world in shades of gray, not black and white. He will do anything for his friends and crew. If that means that we will go into another tent and return with cots and light bulbs, he will do it. If that means he will liberate a couple of ten thousand tie down straps to add to the tent. He will not lose a moment of sleep. The only problem with Tracy is that he is lactose intolerant and he loves milk. I learned to gage his mood for the day by how many cartons of milk he drank at breakfast. If it was one or two, he was happy. If it was seven or eight, he was in an ornery mood. I thought of Tracy as my personal trunk monkey. Take five minutes to watch this YouTube clip of the trunk monkey. Nothing explains Tracy like the trunk monkey. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RCUBxgdKZ_Y
Deron T. is a wonderfully even tempered man. I hardly ever saw him even come close to losing his temper. He took the best and worst of the war in stride. He dedicated himself to reading his Bible from cover to cover, starting on day one of Tabuk. He was finished in about two months. He kept a written diary of our exploits form day one as well. I have a copy of it, but his handwriting is so horrible that I struggle to make anything out of it. He is the natural balance to Tracy, often being a positive influence during times of temptation. Quickly, he became the adult supervision for our crew. When we would start to get too far out of line, he softly reeled us all back in. We called him Mom.
I left the meeting with Lodi, Bobby and Seabass feeling confident that I had chosen a solid crew. I was asking for a lot with Gary, Crummy, Deron and Tracy but I was taking “Rob”. I thought it was a fair trade. The next day, the crews were announced. I was pleasantly surprised. “Rob” was put onto another crew. The tradeoff for that loss was that I had lost Crummy, somehow he ended up on Seabass’ crew. I guess command has its privilege.
I kept Gary, Deron and Tracy. I was rewarded with my best friend, Scott L. as my co-pilot. Scott is a wild-eyed southern boy who is a natural kryptonite to my conservative nature. He knows exactly how to make me do crazy things. When I thought I was flying low, he was taunt me into descending 200 feet to sage brush level. When I thought I was flying fast, he would get me to go faster. And when life was getting a little too serious, a wink and a sexy smile would get me to giggle. At the time, he was a new Aircraft Commander so we agreed to take turns flying from the left seat. Today, he is the Squadron Commander. Scott lives five houses away from me, and on his days off he sits in my driveway on his Harley, revving the engine just to wake me up.
Paul S. was assigned to be my flight engineer. I didn’t know Paul real well at the time. He was fairly new, and we quickly learned that he was smarter than me, Scott, Gary, Deron and Tracy all combined. When I told people that, I had to remind them that we did have Tracy on our side. Paul was a chemistry major at West Virginia University. Like Scott, he was a wild southern boy, with a taste for moonshine. Naturally curious, he was the instigator on most of the conversations that we had. Did I mention that he is a devoted atheist?
The crew make-up was as follows. Scotty was the skilled manipulator who lives to create pandemonium. Gary was the African-American artist/weight-lifter with a questionable sexual orientation. Paul was the super smart atheistic, redneck. Deron was the devote Christian, and Tracy was the professional scavenger who loves to start a fight. This cast of questionable characters was being led by an easily persuaded, slacker who has a gift of sarcasm, and a low tolerance for rules mixed with a healthy disrespect for authority.
Hollywood couldn’t make up a crew like this. Only a man like Seabass could have any faith this group could survive a war.
What could possibly go wrong?
The next story will be about jimmy “two balls” simmons. Until then, keep on rocking