The Way Back Home…Part 1
I would like to devote the next couple of posts to the late Summer of 2003. Recently, I wrote a post about Timmy, which is a collaborative story about a 3rd Grader named Tim. I made a wise crack about a former Commander who we called Timmy, but it wasn’t a term of endearment. I have debated writing about this period of life, because it was a difficult time; which is exactly why I need to document it. A quick note to all my new friends and followers, the purpose of these stories is so that my kids will know who dad was before they were born. I strive to tell the story of this period as accurately as possible, not to make myself seem like a hero. In fact, the heroes in my mind are the men and women that I served with and the families that stayed home.
By mid-July 2003, my crew was falling apart around me. We called ourselves the Ole Number 6 after a scene in the movie Blazing Saddles. The first person to leave was Scotty. He took over another crew when their Aircraft Commander, Billy Grimes, had to return home because his wife was having complications with her pregnancy. Both mother and daughter were fine by the way. My best buddy was off leading his own crew into battle, as a crew we knew that when he left the thrill went with him. We were still flying every other day, with guest help with a pilot from Tactics, Scheduling, or one of the Commanders. I underestimated how relaxing it was to have someone who knew what we all were thinking. Our crew was tight, we were a machine. There were no briefings, no talk about how to plan an arrival or departure, no questions about why we were not following tactics developed in a conference room, or why we all did what we did. It is amazing to be a part of a team that was committed to doing a job without any of the garbage that people with an agenda bring with them.
One night, I caught Scott peeing on our tent. Scott’s new crew lived next door to my tent so he didn’t have to move very far. I come home late one night from Afghanistan and I saw Scott standing next to my tent. He wasn’t just standing, he was peeing. He wasn’t just peeing, he was peeing near my bunk in the tent. When he saw me, he started laughing. And I started laughing because it was on. From that day until Scott left, I didn’t make the 147 step walk to the bathroom tent to pee. I made the twelve step walk to Scott’s section of the tent and relieved myself. And he continued to give me the business. On the rare occasion we were both in the tent at night, I would hear the splatter of rain hitting the canvas tent next to my head. Nothing says love like pissing on your buddy.
A couple of days after Scott left, Gary S. my Navigator’s father passed away suddenly. It was a terrible way to leave a war. A couple of Commanders and the Chaplain came to the tent, woke Gary up from a nap and told him. 24 hours later, he was on a rotator home. When he left, we were no longer a crew. It is relatively easy to replace one person, but to find a second is tough. But no one could replace Gary in my opinion. Gary is a human and therefore, he has faults but for us he was absolutely perfect. When the crews were being put together, my number one draft choice was Gary. If Scott was the emotional shock absorber for the crew, Gary was the glue that held us together. If anyone could have been offended by the movie Blazing Saddles, it would be Gary because that movie is offensive on so many levels. Gary could have taken that movie the wrong way, but he saw the value in laughter and not taking life so seriously. I missed him as much or more than I did Scott.
A replacement Navigator was heading over to us, JR “John Rocker” D, had finished training after we departed for Tabuk. He arrived a week or so later. Until he was ready to fly, I had the distinct un-pleasure of being the Seeing Eye dog for crews flying for the first time to Afghanistan. Since we were deployed to the Iraq Theater, the rule was that any crew that went to Afghanistan for the first time were required to have an Instructor Pilot with them. Like most of the rules that were being handed down, it was dumb. But since I no longer had an operational crew, I was the obvious choice to fill the role. Flying direct Bagram AB, Afghanistan is only about a 1000 miles from Qatar. That is just three hours in the airplane. But since the United States is not on the friendliest of relations with Iran, we were not allowed to overfly their country. We went around. Two hours south of Iran to Pakistan, then Northeast for five hours to the agreed entry point, then another two hours to Bagram. Nine hours, one way. Then get some gas, swap out Qatar air for Afghanistan air and nine hours back. It was a long day.
As a crew member, it wasn’t that bad. The seats are comfortable. You have your buddies to talk too, food to eat. It is cold and comfortable in the airplane so you can get a great nap and the best part is that no one shoots at you. And you get to go to a new place which is always exciting. As an extra pilot/Instructor Pilot. It is no fun. I was flying with other units so often I didn’t know anyone. As a rule, I didn’t sit on the intercom. I was the guest that they didn’t know, and I wasn’t going to intrude on their crew conversations. I would be listening in for take-off, and up front doing my job of pointing out landmarks and arrival procedures for the landing. Otherwise, I went to the back and slept on the uncomfortable troop seats. I didn’t want to take the crew bunk from someone who wanted to grab a nap so I went to the places no crew members went. I read a lot and slept a lot. Mostly I thought a lot about going home.
Finally, JR was ready to work, so I was released from the horribly boring job of taking new crews to Bagram. Poor JR showed up to a crew that was sad because we had lost two brothers, we were tired of lying around and itching to get back to work. His learning curve was going to be steep. As I remember it, he learned a valuable lesson on flight one. I won’t tell the story because it isn’t mine to tell, but Paul the Flight Engineer was injured in Kirkuk because of a freak accident. Before the Paul’s accident I never dreamed of how his injury could happen, but it did and he is still in a bad way to this day. He spent the next week in our tent essentially suffocating. One flight and we were we again out of action. But we didn’t care because our brother. Paul was in danger of dying; literally. We kept trying to get someone to listen to us as we described how hurt he was. Events were beyond our control and as hard as we yelled, no one in chain of command would listen. Finally, we got someone to hear our plea and Paul went home.
If there is anything I regret, it is how I personally dealt with Paul’s injury. He and I have spoken about it several times over the last ten years. He has a wonderful attitude over the whole event. But, I still feel guilty because I wasn’t able to get him the help he needed during the time when medicine could have possibly made a difference. It would be easy for him to blame me for his injuries, or for the way that I responded to his time of need. But, he is one of the most forgiving person I have ever met. The irony of that is that it his is a natural forgiveness not something he does because of what he read in a book or heard someone tell him that is how he should be. Paul is an atheist, and while we have differing views of the universe he is a prime example of how a man should carry themselves. Paul I love you, and I am sorry that I didn’t do more.
The Ole Number Six crew was officially history. There would not be any chance of getting the band back together. Never again would we chant the lines from the movie Blazing Saddles, “Give em the ole number six, what’s that? That’s where we go riding into town a whopping and a whooping. Killing every little thing in sight. What about the women and children, do you kill them too? No we rape them at the ole number six later on.”
Now, we were a crew of four, Deron, Tracy, JR and myself. A Leper Colony that was in need of help from the outside. I was back on the Bagram seeing eye dog and for the day off we got to be the duty crew. Maybe we were paying for the sin of enjoying the work. Maybe it was penitence for making the sheep bounce off each other, for drawing rocks from kids playing soccer, for making the extravaganza departure and thing of beauty, for making people bail out of a bus in the middle of the desert, for raiding every chow hall in the AOR, for making Jimmy “Two Balls” mad, or for delivering freedom with courage. That life was over and it was time to start a new phase of the war.
It was a dark time, but I didn’t know it would get darker.