The Way Back Home…Part 2
This is a continuation of the events from mid-July to Early September. My intention following this series is to flash back and tell some stories from my new crew. There are some cool stories from August that have earned the right to be documented. Again the point of these stories is to give my children a sense of who their Dad was during a time of war. An added benefit is that you all get to enjoy the ride as well and I get so suffer some post traumatic fun in the sun.
In the regular Army, Navy, Air Force Marines, men and women move every three years. They are in a constant state of change, rotation, and flux. If they re-deployed the way that we did, they would probably think it was normal. A National Guard unit is different. 90% of all Guardsmen spend their entire career together. Twenty plus years of collective shared experience, can be a strength and a weakness. One reason I wanted Gary S. to be my Navigator is because he was a Veteran of the first Gulf War. He had seventeen years of experience when we left for Iraq. He was not the lone seasoned GW 1 Vet, when we left every crew had at least one crew member who had served in the first Gulf War. New guys like me had a wealth of experience to draw from.
There is a phrase that states; “A Family that prays together, stay together.” A Guard Unit is a family, in every sense of the word. I always believed that a Squadron that deploys together, that fights together, live together should get to go home together. There are always examples of individual members who don’t get to enjoy this perk. Someone gets injured, has a crisis at home or any other reason and they miss the homecoming. But the collective unit celebrates homecoming together. But the ideal way to return home from a war is all at once with no one left behind. I would think that 99.9% of all warriors would agree with me.
Only one problem with the theory is that I had absolutely zero power or authority to implement this plan. It has to come down from the brass, and like in all organizations there is a single person who makes the decision. We started hearing the rumor in late July that the requirement would be to cut the C-130 units in half. To explain it better if the current manning level was 200 airplanes and 400 crews then the new manning would be 100 airplanes and 200 crews. How the commander gets that number is immaterial, the goal is to put the new levels in effect ASAP.
Our West Virginia Base Commander had a case of conscience because we were over there and he was at home with no airplanes and no mission to micro-manage. Overcome with guilt, Colonel Timothy F. found an open spot and came over in mid-June as the Vice Wing Commander at Qatar. When he came over, most everyone had a negative attitude about why he came over and what he would do to us. Other units were fearful that he would take care of us, and make sure they got the raw end of the deal. We assured them that if anyone got the raw end, it would be all of us. I tried to be as positive side as I could. He really did leave his family, the lake, the comforts of home, and everything else to come over to be with his boys. I didn’t see any of our other commanders looking for a way over. Nor did I see any Commanders from any other units fighting to get themselves in a war with their boys and girls. But like everyone else, I was afraid that Timmy would start up his legendary meetings and the war would have to be postponed until later.
Timmy didn’t disappoint as a Commander. His tried and true techniques to kill a unit’s morale were put on display for all to see. Remember I was flying with other units and showing the around Afghanistan? Consistently, I would get a comment about this strange Colonel from West Virginia. They would ask. “Surly, that guy is from the other West Virginia Unit. You guys are way too squared away to have him as your commander.”
I replied. “That’s our Timmy!”
Almost immediately, Timmy had his first chance to kill our morale. One of our pilots was a personal Aide to Senator Jay Rockefeller. The Senator was leading a delegation to our base and has asked directly to meet with this pilot. I know for a fact that Timmy ordered that this pilot be put onto the flight schedule for that day. Even in June 03, we knew the war was not going well, we could sense it from the troops we spoke to and by seeing what we saw. We all knew how important it was that for the Senator to get unfiltered, accurate, first-hand information on the true state of the war from someone he knows and trusts. I believe that the order to fly this pilot came from above Timmy, but I don’t believe that any other Commander in the chain of command would have known of the relationship between the pilot and the Senator. Either Timmy took it upon himself to refuse the request of a Senator, or he told the Generals about him of this potential problem and they ordered him to get my buddy out of Camp for the day.
Once the word got around that Sen. Rockefeller wanted to see his former aide. Everyone knew how important it was for out pilot to meet with his Senator. I and every pilot who was off that day went to Operations and we all asked to fly in the pilot’s place. We were joined by several pilots from St Joe Missouri, Oklahoma City, OK, and New Castle, Delaware. Ultimately all requests to trade were denied, our pilot followed his schedule and went to work. This pilot was placed in a terrible position because we all were pressuring him to be sick so he could meet the Senator. My friend is a man of honor and despite that pressure he did his flight as scheduled. The Senator missed his requested meeting; it was a missed opportunity to get facts to those in power, and a victory for Timmy.
Timmy left his mark on the four units under his command when he made his decision on the re-deployment plan. In very early August, the order actually came down to drawl down from four units to two. Half of us were going home and half were staying behind. Most everyone advocated for some type of fair selection process to select two units to leave and two to stay. Simple, clean, easy and done. To Timmy’s credit, he came around and asked us how we would like to see it done. My idea was to take the four Squadron Commanders in a room with some witnesses and flip coins to see who goes and who stays. He gave me one of his classic blank stares that linger so long they become uncomfortable. He was like Mr. Spock or Data from Star Trek. He computed every comment to the nth degree before responding. But nothing is simple, clean, easy, and done with Timmy so he devised a plan where each unit would be split in two groups.
The Go Homes, and The Leftovers, were the terms created to keep things straight. Years later a conversation would go like this.
“Hey, Rob were you a Go-Home?”
“No, I was a leftover. What were you?”
There were many conversations along that line when I left the service in 2007. I am not sure if they continue but Timmy effectively drove a huge wedge in the Squadron with that decision.
In early August 03, we had a Squadron Safety Day. Sleep-in, Cookout, rest, relax and generally enjoy life. Until a couple of runners came through the tents telling everyone that Timmy wanted to address us. The Chaplain’s on the base had built a coffee style tent called Jack’ s Place. It was literally across the gravel road from my tent. They had soft music, magazines, trade-a-books, and of course coffee. Think of it as a desert style Starbucks, with nasty self-serve coffee, hard chairs, and a clientele that all dressed the same. I don’t drink coffee but I did like to read and Jack’s quickly became my home away from home. To me it was an oasis away from the prison of the tent and the twelve bodies that inhabited that space. I read only non-war themed magazines or books. People or Glamour were my personal favorites, because I felt pretty sure there would not be anything to remind me of where I was. That afternoon, Tracy that came to get me. He told me that Timmy had called for an all-hands meeting, I had that uneasy feeling that Timmy had decided and I knew it was going to be bad.
Timmy pulled up in his Toyota pick-up truck with the look of seriousness. It was nothing unusual, he always looked troubled. KK was with him and I really thought KK was going to cry, it was not bad but it was worse than I could imagine. Timmy climbed into the bed and began to tell how “Tremendously Proud of us.” He used world like “Honor, Duty, Courage, Dedication.” To define our actions over the past five months. In typical commander speak, he took five minutes of Blah, blah, blah to get to the point. Finally he dropped his bomb. “Half of you are going home. Half are staying for an undetermined amount of time. KK will make the decision on who stays and who goes.”
He continued to speak but I could not listen to any more. I pushed my way out of the crowd and walked away. I knew what this meant, if you had a reason to go home, then you might go home. If you didn’t have a reason or you were too proud to call uncle, then you were staying. If was an absolute kick in the gut for all of us and it divided the unit. Poor KK, as soon as the meeting was over, he was surrounded by guys trying to get on the airplane home. Some very strong, proud men and women had to demean themselves by making their case of why their life sucked more than their buddy next to them.
I went to the tent and make my list and I didn’t need to check it twice. I said that “Deron needed to go home to be with his wife Tara because of some pseudo-reason that made up. Tracy was single and because those without families are always doing extra to cover for those with families he would he a leftover. I wouldn’t make anything up for him because I knew he would be mad at me so I simply wrote that he has earned the right to go home. I did not have a reason to go home either, but I did have a wife. At that point in my marriage, Donetta and I had been apart more than we had been together. It would be like that for years, and only after I left the military did we start banking time together. I wasn’t going to lie and say I had marriage problems, I simply said that I wanted to go home. That evening I called home and it was a tough conversation for us. JR hasn’t spent enough time here yet to earn the right to go home.” I know it sounds harsh, but three of us have earned the right to get out.
I returned to commotion where Timmy was pouring salt into the collective wounds that he opened by answering question with vague, open-ended, non-committal answers. I found KK and gave him my list. I defiantly gathered my crew together in the middle of Timmy’s talk and told them what I did. If they wanted to add anything then they had to make their case with KK. When I was done, Timmy was still talking but I had no desire to hear anything he said. I went back to the tent and cried.
I will leave you with this. I am very critical of Timmy and his decision making. But I always defended him with the conversations turned negative about him. Timmy really wanted to be with his guys and he fought to get a spot in Qatar. He willingly left his family behind, when he was under no moral or ethical mandate to do so and he was the only Commander to take this action. Timmy is also a man who cares deeply for those under his command. His heart is in the right place, he means to do well and to do the right thing. He is one of the fairest person I have ever met. But that fairness, sense of doing the right thing, not wanting to appear to show any favoritism towards his unit was not what we needed.
In his wake, he left four units split into two groups; the Go-Homes and the Leftovers.