Back to the Front…
So far, I have told my story through a very narrow perspective. I feel that the strategic perspective that needs to be addressed before I continue. In many ways this perspective is hugely important to the story line. In previous posts, I told the story of how every C-130 Flight Squadron was divided into two different groups because of the decision of the leadership. In August 2003, it was apparent to everyone that Iraq was going to be a long term situation. The Army won the ground war before it ever started, but in the exact same way they lost the peace. The new challenge to the leadership was to figure out how to keep the airplanes fresh.
I don’t think the leadership ever considered how extended rotations impacted the individual soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. They care greatly about things that are hard to replace like airplanes, tanks, helicopters or ships. Therefore these items must be rotated out, refurbished and returned to the fight in good working order. Even by July 2003, I was keenly aware that we were running the airplanes too hard. It wasn’t just how we flew them; it was the extreme heat, sand, and constant use. They needed some attention.
Before the war started, the active duty units deployed to the region first. A large handful of Air National Guard units were activated just prior to the kickoff of the war with an equal number of units held in reserve. In May 2003, the active duty went home taking their tired, old airplanes with them. In August, the units that were held in reserve were activated completing the rotation cycle. When they arrived in the AOR (Area of Operations), an equal number of airplanes and crews were relieved to go back to the house. What I couldn’t see from the micro-perspective I had them was this was a planned event and would go on for years and years.
In early September, the second round of planes and crews came over to relieve the group I was with. We started our small break of 35 days. When we returned, the unit tasking dropped in half to four airplanes and eight crews. This meant that we could start our own rotation, essentially in relief of ourselves. The deal was sixty days in the AOR. The time in commute to and from came from the sixty days scheduled off at the house. At first, we could choose where we went as we went back and forth. Usually someone in the Squadron set everything up and they knew what guys liked and didn’t like. But eventually someone broke the airplane in a location off the beaten path and the micro-management started.
Going over, crews took the southern route of the Azores Islands spending the night, Crete spending the night, and arriving into the AOR. Heading back, the stops was a re-fueling stop in Romania, a night in Ireland, a night in either St. Johns or Halifax Canada and then the house. I didn’t care where we went, because they were all fine but I did prefer Halifax over St. John’s mainly because it was two hours closer to being home. The wonderful thing about the rotations is that everyone understood that went you were heading to the AOR, you were relieving someone else. I never saw anyone break the airplane because they didn’t want to get to work. And the airplane had to be hard broke on the way home.
We pulled out of Charleston, WV in early October. I had a completely new crew with two guys who were making their first appearance in a shooting environment. All of the new guys missed the initial call-up because they were in some type of school. Mikey O. was in instructor school. The other three co-pilots Shy Dog, Todd P, and Kevin M. were in some version of flight school. I wasn’t asked who I wanted to fly with this time or ever again. I got Kevin M who was an Instructor in the T-1, a small business jet trainer aircraft for new Air Force pilots. An easy going, laid back guy, I drew a good card from a deck of good cards.
I also had a brand new Flight Engineer, Nate G. We called him Gummy Bear. Tall and slender, he reminded me of Paul S., my FE who was hurt a few months earlier. In fact, I called him Paul at some point on every flight. Every time I did it, I grimaced and apologized to him. To his credit, he never yelled at me or seemed to hold a grudge. I think half of our greetings started with me saying something like Dude, I promise not to call you Paul today. I think the guys had a bet on how long it would take me to break my word. The Gummy Bear did a wonderful job.
The Navigator was my good friend, Greg H. but we called him Harry. He was long in the tooth when I showed up in 1998. A Veteran of Desert Storm 1, Bosnia, and several other conflicts, it wasn’t his first rodeo. Of all the guys I ever flew with, I think my personality and demeanor was the closest to Harry. A quick story about Harry, in 2000, we were in Honduras doing some humanitarian work. When we landed at this dirt runway cut out of the jungle, there was a news crew that wanted to interview someone for their TV show. The FE, Crummy said he would do it. Blah, Blah, Blah he droned on about how pleased we were to help the good people of Nicaragua. He said it enough times that the camera guy put down the camera and told Crummy he was in Honduras. They argued for a moment while Harry and I were giggling above them listening to everything from the flight deck. Harry winked at me and walked off the airplane. Crummy asked him where we were. Harry simply replied Nicaragua and started to walk off. The camera man objected and Harry said, “I’m the Navigator and it is my job to know where we are. We are in Nicaragua.” I laughed so hard I cried. The lesson is never put a camera in the face of an air crew member.
The final crew member was Ron B. I called him RB, he had bounced between career positions throughout his career, when I first met him he worked in the Personnel section. He came to Operations to be a Loadmaster and to get a promotion. Another no drama type, RB was always smiling, happy and willing to work hard. I was glad to have him.
Our newest home was to be Masriah Island off the coast of Oman. Resting in the Persian Gulf it became the first point the USA used to prosecute the war after 9-11. By the fall of 2003, it had been through a couple of transformations and when we got there. I thought it was just about perfect. The tent was segregated by wooden walls, with a nice porch. If it was on MTV Cribs, it would have been the Mack Daddy of tents. Masriah had gravel roads, full functioning toilets plenty of water for long showers, a full functioning chow hall, and a recreation center. If you had to be in a war zone, this was a good place to be.
The down side was that it was almost four hours to Baghdad and six to Bagram in Afghanistan. From Masriah Island, we would be doing both and working some long days in the process. It could have been worse, so we accepted it and moved on.
Arrival day was always long. We arrived from Crete, which required that we fly aver almost the entire Middle East to get to Masriah. It was a long way, something in the neighborhood of twelve hours. After we arrived, we needed to get all of our briefings before we could go to the tent and unpack. From landing to bed was usually another six to eight hours. I cannot understate how long of a day it was. We piled into the make shift briefing room which was relatively speaking, very nice. Everyone had a chair, it was air conditioned and had a restroom near-by. I remember thinking that we were walking in tall cotton.
I sat next to Russ P. Russ is in the top five pilots I have ever flown with. He knew how to make the airplane talk but Russ is also one of the quickest witted people I have ever known. I almost never heard him miss an opportunity to give a verbal jab or sarcastic comment. He is close to the professional comedian level as anyone I ever met. So there are, back in the AOR after 35 days off listening to people tell us about a life that we lived a month earlier. We were tired, cranky, and ready to make out bunks and get some sleep. Our final briefing was given by Lieutenant Colonel Love from the Pittsburg PA Reserve Unit. It was our tactical briefing, basically telling us the rules of flying in a tactical environment. Instead of giving us a five minute update of changes in the past 35 days, he was giving us the hour long briefing of everything that happened in the past seven months.
Everything he told us to do in Iraq were the things we had already been doing. Some of the things he told us to do, we even invented. Strike one; the second strike came when he started telling us to do things that we knew were not correct. Somewhere along that path he was questioned and told us this is how it is “Up North.” like he was a bad dude, snake eater, back in the Nam, combat vet. Russ was fidgeting in his seat because he wanted to say something. I am a trouble maker and I whispered under my breath “Who does this guy think he is?”
Russ took the bait and called the Colonel a character from an Eddie Murphy movie “The Nutty Professor.” Russ yelled out “Buddy Love!” The little circle around us started laughing. But the Colonel didn’t see the humor in the comment. With his hands on his hips, his Captain Picard haircut and scraggly month old combat mustache he defended himself. “Listen to me. I have seventeen missions up North. I know what is going on up there.” Except for the new guys, everyone in the room had well over a hundred missions. He was greeted by a stream of applause, laughter, oohs and aahs.
The Colonel actually turned out to be an ok guy once he knew understood where we had been and we got to know him. But as far as I remember, his new call sign stuck.
Until next time, keep on rockin.