Waiting on the call…
It is time for another trip down memory lane, better known as story time. For the benefit of all of our new friends a little catch-up on why this series exists. Long before I was a father, writer and generally domesticated, I served in the West Virginia Air National Guard as a C-130 pilot. In 2003, we were activated for Iraq and for the next four years the squadron was in a constant state of deployment, with each of the approximately 120 men and women doing their part by being “Over There.” I separated from the Air Guard in late 2007 after we all had been deactivated and started on a new path of trying to be a better husband and father. Part of that new path was a new venture into becoming a writer. In 2010, my wife asked me to write down my experiences in Iraq and later in Afghanistan so that my kids would know who their dad was before they were born. For a lot of reasons, I hesitated to document these stories but in 2013 on the ten year anniversary of the first deployment, this series was born.
Since the first story, I am honored to know that several of my former squadron mates use my words to tell their families about what we did back then. While I take a small degree of satisfaction from knowing that my friends are able to relate to these events, these stories are solely mine. Even though we generally all had the same experiences, there are so many variables in our collective experience that are uniquely our own. These stories are based solely on my memories of that time and if there are any inaccuracies or misstatements the errors are mine alone. When I write about the men and women who were deployed with me, I refer to them by either their first name or by their nickname. While I am the central figure in these stories, I am not trying to portray myself as anything other than human.
Balad Air Base is located about 35 miles to the north of Baghdad and rests squarely in the center of the area known as the Sunni Triangle. A pair of two mile long runways formed a “V” shape with the bottom of the “V” towards the south. One of the runways was for fixed wing aircraft and the other to the west was for Army helicopters. I wrote a story about hauling a mobile Navigational Aid to the field a few months earlier. For some reason, Balad and I didn’t get along very well.
This particular story occurred on the rotation between February and April 2004. Carlos P was the co-pilot, Bobby I. was the Navigator, Rich L. was the Flight Engineer and Mark C. was the loadmaster. For some reason, I want the think that this happened towards the end of the deployment but honestly I have no idea when it happened. This time of the Iraq war was a very dangerous period for all of us. The insurgency was in full swing and in just a few short weeks, the country was going to explode in violence starting in Fallujah in very early April 04. I remember it was a tiring time for me personally and it was getting tougher and tougher to get motivated to continue to fly into and out of these places.
A typical day would normally see a sunrise, a sunset and another sunrise. We were still flying twenty hour days but we were getting a full day off afterwards. That was better than having twelve hours to recover before the next take-off but it still wasn’t enough to overcome the fatigue. When we were not eating or sleeping, everyone tried to find an outlet that provided an escape from what we were doing. Lots of guys played video games, others watched movies and others read books. I kind of bounced around aimlessly between all of the groups. I played college football and Tiger Wood’s golf on Gummy Bear’s PlayStation or I would join Mikey O. and Russ P. watching a movie and I read several books. The two that I remember were the Di Vinci Code and the Angels and Demons. They were okay, but that was the first time that I thought that I could write a book. I figured out Angels and Demons fairly quickly and I decided that if Dan Brown could write that dribble and make all the money from it, why couldn’t I?
So there we were in Balad, it was well into the middle of the night past 2 AM. We were on our last stop for the day, so all we had to do was get the airplane back to Ali Al Salem, Air Base Kuwait in one piece. We off-loaded the cargo and were about to taxi out to the runway. Sometimes we shut down the engines just to give ourselves a break from the constant noise. Other times we left the engines running and transferred the cargo on and off as needed. On this night, I remember that we stayed in our seats and left the engines running. Bobby called the Command Post to tell them we were leaving. Normally that simply cleared us to depart but when they called back and ordered us to stay on the ramp, I vaguely remember him asking a couple of times to confirm the statement.
Bobby relayed the information to the rest of the crew and we all wondered why. Watching the clock tick very slowly with the engines running and no further explanation, I asked Bobby to call in to tell them we were leaving. Once again, they told us to hold position on the ramp. We were all tired and irritable and I was probably not as patient as I normally would have been. I got on the radio and asked the Command Post why we couldn’t leave. They told us that they were coordinating for an emergency medivac and they were going to re-task us for it.
There are very few things more important than a medivac flight and when we heard that, we all sat up in our seats. In the back, Mark asked for permission to take his headset off and start to re-configure the back of the airplane for patients. I cleared him off and told him that I would ring a bell when we were ready for him to be back with us. I looked at Rich and we discussed our fuel state. Carlos and I were already wearing Night Vision Goggles and the airplane was prepped for a NVG landing. Literally, we took about twenty seconds to brief what we need to brief and then we just sat, waiting for more information.
A few minutes passed and I got on the radio again asking for an update on the medivac. The Command Post radio operator told us the patient was in Baghdad and that would be where we would be heading. Bobby confirmed that he had the destination and put it into the aircraft navigation systems. Without anything to do, I looked at the fuel panel, did some basic fuel calculations and mentally flight planned what we would do. We had been to these places so many times in the previous year that we all knew them by heart. Baghdad was to the South and even though we would be overflying a large percentage of the Iraqi population, it was night and no one would expect us to fly over at 300 knots and 75 feet. I figured by the time they saw us, they wouldn’t have time to get off a shot with anything more than small arms fire. Random and unpredictable would be the tactic of the flight. When Bobby announced that we needed a little over an hour to get to Baghdad, I literally spun around in my seat. I swung around so fast that is probably where I tweaked my back for the first time.
“Yes, there is a no fly zone so we can’t do anything but fly around it.” Bobby stated.
I pointed out the window. “Baghdad is thirty-five miles that way. It should take seven minutes, gear up to gear down.”
“The no fly zone is from the surface to 15,000 feet and it extends in all directions except for the corridor to approach from the southeast.” Bobby explained.
I was really becoming irate at this point. “Bobby, it is thirty-five miles. Just a couple months ago we climbed up to a hundred feet and went direct. If we go all the way around, we will need to gas up at Baghdad. It takes ten minutes, we have NVGs and there is a dude that has been blown up. We are not going to fly all the way around Baghdad just because some map tells us too.”
Bobby matched my intensity and responded with the same level of defiance and irritation. He emphatically said that we needed to go around to the approved approach corridor. Back home, Bobby was the Squadron Commander and my boss. But on the crew, I was in charge. It was my decision and I knew that I could do what I wanted but there would be consequences when we landed and the mission was over. I looked at Rick and he shrugged. Bobby was technically and legally right.
We all sat in silence listening to the engines drone. I knew it was going to be one of those decisions that would define my career. Go the long way and that guy might die or go direct and Bobby would do everything in his power to end my flying career. I also knew that there were medivacs where every second was precious and there were medivacs where the wounded guy might have a big zit on his face like I had a couple of months earlier. All he was doing was getting a ride to Germany.
Sitting in the silence, my mind ran through all the possibilities. I finally decided that if it was some dude that had been blown up and minutes did matter, then I couldn’t have lived with myself for spending an hour in flight and another 30 minutes on the ground to re-fuel just to honor what some tactics officer a thousand miles away decided was the best was to plan a flight. I knew that I could make the call and go on my own authority but until we picked up the wounded man, I was legally in violation of a no fly zone. After the man was on board, I could declare a medical emergency and break any flight rule necessary to get him the medical attention he needed. I tried to think of a reason to preemptively declare an emergency, but there wasn’t a good reason to do that. Until that guy was on board, we were just a flight doing a mission.
This clock slowly ticked and we waited. I decided that when we told to take-off I was going to do whatever it took to get to Kuwait as fast as possible. I also knew that it might be the end of my flying career but honestly it probably would have been okay. What troubled me was that Bobby and I were friends and I knew that when I told him to sit down and shut up that it would be the end of that friendship. I also knew that any future promotion would sit on his desk unsigned; I would get the worst jobs and generally get the short end of the stick with no mercy as long as he was in charge.
Before we left for Iraq in 2003, a couple of us were talking about what we might expect and somehow we discussed medals and other worthless things they give you for playing in a shooting war. Someone joked that I would probably get a Commendation Medal and a Letter of Reprimand for the same mission. I played it off like I was a Boy Scout who followed the rules, but the friend that said it knew me too well. Now when I found myself contemplating the decision, I really didn’t care about my military career any longer because I knew that all the crap that we got for being over there didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that everyone made it home alive. My job was to take care of the wounded solider and I had to trust that he would do whatever it took to help us if the roles were reversed.
The minutes slowly passed and we made repetitive calls to the Command Post requesting permission to be re-tasked to fly to Baghdad just to get into position. I even told the Command Post operator that we needed an hour to get there and they could call us in the air if they needed us. That was a total lie but I was anxious to get going. However, every request we made was denied. We all sat in silence and waited. I never told anyone what we were going to do. My plan was to tell them after we were tasked for the mission and to make sure they knew that it wasn’t a request but an order. I was going to say that I didn’t care if they agreed with me or not, but that I couldn’t do this on my own. I needed their help to complete the mission and get that guy to safety. Once we were in Kuwait, I would turn myself in for breaking the rules and I would take the blame. If they were questioned about it further then I would be upset if they did anything other than tell the Commanders that I acted on my own.
Finally, we were called by Command Post informing us that we were no longer needed and we could go direct to Kuwait. Apparently there was another airplane in Baghdad doing the medivac and we were just backing it up. In some ways I was relieved but in others I was disappointed because I was mentally psyched up to do something important. Bobby changed the flight plan in the navigation system and we went home without incident.
Every day, Richie and I would talk about the previous mission at the next meal. I remember sitting down with him at breakfast and we both just ate our food. Neither one of us brought up the incident; he never asked me what I was going to do and I never asked him what he thought we should have done. To this day, I have never discussed it with anyone who was there and I don’t think I ever shared this story with my wife. The only witness to my thoughts that night is God. With him as my witness, I promise that there was no way that I was going to fly a 300 mile circle around Baghdad when the direct route was 35 miles.
As we flew back to Kuwait, we were about five minutes behind the actual medivac flight. We listened to them on the radios as they approached Kuwait City. I thought about calling the other airplane to find out what the injuries were but in the end I decided that it didn’t matter. All that mattered was he was going to a hospital.
Last weekend, I was reading some other sites and found a fellow Iraqi Veteran online. I am enclosing the link. Rob Mitchell is a veteran of Iraq and a police officer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. If you want a real and honest perspective of how someone got PTSD and how they deal with it on a daily level. Then this is the place for you. There are no soft, warm, fuzzy places on Mr. Mitchell’s site so it isn’t for the faint of heart. The most recent story that he wrote was about a roadside IED that claimed the life of his platoon leader and injured several men. His event happened just a few months before the story that I just wrote about. Over the years, I wondered if I had made the right decision to ignore the rules but after reading about his experience, I am convinced that I was making the best decision with the information that I had.
Until next time, keep on rockin.