Here we go again…
I am going to start a new series as I go back in time to recount my personal experiences in the military. For a number of reasons, I have been putting off finishing off this documentation of my time “over there.” For our new friends, I don’t document this time of my life because I am trying to relive past glory or because I want to tell you how cool I was back in the day. These articles serve a different purpose; they are for my kids who are still too young to know or understand who I was before they were born. These articles will be saved for my kids and when/if they choose to read them in ten or twenty years, then they will know. When I started writing several years ago, my wife encouraged me to write down these experiences. I might be slow but I will get around to it. Until then, I hope this provides a glimpse into why I am becoming much more anti-war and pro-peace as time marches on. Also, everything I write is true as I remember it. I reserve the right to be corrected by those who were also there. If they let me know that I say something inaccurate or was misperceived, I will correct it.
There is another reason I need to tell these stories and it is much more personal. I have been thinking about this time period for a while and I need to get it out of my mind so I can move forward. 2005 was a very tough year for me personally and professionally. As I think about it eleven years later, I don’t remember it fondly. I do remember lots of failures, set-backs, guilt and shame. As you read this series, you may have the feeling that this reads more like a purging of emotions rather than recounting of events. That is probably because it is just that.
When we last left off, it was the Spring of 2004. I was selected (without my input) to be deactivated with the intention of being re-activated in early 2005 to finish out my twenty-four-month involuntary activation for the Iraq War. When we got home in April 2004, I came back to a pregnant wife, a house that I had owned for almost four years but had slept in for six months, two dogs that really didn’t know me and a job that I hated. I had spent ten out of fourteen months living in a tent with eleven other guys, I had been married for two years and had missed two anniversaries, two birthdays (hers), two birthdays (mine), two thanksgivings as well as almost every other important life event. The only things I made were Christmas, along with the conception and birth of my daughter.
My daughter was born in June 2004 and I got a phone call from my airline in July 2004 to interview. I started the new job in September 2004 and went through one of the hardest schools in my life when I was a flight engineer on the 727. It was also another two months away from home and then as a junior crew member I got to work through the entire holiday season of 2004. It was tough and my wife made everything work as a not so single, single mother because she is amazing. With the impending activation coming, I went to my Squadron Commander Tony and told him that I was going to put in my papers to quit. He said that if I did then he would activate me immediately and send me over for three rotations consecutively and when I came back, then he would sign my paperwork to get out.
That sounds harsh, but Tony was a great commander and I hope the above story cast him in a negative light because he was getting it from all angles. His guys were burned out, our lives were turning in shambles (including his own) and his Commanders were not supporting him or even putting him in a position to be successful. But Tony was not only smart, but he also cared about everyone and he had taken the time to know where everyone stood in our career arches. Before I walked in the door to surprise him with my desire to quit, he knew that I was eligible for promotion. But Tony didn’t yell, scream or threaten. He just told me what he was going to have to do if I tried to quit. But he told me in the very next breath that if I agreed to not put my papers in then he would promote me to Major. That required a promotion board of several of my higher ranking peers. The standard dress for a promotion board was wearing a dress uniform. I told him that I wasn’t wearing my blues. He said that he didn’t care if I came in naked just as long as I didn’t quit. I went home and talked with Donetta about our choices, as if we had a choice. The board was a formality and we talked about airline life for about ten minutes before I was promoted.
Today, thinking about Tony and Seaborn (the Operations Group Commander) I can’t help but think how great they were and how much garbage they shielded from the guys under their command. Their immediate two bosses had different motivations and goals for the flying squadron than what they had. Sea and Tony were in the fight with us. They deployed with us. They lived with us and they led from the front in prosecuting a real live being shot at war. The other two higher ranking commanders were managers who were intent making sure we did our paperwork, that we looked good in our uniforms and that we didn’t do anything to get them in trouble. I have no doubt that if one of the other guys had still been my Squadron Commander that when I said I was having thoughts of quitting that I would have been activated and sent over for the maximum amount of time and then kicked out. I saw that commander out in public with his family a few months ago and we made eye contact. I walked past him without any acknowledgement. He didn’t try to get my attention either so I guess the feeling is mutual.
So there we were getting geared up for a new rotation. The other Aircraft Commander and I sat down with Tony and Sea to set up the crews. That is another thing I loved about them, they actually listened to our input. I didn’t have any issues with anyone on the rotation nor did DCM, as I remember we both went with what they planned with no changes. Again, I remember this being a very dark time. The guys that we were replacing were finishing their twenty-four-month activation. Most of us were being re-activated and other were on a completely different cycle. One of the problems with the rotation cycle was that the squadron was completely fragmented. It started when the decision was made to split the squadron into two groups in the summer of 2003. Half of the squadron left the war and became known as the “Go-Homes” and I was a part of the “Leftovers.” We stayed another month before getting some time at home. Quickly we were split again and again based on rotation cycles with new guys shuffled into the mix so that a year later, we were no longer a cohesive group. I went for over six months not seeing some really close friends because we were passing each other in the air. It really started to suck and even worse clicks were being created and jealousies were being grown because of perceptions that someone wasn’t pulling their fair share. We were no longer a tight knit machine of interchangeable crews. We were separate, distant with our noses down and emotions raw.
That is exactly how our relationships were with our spouses too. By this time in 2005, a full 1/3 of the squadron was divorced. Many more of us were in marriages that were crumbling and the rest were single with no prospect of finding a long term relationship. Everyone had some type of addiction just to escape the reality of life at constant war. A clinical psychologist would have put us all into rehab or counseling if they had spent any time with us at all. A few guys needed to be committed into a hospital but the machine needed to be fed so off we went again. To make things worse, the flight doctors kept pushing Ambien on us to help us sleep when we were over there and never providing any help while we were home. Into this environment, I got my crew and off we went.
My co-pilot was a new guy I called Shy Dog. He was a brand new co-pilot when he went to war for the first time in Oct 2003 and had been on rotations since then. 70 days on and 50 days at home had left him slightly disillusioned into what the Guard should be. When we hired him, life in the Guard was totally different. It was before 9-11, we were going all over the world seeing the sights and terrorizing the locals. When we left home, he had seen all the wonderful locations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He knew St. John’s in Canada and Shannon, Ireland. His flight time and combat time were almost equal and he had more Air Medals than night spent in different continents. He was always happy except when he wasn’t. He had a well-documented history of being very demonstrative on the flight deck. That meant that when he got upset, he would let a verbal stream of inappropriate language flow from his mouth. I never got offended by it, I thought it was funny but then again I wasn’t right at that time.
When the crews were selected, I was told in no uncertain terms that I could not switch my Flight Engineer for anyone else. Richie L. had decided that I was his pilot and from now on, I was the only guy he would fly into combat with. Of all the honors, medals and other decorations I earned. This was the one thing that made me the proudest. At that time, Richie was not the most senior Flight Engineer but he was closing on ten thousand hours and there was nothing he didn’t know about the airplane. He was there for the first Gulf War, Bosnia, Iraq and now Afghanistan. I always thought he was the best of the best and I loved how he could communicate so much with just a few words. He started out in 2003 with Billy G and then went to Scotty L for a couple of months before he landed with me in August 2003. After a few weeks of flying, he told anyone that would listen that he would only go to war with three pilots. Billy, Scotty or Robbie. I certainly felt much better having my guy with me again for another trip down range.
My senior Load Master was a crusty Vietnam era veteran named Carl David S or just CDS. A craftsman, he could build anything with a pocket knife and pencil. Like Richie, CDS was a man of few words and all work. When he was on the crew, I knew there was nothing to be worried about in the back. His partner was a new guy fresh from school, Patrick M. In other stories, I wrote about the smartest man I have ever known, Paul S. Paul is a real rocket scientist who approaches life from the perspective of a professor. He has the ability to discern fact from fiction and find the truth. Patrick is the second smartest person I have ever met. Unlike Paul, Patrick has the mind of a philosopher and the heart of a thinker. I didn’t know Patrick before this rotation and had maybe flown with him once but I would soon learn that he would be the perfect person for me to be around during this two-month deployment.
Into this cesspool of anger, frustration and weariness came a brand new Navigator. Anita J was a Navigator from the Arkansas Guard. A brand new 1st Lieutenant, Anita was a breath of fresh air. She was seeing everything for the first time and looking forward to the experience. She was assigned to a training Squadron so she spent the majority of her time flying a fifty-mile circle of Little Rock Air Force Base. It was her first trip across the pond and first taste of a deployment. This young, attractive, slender African-American female wasn’t able to tame our bitterness so she leaped into the fire with an uncommon courage and veracity. I met her for the first time, the day before we left. We talked about what we needed from her and what to expect from us. I apologized in advance for having lost the excitement of deploying and that I dreaded going away again. I didn’t hold back from her, I told her about the threats about the crew, how they would defend her from others but would not give her an inch when she made a mistake and how bad it was going to suck. Anita was so cool and clam although I am sure she wasn’t calm on the inside. She said something like “it sounds like fun.” Very cool!
Lots of words here. To be honest there are some great stories from this rotation that live in infamy to this day and some that I don’t really want to share. But, I need to get all this out so. If you choose to stay with me for the next several articles; Thank you.
Until Next time, keep on rockin.