In the autumn half-light of an October evening, as the western sky glowed orange from a descending sun, I saw movement in the cedars to my front and excitement filled my entire being. Mere possibility jump-started my heart into overdrive. That’s what we sit for, what we patiently await for hours on end. Some folks say they don’t understand it, don’t get how a grown man can sit in a tree for half a day watching squirrels gnaw acorns out of an oak, watching leaves, blown free by a biting wind, fall and blanket the forest floor in gold. I respond, I’ve never been to Oz, but I’ve seen a yellow brick road.
I’ve found that it can’t be explained. You can’t make people comprehend the pleasure of solitude. That’s like trying to explain why a dog likes the wind in his face. They just do. It’s boring they say. I’ve been cold, been wet, been hot and been eaten up by mosquitoes, but not bored. I’ve never been bored. I’ve been disappointed because the deer, like those in the cedars to my front, went the other way. I’ve been heartbroken because I missed a shot, but not bored. Never bored. I’ve seen things too. I’ve seen owls catch squirrels, coyotes chase turkeys, seen coons steal corn from a farmer’s field, squirrels fight over nuts, and even had a possum crawl up in the tree with me, but I say again, I have not been bored.
More and more I think we go there to escape. At a time when we are virtually connected to everyone all the time, when we can’t get away from the 24-hour news cycle, when people we hardly know are perfectly at ease telling us everything that enters their mind, it’s nice to unplug from it all, feel the wind in our face, escape the shallow waters of social networking for a few hours and dive into the depths of our own thoughts. Heck, we spent a decade wrapping the world in fiber optics so we could “plug in” only to find out that we could go wireless. Now, some of us search for the very few places that we can go to get off the grid, but I admit I’m a hypocrite. We love to hate our addictions I suppose. I’ve sent my fair share of texts to my hunting buddies while on the stand. I’ve even check emails a few times. The truth is the winds of change are blowing more than autumn leaves. Our lives have fundamentally changed, which leaves me sitting in a tree pondering. Is it good, bad, or just different? Embrace change we advise – adapt – but it’s the pace of change that makes it difficult to adjust.
We’re working on a car that will drive itself so we can safely text while driving so I expect we’ll eventually find a way to watch the woods from our living room – visit the virtual outdoors – but it won’t be the same. You have to feel, taste, and smell it to truly gain satisfaction from it. Some things just have to be experienced. Oh well, I’ve rambled on enough for a day. I need to cammo up and escape to the woods…but first let me post this note.
I’ve scratched a million experiences into journals over the years. Some of those memories lie dormant, pressed between pages in black and white, until I visit the paper I saved them on. Others never fade. They remain vivid, in color, like I lived them just yesterday.
In the blazing heat of a 2003, Iraqi summer, we flew south to Al Asad Airfield. The wind sweeping through the doorless cockpit was a welcomed relief; otherwise, I would have drowned myself in the sweat of my own stress. Steve Schiller, our squadron commander, demanded that we fly in tight formations, even when we flew long cross country flights. He knew we could fly lazy and loose, any pilot could do that, but it took hard work and precision to fly in a tight formation with a single rotor disk separating each aircraft in flight. His own competency and high standards were infectious in 2nd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment.
I flew with Chief Warrant Officer 4 Bob Keiffer. A tall, lean, Ohioan, who always had a smile on his face and a kind word to say, Bob was a wonderful man who, while fierce on the athletic field, was a gentle and generous man – one I deeply respected. I never heard anyone speak ill of Bob Keiffer. On that hot August morning, he and I were in the middle of a large multi-ship formation of Kiowa Warrior helicopters and I was on the controls. I bit my lip and tensed every muscle in my body as I struggled to keep the helicopter perfectly in position so as not to invite the wrath of the other pilots in the flight. We were painfully critical of each other, which inspired exacting perfection.
Several times during the two-hour flight, riding the desert winds like a rollercoaster south, I slipped slightly out of position. Bob never said a word despite the fact that other pilots were apt to transmit their disapproval over the radio at the slightest of errors in the formation. Every now and then I felt a gentle nudge on the cyclic and collective to help me regain my position, but never a word of disapproval. Bob, having flown thousands of hours as a standardization instructor pilot, could have taken the controls and held us in position without error, but he let me work and learn throughout the flight.
When we arrived at Al Asad we gathered to critique our flight, as we always did. “Good units will pick a scab until it bleeds,” an old sergeant once told me, and I suspected I’d bleed a little that day. If brutally honest critiques define good units then we were superb. We were painfully critical of everything that occurred from mission planning through execution because we strove for perfection. No one wanted to be identified as the weak link.
“Chalk 3 was out of formation several times,” one of the young warrant officers offered without identifying the pilots by name. “They slipped back to two rotor disks or more three or four times,” he added.
I cringed and waited for the others to pile on with criticism of my failure to maintain perfection. I knew they were right and I had to tighten it up, but I dreaded the scars the public critique would leave on my pride.
“Did we?” Bob asked, acknowledging that we were Chalk 3 and questioning as if he was not aware that we had failed to maintain our position. “Well, I’m sure that’s when I was on the controls,” he added. “Won’t happen again.”
The subject changed and I, my mouth slightly agape, was saved from public embarrassment. Bob, being the senior warrant officer in the flight had ended the discussion by noting that it must have been his mistake when we both knew it was entirely my inadequacy that had sparked their criticism. He smiled and the conversation was never raised again. Bob spared me that day and I was grateful for it, but I was not the only one to be spared on that trip.
We had flown to Al Asad Airfield because we were going to go after a terrorist group with training camps in Southwest Iraq. The men operating in those camps were believed to be tied to the Canal Hotel bombing, which had occurred on August 19, 2003. Twenty-two people were killed and over 100 wounded in the attack, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN Special Representative. We had flown to Al Asad on August 26th, and after a couple of days of planning and rehearsals we were set to go. We were going to search for their caches of weapons and training facilities, but more importantly, thanks to some very good intelligence, we knew where the lead weapons facilitators lived. It was a large house way out in the middle of the desert.
The plan was to initiate the attack by dropping a bomb on the house. Our teams would observe the bomb impacting the target and then we would insert Pathfinders (highly trained infantrymen) by helicopter to conduct sensitive site exploitation and see which of the terrorist we had killed. We divided the expansive training area into large sections. A Scout Weapons Team (SWT) was assigned to each section. Our task was to conduct a thorough reconnaissance of the entire area in order to locate weapons caches and anything else that might be of value.
After detailed planning and meticulous rehearsing we were set to go. The night prior to the mission I lay on a cot inside an old Iraqi hanger thinking about the mission. I went over all the details in my mind. I inventoried all of my equipment to ensure that I had not missed anything. Finally, satisfied that I was ready for the mission, my thoughts turned to the people we planned to kill. Sadly, we knew that there were women and children in the house we were going to bomb. I struggled with that idea. Those people were already dead. Their fate had been decided and they didn’t even know it. We had determined that they must die – victims of circumstance. The actions of the men would decide the fate of their family. As I struggled for sleep I pictured an Iraqi woman lining children up on a mattress, tucking them in for a night’s sleep from which they would not wake.
We rose at 3:00 a.m., checked the weather, and headed out to the aircraft. Bob and I had conducted a preflight the night prior. We took one final look at the helicopter and buckled into our seats. Then, in the dark silence of the desert morning, Bob looked over at me and asked if I cared to pray with him? I, who had already been praying silently in my own head, gladly agreed. Bob offered a beautiful prayer for the people that were about to die and their families. It was a moving moment for me personally and confirmed in my mind what a special man Bob Keiffer really was.
We hovered out to a taxiway, lined up in formation, and departed for the objective. We flew across the desert in silence, but for the necessary radio calls. Our brigade commander monitored our progress from a UH-60 helicopter and Major General David Petraeus, our division commander, tracked the battle from a command and control UH-60. About half way to the objective the Air Force jets checked in on the radio. They carried the fateful bombs beneath their wings. Everything was progressing as planned.
Then Steve Schiller transmitted over the command net radio, “The bombs are a no-go. We’re going to go in with the Pathfinders, but no bomb.”
LTG Ricardo Sanchez had decided not to initiate the attack by dropping the bomb. Instead, our Pathfinders would land adjacent to the house and go in on the ground. I was relieved and concerned all at the same time. No bomb meant that our Pathfinders would be assuming much more risk at the objective.
At the release point we separated from the other SWTs. Bob and I, with our team, headed to our assigned zone and awaited the code word to begin reconnaissance. At first light we monitored the radio calls as the Pathfinders went in on the ground. They assaulted the house and soon thereafter they reported, “Dry hole!” None of the men we were looking for were present in the house…only women and children. They were spared and that merited another prayer. Thank you.
We soon began to find cache after cache of weapons. We found stacks of Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs), heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles, and mortars. Our search continued throughout the morning. We located the caches, took photos, and then shot them with rockets and .50 caliber machine guns in order to blow them up. When we needed fuel we flew to the Forward Area Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) we had established in the desert.
Around noon Bob and I saw two men sitting on a small hill. It was the only humans we’d seen all day. The caches were hidden in the crevasses of large wadi systems. There were no houses or farms nearby. We were literally in the middle of nowhere. Nothing existed but desert as far as the eye could see in every direction. Yet here were two men sitting on a small hill.
We moved in to take a closer look. They were sitting on a ground cloth and about twenty-five meters away from them was a large blanket spread out on the ground. The scene did not look right. We made several passes, making sure to keep our weapons on them at all times, yet getting closer and closer with each pass to try and see what they were doing out in the middle of the desert. Our lead Kiowa flew right over the blanket as Bob and I keep a gun on them. When lead broke right the wind from the rotor blew up the edge of the blanket and we could see weapons stashed under it. I called Schiller and reported what we saw. “What do you want us to do?” I asked.
The Brigade Commander called Gen. Petraeus and asked what he wanted us to do. He asked if the Pathfinders could go get them, but they had loaded their helicopters full of detainees on the main objective and things they had taken from the house. The lift helicopters were full so we had nowhere to put them. Bob looked over at me and said, “They are going to tell us to kill them.”
With that thought in my mind I focused on the two men. They were just sitting there watching us. I knew they were the enemy and might attack us later if we let them live. I was prepared to shoot them, but I didn’t want to do it this way. I wanted them to do something. I wished they would raise a weapon, try and fight, do something. We had been flying a pattern, which took us straight at them each time and as time passed they relaxed more. I suppose they thought that if we were going to kill them we would have already done it. It would catch them by total surprise when we came back around and this time squeezed a blast of .50 caliber into them.
Schiller called on the radio. “Can you shoot the stash they have?” he asked.
“Sure,” I replied.
“Then blow it up and return to the FARP,” he ordered.
They were spared, yet they had no idea how close to death they came. On the next pass we shot the store of weapons. The men exploded up to their feet and began begging us not to shoot them. They turned their palms up as if to say they were innocent as they flinched from secondary explosions in the cache. They were not innocent, in fact nothing could have been further from the truth, so secretly I hoped that they would try and defend themselves. It was a strange emotion, one that would revisit me numerous times in the decade to follow.
Bob and I flew back to Al Asad in silence, shaped by our experience, both recognizing that many people were spared that day, some perhaps deserving, others most certainly not.
Back during the early years, back when they were supposed to welcome us in, embrace democracy, and open their doors to McDonalds and Wal-Mart, aviators made a difference in the lives of people living along the Tigris River in so many interesting ways. This is a story of one such event.
One hot summer night in 2003, we finished up a reconnaissance and security mission in Mosul. Tim Slifko and I flew lead and our wingman was our Squadron Commander (SCO) Steve Schiller. Flying with the SCO was Lieutenant Ian Anderson. We landed at Mosul Airfield to get gas after which we planned to return to Qayyarah West Airfield where we were based. We relaxed in the cockpit while the refuelers filled the aircraft up with fuel. I sat wondering how different Nineveh might have been when Jonah was there. At that time we were having difficulty with an ole’ boy that liked shooting mortars at the airfield, and while Jonah did receive a nasty reception, one that eventually got him swallowed whole by a whale, I was certain they didn’t shoot mortars at him.
After we topped off with gas, we departed to the north then turned back south along the Tigris River. Just as we passed midfield I saw two guys, adjacent to the airfield, dive into a ditch. They were clearly trying to hide from us. I pointed them out to Tim and told Steve and Ian that we needed to come back around and take a closer look. Sure enough there were two men laying flat on their bellies trying to avoid detection. As Tim and I looked around we noticed that there were some bags in the ditch with them. That’s it! These were the guys hiding mortar rounds so they could attack us later. We had them dead to rights.
I told the SCO what Tim and I thought we had happened upon. He concurred with our assessment so we decided to look around some more to see if we could find some more evidence. While we searched we also called the Division Rear Security Force, which consisted of a fifteen to twenty-man patrol from a coalition partner nation, which I will not name. They had one American sergeant assigned to them to assist with radio calls and to gap the English barrier. We got him on the radio and told him to come out and get these guys. He agreed to do so, so while he prepared the reaction force, we continued our reconnaissance.
We flew down the trail the two men were walking on and found nothing until we reached the river. Sure enough, hidden under some willow trees, at the river’s edge, was a small flat bottom boat and more bags. This further confirmed our certainty of their guilt.
While we searched around the edge of the river Tim saw the two men get up and begin to walk away. Since it was pitch black dark they could not be certain that we saw them, but of course we could see them perfectly well. We circled back around quickly and flipped our white light (search light) on them. They immediately dove back into the ditch and lay flat on the ground.
Finally, the sergeant with the reaction force called us on the radio. He was on his way with the cavalry. We saw them as they exited the airfield perimeter gate so we flew over and linked up with them. We told them to simply follow us. We’d fly over the old dirt road that led to the location of the two men. We’d have them there in a matter of minutes.
Meanwhile the SCO and Ian kept a watch on the two evildoers. The sergeant agreed so we began slowly hovering down the road. After about 500 meters they stopped and got out of their trucks. This made no sense. They were still over a kilometer from the two men. But, they got out and lined up in a single file, then Tim and I watched in amazement as they went to port arms and began high stepping down the road. Now when I say “high stepping” I mean they were jogging, but their knees were coming up waist high, ninety degrees to the ground. The American sergeant jogged along at the back of their file to keep up with them. I called him on the radio.
“X-ray one-nine, this is Saber 3, over.”
Already out of breath, he respond, “This is X-ray one-nine, over.”
“You’re over a click (one kilometer) from these two guys. Get back in your trucks and we can lead you to them. They are flat on their bellies. You can drive right to them, over,” I told him.
“Roger, sir I’m trying to stop these guys now.”
Well, we watched as he ran up and down the line trying to get them to understand that this could be a much easier task if they would listen and just follow his instructions. They high stepped on down the road a bit then finally decided to stop. Some of them bent over at the waist, hands on their knees, most certainly, already, painfully, uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, the two evildoers tried to get up and run several times but the SCO would put the light on them and they’d dive for cover until finally they decided that they just had to run for it. That’s when the SCO told Ian to fire warning shots into the ground in front of them with his M4 rifle. Ian, already at the ready, fired into the path in front of the men and this time they hit the ground and tried to sink into the earth. They were fixed and they knew it.
Finally, the sergeant got our coalition partners back in their trucks and they began to slowly follow us down the road again. After about 500-600 more meters they stopped and got back out. Again, I called the sergeant.
“X-ray one-nine, just keep following us, over,” I urged.
“Saber 3, this is X-ray one-nine. I am trying to get them to keep following, but they are having none of it. They think they need to dismount, over.”
“Okay, have it your way,” I replied.
So they got back out and once again formed up in a file, came to port arms, and began high stepping down the road. Every now and then we lit up the road in front of them to keep them going in the right direction, but soon their formation began to stretch out. They were having a rough go of it and they still had a ways to travel. Over the next thirty minutes we watch them in complete exhaustion slowly make their way to our suspects.
The American sergeant was at the front when they made it to the evildoers, but he too was having difficulty talking on the radio by this point.
“Say…Saber 3……X…Ray here. Where are they?” he asked between deep gasps for air.
Tim used a laser pointer to point them out. They put flashlights on the ditch and saw the two men lying on their bellies. Suddenly, our coalition partners took off in a sprint indicative of renewed energy. They pounced on the two men, put them face down in the road and flex cuffed them immediately. I thought for a minute that our friends might give the evildoers a little roughing up just for causing their exhaustion, but they maintained their professionalism. I did see several of them take out a cigarette and light up, but otherwise they just sat down in the road for a well deserved rest.
I told the sergeant that they had bags with them and we suspected they were mortar rounds. Once again out of breath he said, “Laze the bags with your pointer and I’ll get them.”
Tim lazed the bags. He ran over and tore them open. Then, completely out of breath and exhausted he keyed the mic and in a disappointed voice said, “P-O-T-A-T-O-E-S!”
Without missing a beat, I keyed the mic and came right back with, “Tater Rustlers!”
And so it was, in those days that Kiowa pilots were known to help the local populace, yes even the farmers, in ways that not even they could imagine. As it turned out they confessed of their crimes. They had floated down the Tigris River and were stealing bags full of potatoes to later sell in the market. That night was forever known as the night of the tater rustlers.
When I was just a little boy, no more than twelve-years-old, my grandfather would pull over on the side of a country road in Gordon County and say, “Okay, Jimbo get over here and drive us home.”
Excitedly, I’d slide across the seat and take my place behind the wheel. I had actually started driving years earlier, sitting in his lap, steering the old white Ford while he manipulated the gas and brake, but once I could sit on the edge of the seat, see over the dash, and reach the pedals with my toes I was on my own.
I’d check my side mirror and then slowly pull out into the road and head towards home. Initially, I’d get the truck centered in my lane and then hold the steering wheel as still as possible, but inevitably there were curves and hills, uneven lanes, and even ruts in the road all of which forced me to input corrections with the steering wheel. At first I’d turn the steering wheel too much. I overcorrected, but Pa came to my rescue. “You’re turning too much,” he’d say, “Just put a little in and take it out, a little in and take it out.” I soon learned that I didn’t ever truly hold the steering wheel still. I was always ever so slightly moving it back and forth. I also found that the sooner I saw the need for correction the better off I was – early detection and anticipation were key to keeping me in my lane.
Later in life, while attending flight school I learned this principle again. During the instrument phase of training I was taught to fly an imaginary line between two navigational beacons. If we were in the clouds we had no visual references, only our instruments. Inevitably, turbulence was encountered and strong wings blew us off our intended course. The slower I reacted to the winds the further off course I was blown and thus a more drastic course correction was required. In time I learned to recognize the winds quickly and to never let them blow me far off course. We were taught to constantly scan our instruments and make small corrections as we drifted off course.
The other key to success was to trust the instruments. A pilot’s body and mind can play tricks on him when he can’t see mother earth. We had to place our faith in what we were seeing on the instrument panel.
And so it is with our lives. Life is filled with hills and curves, dips and ruts, winds and turbulence. The sooner we identify them the easier it is to correct our course. Constant monitoring and tiny course corrections are the key to remaining on the path. Once we’re in the ditch the situation usually calls for a wrecker.
There are so many things trying to blow us off course today. Life is filled with seemingly insurmountable challenges, yet we must maintain hope and faith. We must strive daily to remain on course. Taking inventory of our lives and making small but necessary course corrections will keep us on the road we desire to travel. Hope you had a great weekend recharging your physical and spiritual batteries. May your week be a happy one.