Hi SOFREP readers, here’s a guest post by a friend of mine in the Air Force (he’s staying anonymous…just because). He’s a good guy with a great story. - Brandon
There I was… at the Sacramento International Airport, dressed in my Air Force issue desert cammies, complete with new Corcoran boots waving goodbye to my Dad, Stepmom, Supervisor, First Sergeant and last but not least, my Commander.
It was tradition at our squadron for the boss to say goodbye to every member of the squadron who deployed. A few days prior I had said goodbye to my Wife and kids, who were staying in Florida with family. We figured it would be good for the kids to hang with Grandma and the rest of the in-laws during my 6 month deployment in the war against terrorism.
The last time I boarded a plane to the Middle East was in 1993 as a Senior Airman, to fly missions aboard the venerable RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft in support of Operation Southern Watch, making sure Saddam Hussein and his Air Force didn’t violate the no-fly zone South of the 32nd parallel. This time, thirteen years later, as a First Lieutenant, I was headed across the pond as one of the first Air Force Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Liaisons (ISRLO) to set foot in Afghanistan.
During Operation Enduring Freedom, it became very evident that even though there were plenty of capable airborne ISR assets to provide intelligence support to the ground units, very few people knew what the different aircraft could do for them with regard to intel products or how they could actually task them.
The Air Force figured they could send Officers with a solid ISR background out to help fix the problem. My mission was to educate everyone I could about the various ISR assets that were available and make sure that they knew how to submit the proper paperwork through the endless maze of intel shops, Collection Managers, ISAF headquarters and finally the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC).
This seemingly simple task was made difficult by the fact that this war was fought by the ISAF coalition. For this war, I would be under the command of a Dutch General working with everyone from regular Army to Polish SOF. Things haven’t changed much over the years, and the understanding of ISR is still a problem we deal with on a daily basis over in OEF. Rapid development and high tech sensors have brought a plethora of crazy intel pieces to the fight. The menu of choices was and still is overwhelming.
Up about 30,000 feet or so, on our way to Baltimore, I was relaxing and reading the book Jawbreaker, by Gary Bernsten, which is mandatory reading for anyone going over to Afghanistan.
Suddenly, the lady behind me starts freaking out. Her husband, a gentleman who appeared to be about 55 years old, looked really bad. He was turning a nasty shade of grey and appeared to be having trouble breathing. A flight attendant came over and took a look. She then hurried to the intercom and asked, “Is there a doctor on board? We have a medical emergency….. if you are a doctor, please ring your attendant call button.”
Thankfully, two doctors came running up the center aisle. The next thing I knew, they had pulled the man out of his seat and placed him on the floor. They asked me to hold his feet up, so I took off my BDU top and got on the floor to hold the man’s feet. Everyone on the plane was staring in disbelief. The stewardess appeared with a medical kit and one of the doctors started fumbling through it looking for something.
One of the doctors looked up at the stewardess and said, “look, I’m a cardiologist….this guy is in bad shape, he has no pulse, there is no pulse at all!” He then asked his partner to find some adrenaline in the medical kit or something that they could inject to get the man’s blood pressure up. At that point, I started praying. To be honest, it was for selfish reasons.
Here we were halfway across the United States, and I was on my way to war. I did NOT want the pilots to make an emergency landing somewhere. There was no way that could happen…. I’d miss my charter flight from Baltimore to Qatar. My prayer went something like this…”Look Lord, you better bring this guy back to life, and please do it fast. I’m all dressed up and on my way to Afghanistan, and it’s really gonna suck if I have to do this trip all over again, so please take care of this dude.”
While I was having my conversation with God, the doctors were very confused, and they couldn’t figure out what was going on. The guy was barely breathing, not responsive and had such a shallow pulse that they could not even measure it with a stethoscope.
They were just about to start CPR when suddenly; the dead man opened his eyes. He started breathing and sat up. The passengers erupted in applause. I couldn’t believe it… I had seen a miracle! The guy was back to 100 percent. He was up and around like nothing had happened! Nothing was going to stop me now.
I was on my way to Afghanistan. We continued our flight to Baltimore without incident.
The rest of the flight was fairly uneventful. Once in Baltimore, I found my way to the USO and dropped off my gear. I had quite a bit to lug around, or so I thought. I had two A3 bags, my weapon (M-9 Beretta) and a backpack. While storing my stuff, I saw some dude in civilian clothes, a beard and a baseball cap storing multiple pelican cases (obviously packed with weapons) and multiple A3 bags.
I figured he must be special ops or something way cooler than me. He looked young ..barely twenty-one or so. I grabbed a free Styrofoam cup of coffee at the USO desk and accidentally spilled it on the counter. The brown liquid ran lazily down the length of the counter. The old WW-II vet who was running the place looked at me like I was a complete idiot. Typical Lieutenant maneuver I thought… this old fellow probably stormed the Normandy beaches and lost 50 buddies and here I was in my brand new desert gear headed off to a comfy base with Burger King and caramel latte’s. Funny how things change.
Once on the “rotator” bird, which essentially was a contract 747 full of military guys, I was happy to be on the way to my destination. I ended up sitting next to the bearded kid with the ball cap. He was in fact an Air Force TACP – Special Tactics.
I gave him my copy of Jawbreaker and wished him luck. I felt like such a nerd. This kid was a highly trained young man, who was skilled in the art of “bringing the rain,” calling in fire from F-15′s, B-1′s, A-10′s, the whole nine yards. He would be running around the hills of Afghanistan, coming face to face with the Taliban.
What a hero.
I was just an Intel guy who would never step foot out of Kandahar. I was humbled and a bit embarrassed. After I quit feeling sorry for myself, I tried to think about my family and that I was too old to play JTAC. I remembered some of the amazing things I had done in my life, the people I had met, the places I visited and started to think about how I could make a difference once I arrived at Kandahar. He had his job and I had mine. Both were important.
We were two guys on the same team, one the wide receiver and the other the towel boy. Well, maybe the defensive coordinator.
I have to give myself some credit, right?
I had to stop at Qatar to visit the CAOC in order to be briefed by the leadership prior to pushing to my final destination. One of the last things the Colonel said to me before I left was, “don’t go native on us.” Which meant, follow the CAOC’s rules and don’t get so involved in the fight that I didn’t follow procedure.
The procedures that he was referring to were written for a different war, with a different enemy in a different place. I would learn very soon that some of the procedures in place were straight out of Desert Storm.
They were written to fight a conventional war against a conventional enemy. 72 hour planning – all the stuff the O-6′s discuss at Air Command and Staff school. Looks good on paper, but in reality it is much more complicated and often doesn’t work out as planned… at least for this war.
The CAOC owned all of the strategic assets, the fighters, refueling aircraft, ISR platforms, pretty much all the fixed-wing air-breathing stuff. CAOC controlled the air war from a million miles away. The CAOC would soon become my nemesis, but that was a months away.
In the meantime, I enjoyed hanging out at the sprawling base, drinking my ration of 2 beers a day. As I hung out at the “bra,” a sprawling outdoor common area with a large fabric shade in the shape of a bra keeping us out of the sun, I thought that it appeared to be almost like a summer camp. People were walking around in shorts and t-shirts (PT gear), drinking, having fun, taking a dip in the pool. It was surreal.
The best part was that they received combat pay for their assignment to that location.
After hanging out for a bit and receiving a ton of briefings from the CAOC team, I headed over to the passenger (PAX) terminal to figure out how to get on a plane to Afghanistan. Three young Airmen greeted me at the PAX counter.
“First flight to Kandahar please” I said. “Well Sir, there is nothing scheduled until tomorrow at 0500hrs, but you are welcome to hang out and see if something pops up.”
It was about 2130hrs and the PAX terminal was all the way across base from the place where I could sleep, plus I had my bags with me and I didn’t feel like doing the bag drag back and forth, especially with a 0500hrs show time tomorrow. I figured I’d hang out in the terminal.
I passed out on an uncomfortable metal chair for a few hours.
At 0500hrs the next morning I strolled up to see my friends at the counter. “Good morning guys!” I said to the Airmen. They didn’t even look up from their computer monitors. I said “Hey, what’s up for the 0500 to Kandahar?” The 19 year old skinny kid said without looking up from his computer “That was canx’ed Sir.” I responded, “Cancelled? Really? I was here all night! Did you announce it?” He replied, “we don’t announce the cancellations, Sir, just the roll calls.”
I couldn’t believe it. I “slept” on a cold metal chair all night and my flight was cancelled. I was sleepy, grumpy and confused. How on earth can we not have daily flights?
I have orders! I need to get to the fight!
This time, I walked up to the counter and asked the kid on the left as opposed to the skinny kid in the middle. “Hi Airman Smith, what you got to Kandahar today?” I knew the drill, he wouldn’t even look at me…”Sir, we don’t have anything to Kandahar.” (…staring at his screen…)
Thankfully, I knew a few tricks to this game. I’d flown Space-A from Okinawa back to the U.S. back in the 90′s and I knew that sometimes you had to take a funky route to get where you wanted to go as opposed to flying direct. So, I tried again..
“Hey bud, what you got going to Afghanistan today?” “Well Sir,” he said “we just had a flight to Bagram a few hours ago, but you missed it. You must have been at breakfast.” He was right. I was at breakfast, and missed a C-17 with 50 seats available. “We have one at 19:30 tonight, and you are number 19 on the list.”
A glimmer of hope.
I was fairly exhausted and frustrated at this point, but I could make it to 1930hrs. I remembered before I left my squadron in California, a Captain friend of mine (the first ISRLO) had said, “Dude, once you get over there, its planes, trains, and automobiles…it’s a total mess. Just stay in the PAX terminal and hope something pops. Don’t ever leave the terminal and don’t believe the guys at the counter.”
I heeded my friend’s advice. I actually ran into that guy a few years later in Iraq. He was flying a secret squirrel “green door” program and I was in Iraq as a contractor. He saw me in the dining facility and waved me down. It’s a small world sometimes.
Yep, of course, the 1930hrs bird was cancelled. I’d been in that terminal over 48 hours. I was losing my mind. I started to learn that this was pretty much the standard for military air travel overseas. This part of the business hasn’t changed since 2002. Just get in line and wait.
Pay is the same, read a book and talk to someone. It’s a right of passage. While at the PAX terminal I met a guy in civilian clothes. He was a contractor for the General Atomics company. Turns out he was a mechanic and was headed to Balad, Iraq. He told me that he enjoyed his job, the money was good and the company took good care of him. He was going out for five months.
I had no idea that there were civilian mechanics that worked on the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s). I had seen a 60 minutes episode about truck drivers working in Iraq to make a quick buck, but I never really thought about contractors providing other functions.
I would soon learn that contractors were an integral part of the mission and were very common on every base providing support roles in any function one could imagine.
I also ran into a couple of young Airmen, dressed in Army uniforms without patches. They didn’t really want to talk to me, but I pressed the issue. I squeezed out of them that they were linguists. I didn’t ask what language. They were acting all secretive toward me, like they had something to hide, or they just thought they were way too high speed for me, which was fine. I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable.
They looked pretty cool with their non-issue uniforms and relaxed grooming standards, longish hair and stubble on their faces. I laughed to myself, as they had no idea that I was actually a linguist back in the day. I was attending the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, CA while they were still in grade school. You guys ever hear of the Cold War? Hilarious.
The next morning I found myself on a C-17 to Bagram Air Base. It was empty, with the exception of us five passengers. I racked out on the cold metal floor and thought about my wife and kids. Unbelievable – I was headed to Afghanistan. It was at that moment that it really sank in. This wasn’t a joke, a dream or just something that other people do. I was actually doing it. I was going. I’d be there in a few hours and I had no idea what to expect or what adventures were in store for me.
Parts 3 & 4 Coming Next week