The news that our troops are leaving Iraq comes much later than most of us would have hoped for. It’s been almost nine years since the first courageous soldiers went over the berm at the Kuwait—Iraq border. I’m sure there are many thousands of people, who were involved in those first few tumultuous months of 2003, who are reflecting on vivid memories of a boiling desert sun and long tension filled nights. I, for one, am grateful for the effort and sacrifice of each of those patriots. March 19 marked the opening of the invasion with an air attack on leadership targets and the next night, ground troops crossed the berm, but the operation had begun long before that time.
In January of 2003, my airline posted a request for volunteers to fly military charters, both domestic and international. Being the adventurous type, and suffering through a month of flying all nighters back and forth to Brazil, I thought it sounded like a good idea. On the 27th, crew scheduling called and assigned me a charter. I met my crew that afternoon and we deadheaded to Frankfurt, Germany on the scheduled evening flight. After a 36 hour layover, we met the inbound charter flight from the U.S. the next night. The MD-11 was filled with U.S. Marines, bound for Kuwait. They stretched their legs in the military terminal while we refueled and the flight attendants supervised restocking the galleys. After takeoff, we jogged a little to the east to avoid French airspace (they would not clear military charters to transit) and headed for the Mediterranean. The sun came up as we passed over the Red Sea from Egypt into Saudi Arabia. The airway took us along the Persian Gulf to the airport just south of Kuwait City. The long parallel runways were located just thirty miles from the Iraqi border and the port of Al Faw was visible with the city of Basra beyond. We blocked in after six hours and thirty minutes and the Marines unloaded their baggage and cargo before moving to the sand between the runways to build their tent city. They would be joined by tens of thousands of others before March 19.
In February, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld officially activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet and as civilian volunteers, we were assigned to the Air Force Air Mobility Command. I was initially assigned to the European staging area at Aviano Air Force Base near Venice, Italy. After two weeks with little flying, the plan was changed and we rotated back to Atlanta. In March, I flew CRAF flights from Ft. Hood, Texas, Ft. Riley, Kansas, and Ft. Bragg North Carolina. We stumbled over every radio call until we got used to answering Air Force call signs. The European staging area was moved to Rome, Italy and I happened to be at home when the War officially began. Watching the attack on TV, I somehow felt responsible for all the troops I had transported and prayed for their safety.
My next assignment was a flight from Warner Robbins Air Force Base to Rome. I would remain in Rome for a month and fly the Kuwait shuttle. Chemical suits and mask became a part of our preflight as did a secret security briefing for each flight. The Iraqis were able to lob a few missiles into Kuwait, but our guys stopped that pretty fast. There is legislation pending in the congress now that would provide anti-missile equipment for all CRAF flights in the future, but all we had was a million dollar life insurance policy and the security briefing. The airways we flew were not published and changed everyday. We made tactical approaches into Kuwait at night and used landing lights only after crossing the boundary. It was a different kind of flying, but we never really felt unsafe. Thirty miles to the north of the runway was unsafe and the heros that crossed the berm will always have my deepest respect. Some of our airplanes were converted to med-evac configurations and were soon in great demand. Sadly, watching the KIA being transferred to C-17s for the flight home invoked the realization that we as humans are probably the stupidest creatures roaming the earth and should be able to conduct ourselves more intelligently. I don’t know if anyone conveyed that to Saddam Hussien and I don’t know if the thought has occurred to anyone else after nine years.
It was an honor to be associated with extraordinary men and women for a few months of my flying career. Each of them a volunteer, with a rifle under their seat and a determination to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Watching them step off the airplane and into a war zone, and knowing some of their fathers and grandfathers had fought wars before them, made me wonder if history will continue to repeat its self.
Our country has produced some of the bravest and most courageous men in history and many of them are teenagers who wear desert camo and carry a rifle. They’re coming home and we should shake their hand, provide them with a job, and be grateful that we can enjoy our lives in safety because they did their duty.