Monday, November 28, 2011

The Trim and Nasty Show

I’ve been told that this is as good as it gets. Department Heads, Commanding Officers, even Carrier Strike Group Admirals. There is something about your junior officer tour with a fighter squadron that never leaves your memory. I’m not sure if this is true, as only time will tell, but these last three years have been a crazy ride.

As I leave, a friend of mine asked that I write a few paragraphs with some of the high points. Since I’ve been contemplating it anyways, it couldn’t hurt to try. The problem is, I don’t really know how to put this stuff into words. Or at least in terms that conveys a culture completely alien to anything else in our society.

This isn’t for lack of stories. Coming back from my last mission aboard the USS Nimitz to a hellacious thunderstorm, having to tank other aircraft until my fuel was below what I’d normally land on the carrier with, then filling my own plane up (with electrical discharges going off between the refueling probe and tanking drogue) amidst lightning and a rapidly closing wall of clouds was memorable. So is getting shot off Cat III with a 59k, Asym 3 kick in the pants, accelerating to over 180 mph in less than 2 seconds twice a week for four months. And dropping ordnance on a hilltop of insurgents attacking a special forces outfit in the Hindu Kush. Or landing at night in fog so thick you couldn’t see the already absurdly small flight deck until two seconds before touchdown. Let’s also note any of the 4am nights (mornings?) in Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, Malaysia or Tokyo.

Yet somehow, that’s just the job. The fleeting moments of sheer adrenaline surrounded by endless boredom. As I’ve come to reflect on these past three years, it’s the people that have stood out. And among them, the leaders. Because it’s these guys that we sit around talking about, sober or otherwise, late into the night, no matter where we find ourselves. Not the flying.

First, the senior leadership. There were plenty of poor showings – Captains and others that drove us up the wall, vowing never to follow their example if we ever were in their shoes. That will happen. But to get there, you need to have had those you aspire to be.

We in the Black Ace Junior Officer Protection Agency (JOPA) called it the “Trim and Nasty Show.” Trim was the first Air Group Commander (CAG) I experienced as a new guy. Nasty was the Captain of the USS Nimitz. Both were straight out of the 1980s – bushy mustaches, boisterous and awe-inspiring charisma, god-like aviators, big Ray-Band Aviators. Top Gun legends – Trim commanding the place and Nasty doing the live fire missile scenes for the Hollywood movie. You couldn’t help but follow either of those two into the bowels of Hell itself.

The thing that most impressed me about Nasty was that he knew my first name, even as a new check-in, and said it every time we passed in the hallway. Not Prof, or Son, but Ben. The commander of over 5,000 people, not including the Air Wing I was a member of, knew my name. It sounds absurd, but it made my day.

Now, he probably knew it because when I first arrived off the coast of Japan, I struggled quite a bit behind the boat. On those nights, you’d hear the voice of God over the tower frequency, in a fatherly, deep tone:

“102, Old Salt.” (Old Salt being the callsign used by whoever commands the Nimitz)

Gulp. (meekly): “yes, sir…”

“102, you’re gonna have to do better than that behind My ship, son. Fly the ball all the way to touch down, and don’t catch the One Wire.”

Dejectedly: “yes, sir…”

This conversation was something everyone in the Air Wing could hear.

But my proudest moment in these entire three years came from that same voice, and shortly after those dark days.

“110, Old Salt.”

What’d I do? That was a good landing!

“yes, sir…”

“110, Well done. That’s how we fly in the Navy.”

Stunned silence.

From the back seat: “Prof, say something!”

Me, now for the first time knowing how a giddy school girl feels: “Thanks, sir!”

Now that I think about it, he was the only Carrier Captain to talk to us on the radio. It was infrequent, but it was always appropriate and worthwhile. He cared.

He would also steer the ship around when airborne in the tanker. (He would only fly with our squadron, hearkening back to his F-14 days, and only tankers, presumably so he could do endless flybys). It probably drove the SWO’s driving the ship nuts. We thought it was hilarious. And he’d do the sickest flybys of the ship you’d ever see. Flybys we would’ve gotten thrown off the flight schedule indefinitely for doing. There is very little I wouldn’t do to work for him again.

Trim was a different story. You could hear him coming from a mile away. Piercing eyes staring you down. Even the biggest jocks in the air wing were intimidated by him. Statements laced with profanity so creative and frequent, it was almost poetically mesmerizing. Constantly smoking a cigarette – even inside the ready room. And he hated Nuggets (first cruise aviators) – I know because he told us whenever he saw us. Now, we couldn’t tell if this was because he was secretly jealous as we had an entire life of flying to live, or if he genuinely hated us, but I was sure he could crush me with merely his glare.

Yet, I loved the guy. His speech to the one hundred plus aviators during my first time in Fallon, NV was something to behold. No notes, just pure stage presence. Here was a warrior marshalling and inspiring his assembled aviators for four weeks of intense and breathtaking flying. It sent shivers down my spine hearing him talk of lost friends and aerial feats of daring. And who could ever forget seeing him, alone and unafraid, go to the merge with three groups (groups!) of adversaries meeting him head on. “THE ENEMY IS AFRAID OF OUR POINTY END, GENTLEMEN, NOT OUR TAILS.” Perhaps overly brash, but the way he said it, you wanted to be there next to him to find out.

Trim was the aviator we all wanted to grow up to be when we were little kids. To the wardroom full of SWO’s eating lunch, just after landing to begin a month long period at sea: “WELL, YOUR REASON FOR EXISTING HAS JUST ARRIVED.” Only he could get away with such arrogance. He’s retiring soon, and in this new Navy, probably not a moment too soon for the admirals. Every person who knew him thinks it’s a crying shame.

One of my mentors, and a department head when I was first on board, said I would never see anything like that pair again in my entire career – he had been in over 20 years to that point and hadn’t either. Thus far he’s been right.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Liberty's Spark

It’s sobering to realize that every year of your service someone in your community has died before their time. A crash in the landing pattern, a mishap during an airshow, a helo down in fog, a man sacrificing his own life to save his crew, the sickening report of a jet and her crew destroyed in a place you called home for four years.

And in the reflection, you realize that you had many a close scrape as well. The too-fast rendezvous through clouds in flight school, the screaming power call from the LSO as your plane crossed the carrier deck in stifling darkness, the discharge of static electricity between probe and basket with aviation fuel passing between them in the midst of a thunderstorm. Then again, the government does pay us $206 a month extra to fly. So we have that going for us.

This is an inherently dangerous profession. I don’t think anybody signs up not knowing that. In the first week of ground school, the instructors show video after video of airplane crashes. In one, a C-2 launches off a carrier, pitches severely nose up, stalls and plummets backwards into the sea. A strap was incorrectly secured, causing a rapid change in the center of gravity during the acceleration of a catapult launch. In another, a helo gets tangled in the nets around the landing area on the back of a destroyer, tipping over violently, sending rotor parts shooting in every direction.

Some people quit then and there, but most seem to take perverse pleasure in what they are about to undertake. Danger – the allure of young men (and increasingly women) throughout the ages.

Yet, there has to be something else driving volunteers from across the country, from every conceivable background and ethnic group, to sign up for something like aviation in particular, and the military in general. Someplace, somewhere, they were inspired. Inspired to such a degree that they put everything else aside, the rest of their life on hold, to venture forth into the unknown.

For some it is the faded picture of an unrecognizably young grandfather as he trundles off to war in the 1940s. For others, they just felt a compulsion to serve. Many merely need the money and discipline. Most could probably cite a combination of all three.

Inspiration is one of those things our society pays lip service to, but doesn’t always understand the true depth of. It doesn’t fully grasp the commitment required to see that spark of understanding through to a fulfilling conclusion. Initial conditions are important, but hardly sufficient for long term success. It takes something more, something greater than one’s self to bring true understanding to this process.

There is a place in the far southwestern corner of the United States that holds this depth in full focus. Here, you overlook a vista of magnificent glory; the shimmering Pacific below the cliffs to your right, a harbor full of sailboats to your left. Great men and women, heroes, surround you. Marble stones are lined up row upon endless row, some brothers long departed, others too recently. Old Glory whips in the brisk wind while you gaze out at the sinking orange sun, wondering.

Wondering who these people were. What that space between the two engraved dates really meant. Love, pain, tragedy, joy. But of course, you cannot know.

Inscribed are their travels – Rear Admirals in Korea mixed among Bos’ns mates from the Great War. A corporal here, a Colonel there. Many aged, long widowed wives buried beside. And the less faded stones with sharp black letters precisely carved – these men are much less aged, with desert countries conspicuously chiseled. Now among generations who were soldiers once, and young, too.

Yet even with the names right in front of you, there is a sense of anonymity for those resting. The egalitarian headstones for the lowest private to the oldest Admiral lets them forever be part of cooperative things like the Big Red One or the Wasp or the Third Marine Air Wing. These entities have known, even famous, histories, but the individual names of those who made them work have long faded from collective memory. And this is good. For the entity they all really sought to advance was that of America herself.

Ironically, a nation of individual liberties only thrives when some submit to collective direction. A desire to forgo personal glory for the advancement of a team. We know not the names of those charged with killing our most wanted enemy, but this only enhances their prestige. We give entertainment awards to actors we can readily name who portray the heroism of those we cannot. In a way, those gaining individual glory have received their rewards, but nothing more – those who carry on anonymously have their reward in the ongoing success of America and her ideals.

I have heard some complain that our society can name the highest paid baseball player, but not our last Medal of Honor winner. I can’t help but think this is an asset. It shows that there are men and women willing to save a friend or charge a hill not because it will bring them honor, but because it is the right thing to do.

We all know someone got the Medal of Honor, and we all know what that represents. That is enough, as men will only charge into the battlefields freedom requires when they know the buddy next to them will be there in their moment of most dire need. They need to believe heroes can be found among their peers. And the litany of past examples that swell our nation’s military cemeteries show that this belief is well founded.

Thus, generations past hold the key to our continued existence as a nation. Their experiences and examples are the kindling that perpetuates the spark of inspiration that keep the ramparts of liberty and freedom well manned.

Many have already watered the tree of liberty with their blood, and many more will as well in the years and decades to come. It is right and honorable that we remember those who sacrificed on our behalf. But we must also not forget to carry on the work which they so ably fought and died for. It is work well worth the effort.

Requiem

Originally Published May 29th 2009

Lord, guard and guide the men who fly
Through the great spaces in the sky,
Be with them always in the air,
In dark'ning storms or sunlight fair.
O, Hear us when we lift our prayer,
For those in peril in the air.


As with everything on a warship, we make do with the accommodations available. No Flanders Fields, or windswept bluffs overlooking oceans; merely the cold hard steel of a plated floor. Aircraft pushed to ends of the hangar bay, naked engines free of their nacelles. The space in the center cleared for the memorial that will soon begin.

Standing amidships, back facing starboard, front to port, a massive American flag hangs to the left, covering the entire three story height of the cavernous bay. To the right is a similarly sized blue fielded ensign with the circular emblem of the USS Nimitz. A stage stands, austerely in the center: no chairs, simple lectern, faded and grease smudged bunting covering the legs of the raised platform. Off behind the assembling crowd on the massive floor of Elevator Two are seven men holding rifles, adorned in black uniforms, set against a dull, overcast Southern California morning.

And next to the stage, five distinct pictures with smiling young faces. In front of three of the pictures, the Dixie Cup hat of the enlisted sailor on top of a folded American flag. The other two with white officer’s covers – one male and one female – on top of the same triangular starred cloth. All the images look playful, and full of joy, as only youth can exude even during excruciating trials. But these pictures are not taken in times of trial – they appear in flight suits, confident, at ease within the machines they daily took to touch the face of God. They are aviators, now meeting Him sooner than they could ever have imagined. Their beaming faces are surreal amidst the mourning and sorrow.

On the evening of May 19th, a cadre of Carrier Air Wing Eleven aircraft took off from the USS Nimitz for a training mission into Western Arizona. They successfully completed their objective and picked up two aviators who were simulating downed pilots in the midst of a hostile environment. The two helicopters involved in the rescue stopped over at a nearby Naval Air Station before the trek back to the Nimitz. One of the newest members of our squadron was one of the aircrew picked up during the rescue; he was returning in the lead helicopter.

At around 11:00pm, mere minutes off the coast of Coronado Island, he looked back at the second helicopter that had been faithfully following them and saw…nothing. Nothing was heard, and immediately the pilot of the lead aircraft began to conduct a real search and rescue operation. They didn’t find anything; there was nothing they could do.

I was on the last recovery that evening, and had just taken off my flight gear when I walked into the ready room, mentally deconstructing my first night battle with the dreaded KC-135 tanking hose (wistfully known as the “Iron Maiden”). This was quickly forgotten as our skipper and executive officer came running through with slightly frantic, yet determined looks on their faces. All I heard was “a plane is in the water.” Immediately, my eyes went to the computer screen that showed the status of all airborne aircraft, and for a moment I became incredibly confused as it showed all planes safe on deck – I was one of the last to land. Until I caught the last two lines showing the helicopters. At the time, we didn’t know any details, and that aforementioned newest member was still unaccounted for. I felt sick to my stomach.

It was the beginning of a long night. We felt the ship shudder as she tore through the water towards the suspected location of our downed compatriots. Those of us in the Delta House stateroom aimlessly and somewhat airily chatted, shaken by what had just occurred. Our fellow Black Ace was back safely by this point, but two of our airwing pilots and their three enlisted aircrew were still gone.

Its one thing to walk through our scattered national cemeteries and in quiet awe take in the expanse of marble headstones that represent those who have paid for liberty with their blood. To absorb the black granite near Lincoln’s monastery, or look in the forlorn faces of the Korean statues as they perpetually make their way through another frigid mountain night. The names that accompany the anonymity of those sacred locations help bring those sacrifices to life – but mostly they are as foreign as the places they died. Even seeing my grandfather’s headstone at the Fort Snelling National Cemetery, who I never had the chance to meet, is somewhat impersonal.

But there is something quite different to know some of those names now. To have spent countless hours planning missions side by side with them in exercises past, to have seen them smile in cordial greeting as we passed in the cramped hallways of our ship. We in modern aviation are fortunate that we have so few deaths as compared with wars past. As recently as Vietnam, some squadrons came back from deployment with none of the jets they left with – all having been destroyed in the midst of combat and replaced mid-cruise with newer versions. Yet, ironically, the very infrequency of these present tragedies makes them all the more conspicuous.

This remains the same though: Sometimes there isn’t the ability to mourn immediately. We followed the mishap with three more days of intense flight ops to complete our qualifications to be certified for our upcoming deployment. As with countless other warriors in countless ages past, the mission had to be accomplished until a time for grief was allowed. There is cathartic release in doing those things you know you can control in the midst of those you cannot, and for Type-A personalities, keeping busy is sometimes the best medicine.

On Saturday, we stood in massed formation as the ceremony proceeded. The invocation, followed by a singing of the Navy Hymn and then brief biographies of the deceased. Allison, a rare woman who brought the calmness and intoxicating aura of femininity to our mostly male profession, was getting married in late June. Samuel, a rescue swimmer, had a three year old, a one year old – and on Thursday his wife found out she was pregnant with their third. The others with young children and now widowed wives, save the young man who was three months shy of his twenty-first birthday.

These details were a reminder that despite all of our focus on mission success and the upcoming time away, the most important thing has always been and remains family.

We heard from their friends, and then saluted in unison to the haunting rendition of taps as tears welled up in the eyes of those assembled. Finally, hundreds of us simultaneously turned around to face the open sea and hear the seven riflemen fire three times each. We were dismissed into the most pervasive silence I’ve ever experienced aboard this ship of six thousand people and nearly incessant clamor. By the end though, the healing had taken hold.

As our generation of warriors nears its eighth continuous year of war (truth be told, many of us don’t know what its like to be in a peacetime military), the signs back at home are fading that the conflict is ongoing. This is a good thing -- it means that the horrors of this all too frequent of human endeavors are being relegated to the locations of our choosing. But it also means there remain men and women who are still in far off places, some of whom lose their lives in the service of their country.

On this Memorial Day, whether we are on a pristine beach barbecuing with our loved ones and friends or deployed amidst sand, stone or steel, it is appropriate to remember those who have allowed us to enjoy what we often take for granted. And to take a moment to pray for those still with us.

Eternal Father, Strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bid'st the mighty Ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to thee,
for those in peril on the sea.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

An American Paradox

Originally Published on 11 Nov 2010

Year Ten. The Long War, the one perhaps morphing to Perpetual War, continues. Continues in intensity and continues to fade in the mind of American citizens focused on tea and more jubilant parties.

Not that there is anything malicious to fault in its obscuration. In fact, the road to armed competence and heretofore unquestioned military dominance has lead to this unintended consequence. The All Volunteer Military, a truly professional and skilled segment of our society, has removed the burdens and sacrifice of service from the majority of our population. The Protected are free to go about their lives, pursuing whatever talents they have to their individual and societal advantage with little thought to what an unstable country would look like. The Protectors stand on the fringes, ready to fend off foes far from the core of our culture. Yet this necessitates the two growing further apart, both in physical location as well as psychological and ideological outlook. This is little contemplated, nor addressed amidst the near universal, and admittedly impressive, cacophony of praise for our service members.

But it should be. As Professor Andrew Bacevich succinctly observes, “the evisceration of civic culture that results when a small praetorian guard shoulders the burden of waging perpetual war, while the great majority of citizens purport to revere its members, even as they ignore or profit from their service” is impossible to measure. It is hard to get revved up about something if you don’t have skin in the game.

Too often we get caught up in the well publicized ideological lines. You’ve got the no-war-at-any-cost Left and the unleash-hell-against-all-foes Right, but there is that grey area, those subtle nuances of statecraft that fall out when policymakers and their electorate become increasingly removed from the agents of action. When all you have are news cycles or heated discussions around the dinner table to lose, it is hard to see the human element of the young father charged with pacifying a village in a far off land that has never given much deference to foreigners, helpers or not.

A paradox much personally contemplated: In a recent survey, over 80 percent of Americans trust the military, little more than 40 the President, and barely 20 our United States Congress. Other surveys over the past year show a precipitous decline in support for the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Why is it that there is such mass trust for individuals charged with executing unpopular orders from unpopular leaders, especially when the majority of those individuals generally believe in their given tasks and voluntarily left other lives to take part in those pursuits?

I’ll be the first to admit that consistency has never really been the forte of democratic electorates. Merely look to the jumble of contradictory Propositions passed within California over the past decades to see this play out. Yet with something as seemingly important as where we send our nation’s monetary and youthful treasure, there is the (however na├»ve) hope that more considered and consistent judgments would be rendered.

One of the most indelible memories I have is watching a news report during the first half of the current decade showcasing enthusiastic young supporters of military action against Global Terror. After the obligatory questions about why they supported various interventions, the interviewer wondered why these young people were not running to the enlistment centers to take part. Their answers? They had other priorities and believed their talents were better used elsewhere.

Despite the flag waving, as Bacevich notes, “the events of 9/11 reaffirmed a widespread popular preference for hiring someone else’s kid to chase terrorists, spread democracy and ensure access to the world’s energy reserve. In the midst of a global war of earth shattering importance, Americans demonstrated” an unwillingness to join with “soldiers defending the distant precincts of the American imperium.” They are willing, however, to buy you drinks if just returned from deployment.

Reinhold Niebuhr once observed that there is an irony of American history. Our perpetually preached and cherished characteristics of individualism and self-sufficiency are also the very elements most antithetical to the traits required for its defense. There was once a time when our nation’s hallowed institutions were teeming with those who recognized the implication of this. It seems, however, that in the modern age, the incessantly proclaimed qualities have been fully embraced to the exclusion of those more silently executed ones. The burden of service falls to a shrinking share of the population.

Thankfully, the embrace is not yet entirely made. As Niebuhr soberly remarks, “many young men, who have been assured that only the individual counts among us, have died upon foreign battlefields” for the sake of democracy at home. So too, have many young men with the same assurances willingly risked their lives for a compatriot in the line of fire.

Philosophical conclusions alone, however, hardly illustrate the point. So I look to the life of one of those rare people who have captured my full admiration, and indeed, someone who I aspire to emulate. He is the Captain of a company of men departing from his Midwest home to the desolation of Afghanistan on or around this very Veterans Day.

This Captain is of those who volunteered for the cooperative venture of Soldiering to preserve Individualism. A soft-spoken but charismatic giant, he has the easy smile of a man willing to undertake hardship, however reluctantly, to preserve those things he cares for most in this world. In a scene that is replayed thousands of times a year, he leaves behind a beautiful wife of five years, an eighteen month old daughter, and a newborn who he has seen for all of four days. His dedication and service saw he and his beloved parted for the first two years of their marriage while he fought in Iraq four years ago. This is the face of true advocacy for a cause.

Perhaps then, this is the answer to the survey’s seeming contradiction: the recognition and admiration of personal sacrifice despite personal and political differences. Viktor Frankel, no stranger to suffering and hardship himself, puts it best:
“Freedom is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”

Those who practice the latter element deserve our unfading societal focus.

As Americans, we must not become acclimated to conflict abroad, nor should we be passive when those charged with defending us are sent in our name. We have the distinct honor of being able to decide our nation’s future at the ballot box, and this includes how we utilize the fighting men and women who have given up the best years of their lives so we can live ours. Some wars will be necessary and seemingly interminable – others will not. In either case, remember the man or woman standing the Watch. Their footprints may be invisible, but it is in those very moments when they, and those whose shoulders they stand upon, have left their best and most lasting legacy.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Agape

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends – John 15:13 (KJV)

There are very few instances in life where a person is truly presented with the philosopher’s favorite hypothetical: when faced with preserving your own life or those of others, whom do you choose?

For some though, in a matter of moments, this sophistic exercise becomes reality.

Returning home from a mission, mere miles away from the aircraft carrier, an engine indicates an oil problem. The aircrew executes their procedures and shuts the engine down, leaving them with one engine remaining. However, rather than the now static propeller feathering into the wind, minimizing drag and allowing for a much practiced single-engine approach, the prop inexplicably and unexpectedly locks in place. Instead of eight aerodynamic blades cleanly slicing through the air, the locked position becomes the airborne equivalent of a circular brick wall pushing full against the airstream.

The plane yaws uncontrollably into the failed starboard engine, and only through the herculean effort of the pilot-in-command, putting his whole strength against the opposite rudder pedal, is controlled flight precariously maintained. Momentarily. The aircraft cannot maintain its altitude. It is only a matter of time before it impacts the water. A choice must be made.

Before every flight, the pilot-in-command of a naval aircraft signs his name on a slip of paper kept within the aircraft maintenance log. It is the last of three signatures required before a plane is taken airborne. The first two are from the maintainers certifying that the plane is safe for flight. The last transfers responsibility for the aircraft to the pilot, meaning he is now accountable for the machine and aircrew within its confines. A mere formality on most days, especially when done in haste and hundreds of times previously, it nonetheless is something not soon forgotten.

We live in a society where occasionally those we are meant to admire abridge their obligations to accountability. Candidates for office falsely claiming membership in the combat ranks, elected officials blaming past leaders for events occurring on their watch, business tycoons refusing to acknowledge their complicity in financial collapse or environmental disaster. Such nonsense has no place in a stricken aircraft.

The pilot-in-command that day (March 31, 2010) was LT Steven “Abrek” Zilberman, a veteran Naval Aviator on his second combat cruise in as many years. His parents emigrated from Ukraine when he was in sixth grade, in part to escape the bigotry they feared he would face as a Jewish conscript in the Russian military. Much to their surprise, he chose to enlist in the US Navy, eventually winning his commission and Wings of Gold. As is the tradition in this brotherhood, Abrek was his bequeathed callsign, in reference to the first space monkey sent into space by the Russians prior to Yuri Garagin. Ironically, and probably unknown to the American aviators at the time, it also means “valiant man” in Russian.

At some point, he made the decision to stay in the cockpit, fighting with all his strength to keep the aircraft relatively stable so his three fellow crewmates could bail out. This meant almost certain death – when it came time for him to bail out, the autopilot would be unable to account for the drag-induced uncontrollable yaw, and his only hope for survival would be an incredibly risky ditch into the sea. For a few days, he was listed as missing. The search came up empty handed. For his gallantry, Abrek was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross alongside the folded flag given to his wife at the funeral.

To paraphrase Sebastian Junger, author of WAR, warriors know they may face death. When they pledge their oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, they face that fact. This conscious, voluntary effort is their greatest act of courage, already accomplished. All subsequent acts in the line of duty stem from this. Some, however, are more conspicuous than others.

Perhaps the reason we humans view such heroes so reverently is that they did not intend to seek out recognition. They do not wake up in the morning hoping to die, save others and get glory. Instead, Fate, Providence, luck, whatever you want to call it, is the initiating force behind many acts of courage. That split second decision to take action, sometimes a reaction honed from years of subtle practice and thoughts, is where the individual takes the yolk from fate and forcibly alters the outcome. Yet inimical to this heroism is the tragedy associated with any sacrifice. It is a cost not readily borne, but on occasion selflessly accepted.

The paradox of the horrors of war and the character of the men and women who fight them is stunning. Within the depravity, death and destruction of combat exists the characteristics of awe-inspiring traits most humans struggle to emulate in more peaceful moments. These acts, demonstrated both consciously and unconsciously, are often removed from the greater political stratagems and goals of the fought-for country, and instead are directed towards preserving others. On the fields of Shiloh, men braving volleys of bullets to drag a wounded compatriot to safety. Amidst the Sands of Iwo Jima, Marines storming heavily fortified machine gun nests to ensure their buddies in subsequent waves would be safer. In the prisons of Hanoi, aviators forming a self-contained society dedicated to resisting the propaganda, torture and special favors of their captors – while being isolated and beaten for years on end as their countrymen ignored their plight.

In the face of the greatest hardships, we find the hardiest souls and amidst the arrows of stinging hatred, the greatest love. Again, Junger: “The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire…What the Army sociologists slowly came to understand was that courage was love. In war, neither could exist without the other and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing.”

Today, while remembering the heroic tragedy that surrounded this sacrifice, there is the legacy that remains alongside the countless others that are spread throughout our military traditions. The reminder is in more than the places of honor we bury our military dead – it is around us every day. The strangers and friends descended from ancestors saved through selfless sacrifice generations ago. The men and women still fighting abroad against those who would do our country harm. But most significantly, the very society and country we find ourselves blessed to be counted citizen among.

The likes of Abrek and his fallen brethren gave their lives for their immediate friends and compatriots, but their collective acts are the reason for the joy we feel on a warm summer afternoon, surrounded by majestic hills, dedicated friends and the freedom to live our lives as we see fit. “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”

Our future, full of hope and possibility, is the lasting gift we Americans continue to receive from those destined never to see it.

Happy Memorial Day, and God Bless.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Adaptation and Reversion

Date: 2 Feb 2010
Location: Off the Western Coast of Malaysia, Eastern Indian Ocean

Our war is over. We’re on our way home.

There comes a point when, no matter where you find yourself, you have fully adapted to your environment. Not necessarily become comfortable or content with it, but adapted. And this adaptation involves viewing the entire world through the prism of your surroundings. This thing called home is an apparition on the horizon, but you are too far removed from it to really understand what it is.

You’ve become used to watching the three channels of the Armed Forces Network, with the thrilling titles of “Spectrum,” “News” and “Sports.” You’re really not sure what new and exciting products are available in your home country, but are aware that it’s a bad thing to shake your baby, chewing tobacco will give you cancer that deforms your jaw (with the spokesman to prove it), sexual harassment is not acceptable and joining the military was the best decision you ever made (look at all the cool places you can go! You all can be fighter pilots and SEALs with constantly exciting jobs and an energizing soundtrack!) – such public service messages, and many schoolmarm others, serve as advertisements during commercial breaks. State controlled media at its best.

When you go to a foreign port and try to fall asleep in the hotel room, you are shocked by the silence. No jets are doing afterburner engine checks on the flight deck two stories above at 3am. No chains being dragged across the metal deck just above your head, no water pipes whooshing on and off next to your bed, no 1MC announcements proclaiming “THIS IS A TEST OF THE SHIPS EMERGENCY SYSTEMS: BOOONG BOOONG BOOONG…BEEEEP BEEEEP BEEEEP…RIIIING RIIIING RIIIING. REGARD ALL FURTHER ALARMS, THIS WAS ONLY A TEST.” You check your watch and it reads 6:00am. Seriously? 6AM? Don’t the ship drivers realize we aviators need our sleep after landing in pitch blackness with the ship trying to kill me at midnight??? You also realize that you are all alone. There aren’t seven other guys rustling and turning and snoring within ten feet of you. It feels a little uncomfortable.

You forget what its like to have a cell phone with you at all times. In fact, you don’t even realize you miss it, because you feel free of it. No ability to check Facebook at all hours of the day because the internet speed is worse than the old school 14.4k modems (I suppose I’m finally old enough to be dated by an obsolete technology…). Your only connection to the outside world is the occasional email, a daily political newsletter that analyses something called Washington DC from a conservative perspective, and the calendar squares on the wall sent from the squadron wives and girlfriends.

And despite your adapting to this now familiar and comforting place we call the ready room, the beginning of every month brings a bit of anticipation because something will change – new squares suddenly appear on one of the walls. Children grow – some guys seeing this progression from newborn to giggling toddler only through pictures as the months pass because their babies were born after we left. Old wedding pictures to celebrate anniversaries, awkward pictures of you and your siblings in past decades that your parents think are adorable but bring jeering ridicule from fellow aviators (or uncomfortable admiration if your southern-belle blond sister just happens to be gorgeous). And amidst all the family friendly photos, the younger wives make the single aviators feel part of the show with cutouts of scantily clad models cooing over how much they look forward to you coming back home.

Your day job has even become routine. By the fourth month of war, doing the same six hour missions day in and day out, you come to understand the rules of engagement quite well. The hour-long preflight brief can nearly be recited backwards and forwards, knowing exactly what is to be encountered given where you are going. The KC-135 is still a complete pain to tank off of, what with the inflexible metal boom and incessantly leaking basket that fills your cockpit with pervasive jet fuel fumes for hours after. Even the British JTAC’s on the moonscape below know you by your voice – especially if you are a girl and you’ve flirted with them a few times over encrypted comms in the previous weeks.

Then when you finally think you’ve adapted, when it seems that you’ve managed to make it through another day, and are feeling pretty good about yourself, the shock comes – a completely unexpected change of pace. Unexpected but welcome.

During our last week of combat ops in the third week of January, the Black Aces came face to face with international diplomacy and politics. We were four days from out-chopping from Fifth Fleet to start the eastward steam home when we got a tasker from the Commander of Naval Forces in the Gulf: Send two jets to the Bahrain International Airshow. Now.

This seems a pretty simple task. And normally it would be if you had more than twelve hours to plan it, had diplomatic over-flight rights of neighboring countries and had jets in the proper “slick” configuration required for demonstration flights at the show as opposed to say, fully laden combat platforms with pylons, bombs, targeting pods and fuel tanks. But the Navy being what it is, none of these nice to have conditions were met.

I happened to be in the ready room, milling about, at 7pm when I saw a huddled conference of our skipper, operations officer and maintenance officer pouring over airplans and navigational charts. This piqued my interest. Through bits and pieces, I eventually figured out what was going on.

Carrier Air Wing Seven, embarked on the USS Eisenhower, was originally tasked with supporting the airshow and had been coordinating this event for months. Their maintenance personnel were already within the Kingdom of Bahrain, everything set. Then in one of those diplomatic snubs that sometimes occur from time to time between tenuous allies, a large country they were to fly over from the Med had the over-flight paperwork lost in a convenient morass of bureaucracy – and were only informed it had been misplaced the day before. The solution by the Vice Admiral was to get jets from the only other asset available: us.

Thus set into motion a first hand view of the international military-industrial-political complex in full swing. In many ways, this last minute order was over fifty years in the making.

A simplified history of the region is in order. After World War II, the small island of Bahrain broke away from their Iranian overlords. Needing a strategic base in the midst of a small gulf with access to the world’s preeminent source of black gold, the United States immediately agreed to ally itself with this newly formed kingdom. Over the subsequent decades, the US Navy maintained an ever increasing presence, working closely with the inhabitants of Bahrain. This friendship paid off with the growing importance of the region, and the subsequent wars fought between the US and countries in the Middle East. Furthermore, after the fall of the Shah in Iran, combined with a defiant fear of re-invasion by their once-masters, the Bahraini government saw an easy way to parry their fears with the strength of the American military.

I’m jumping a bit ahead in the narrative, but there was a telling moment as I stood showing off our Super Hornets at the airshow. A young sheik stopped by – apparently a member of the Bahraini royal family. He was dressed as all the audaciously wealth Arabs of the region do – flowing white robe with matching headdress, finely coiffed goatee with big, silver-tinted reflective aviators. He lingered for a while in front of the display, seeming to lean in apprehensively as I chatted with some Irishmen. Soon it was just he and I, so I struck up a conversation with what turned out to be a kid barely in high school. His travels were already broad – he had spent time in Los Angeles, and had a flat in Manhattan where he lived for over a year. It was rather amusing to talk to him – here was this fabulously wealthy near-prince shyly and deferentially talking to a middle class kid from the Midwest who happened to be in a green flight suit. Anyway, as he left he said “Thank you for defending my country.” Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I should be proud or uncomfortable – the world’s leading democracy in cahoots with an avowed autocracy. But that is the reach of American hegemony – and ironically, perhaps even Pax Americana.

Even so, an increasingly wealthy and strategically placed nation has developed its own aspirations towards self-sufficiency. There is no better way to improve your military, at least superficially, than to buy a modern air force – and for a country with money, it’s good to have the competitors come to you in the form of your First Annual International Airshow. Conversely, despite two wars occurring, it is apparently good politics and business to send your most capable aircraft to show off to a long time ally in the hopes they will spend a few billion to help prop up a struggling domestic behemoth. And why not feature some young twenty something hotshots in flight suits to seal the deal?

When they were deciding who to send, I was in the line of sight of the Ops O, and he threw my name on the schedule. I was to go from weary warfighter to shining mini-celebrity overnight (and now that my fifteen minutes is exhausted, I’m back to weary ex-warfighter).

Walking to the flight deck the morning after some frantic navigational planning, our bulky combat chariots had been magically transformed into lean, sleek fighter-looking aircraft. The makeover was stunning in a way only an aviator can appreciate – this was the plane Boeing sold to the Navy when they first unveiled her ten years ago. It was with the pride of a father that I looked on those birds, because their transformation was due to an overtime effort by the forty two troops I have the honor of leading within the aircraft division. And not only did they slick the jet of any and all external encumbrances, they scrubbed each of them of the grease and grime that had accumulated over six months of combat. It was these unseen and all too often unheralded barely twenty year-old wrench-turners who executed a herculean task overnight with precision and expertise so we flyboys could joyride for a few days and relax.

Due to the lack of diplomatic clearance through the United Arab Emirates, we were forced to fly the tenuous airways over the Straits of Hormuz. This is the strategic cross-roads of the world, and it’s remarkable that the world economy hinges on a stretch of water surprisingly narrow in width. With Iran occupying three sides of it. As we made our way through in tight formation, hugging the correct side of the menacing black line on our moving maps, even crossing over it at a few points to follow the negotiated GPS points, a feeling overcame me that I have never experienced yet, and hope never to experience again. My first combat mission was even different from this. It was fear, pure and simple -- An insidious tingling deeper than that of nervousness within the stomach. Images of the news reports of the British Navy crew captured by Iran last year flashed through my mind. Here we were adhering strictly to international agreements related to the Straits passage, but what if we navigated wrong? What if we were queried and they didn’t view our response as appropriate? What if they figured out who we were, even unarmed, and intercepted us? Of course, it was completely baseless. Should anything happen en route, no doubt the response would be swift and furious. Even so…

This lasted no more than five minutes. Soon, we were through, and Dubai appeared on the horizon – a soothing relief. A dark black spire rose up from the desert, dwarfing the other metal structures clustered around it – the Burj Dubai as a lighthouse of civilization amidst the unwelcoming barrenness. The World writ small in manufactured islands next to the failed man-made Palm, devoid of any habitation save the one frond built on by the Emir as an example of what was possible – before financial collapse due to debt default sent investors scrambling and left nothing but empty dreams. Here were the exploits of man, seen from the air, soon passed.

We finally landed at the newly paved airstrip where the show was hosted – another oasis in the desert completed literally that week as the King’s private airfield. It was so new, our monthly updates for instrument approach procedures had yet to list it as a viable strip. The road leading to the entrance had been paved 48 hours before. The line of pavilions that served as our luxurious break rooms were constructed over the past three months explicitly for this event. It was an unbelievable effort for a four day event. The cheap, wide-eyed immigrant labor used to build it was still milling about as high tech, multi-million dollar aircraft screamed overhead.

The next three days flew by. We manned our post in front of the display jet and answered questions from the citizens of the world – Indians, Frenchmen, British, Saudis, Irishmen, Germans, Australians. It was amusing to watch husbands eagerly discuss every aspect of aviation while their well dressed and bored society wives looked on in exasperation. Little kids running over to the landing gear and proudly shouting what part of the plane it was – then begging to take a picture with the pilot. I met a Bahraini who was a fellow Vikings fan. The local media ate us up – radio, television and newspaper interviews. We watched as French Rafale’s, Saudi Hawks, Russian SU-27’s and a myriad of other world renown tactical aircraft showed off their stuff – and then watched the demonstration team flown in from Oceana Naval Air Station fly our squadron’s painted up CAG bird wow the crowd. Even I was impressed – and I see the thing fly every day.

When we finally returned to the Nimitz, she was recovering the last of our planes from the final day of combat operations. Our trip to Wonderland was over – the ship recalled her own. As soon as the recovery finished, the Nimitz started heading East towards the States.

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As we steamed away, I contemplated what we had done over the past four months. I tried to figure out what it all meant. As fun as the air show was, and relit that spark of love for aviation that had slowly been strangled by six-plus months at sea, I remembered what happened on my last combat flight – and brought this war into better focus than I had understood.

My last mission was over the same area’s we had surveyed over and over again. We were working with the British north of Kandahar on a routine patrol. This was the first time, however, where we were in a region that we could see the entire convoy both in our targeting pod and visually. As they moved towards their desired location, they asked us to sanitize the villages and compounds along their route. Our section of F-18s was also listening into the chat between the convoy and two overhead Apache’s doing a close escort (and more effective) version of what we were.

As we approached the end of our VUL, we heard from the Apache driver that he was in visual contact with a compound where it appeared that women and children were filing out. This was noted with seeming casualness by the JTAC in the lead vehicle. It could be nothing – or it could mean an imminent attack. After five minutes more of uneventful searching, I looked out again at the convoy and saw a huge plume of smoke fly up from the ground where the first truck in the convoy had just been. Within a few hundred meters of this plume, tracks in the sand were kicking up small clouds of dust where some high speed vehicles were converging on the now stopped convoy.

Just as we were about to key the mic and confirm with the guys on the ground that they had hit an IED, they let us know they were, in fact, hit. Fortunately, they were all okay. The first thing out of the JTAC’s mouth, in a way only the ever polite Brits can say, was “Apologies, but I am no longer going to be able to see your down-link information…my laptop just got smashed to hell.” Silence. “And just so you know, I’m okay as well.” We couldn’t help but laugh even in the midst of this terror of war – leave it to an Englishman to care about the guy safely above before telling us about himself. At that moment, I realized how close we as allies really were.

In the aftermath, the Apache driver followed the trigger-puller into a dense compound where he lost him and then saw three more emerge. Positive Identification had been lost. There was no way to find the perpetrator. The vehicles approaching the stopped convoy were Marines on an additional patrol.

Thus even as we leave, this war remains. Marines and Rangers and Soldiers and Coalition ground forces of all stripes remain. My Army brother-in-law heads over within the year. We have been replaced by an airwing that was here last spring, including an old college friend and another close former roommate from Pensacola. My current roommate is in workups to deploy again this fall. When we return, our schedule has us heading back out again in 2011. Our strike group, once at the tip of the spear, is now just another in the line of those who have come and gone over the past eight years. This is, in fact, the long war.

On our way home, we’ve talked internally of our “successes.” The number of sorties flown, the number of weapons dropped, the number of IED’s found. How well our maintenance did in giving us full mission capable jets nearly every day. And these are successes, tactically – but we haven’t won the war with our seventy million dollar machines and thousands of pages of tactics. There is an elusive enemy that has adapted to the methods devised by our best engineering, economic and strategic minds. Yet we find the time and money to wow crowds with measures of contemporary military prowess as if the earth shaking noise of an afterburner doing a dirty roll will defeat an insurgent with nothing but a bit of C4, a cell phone and a cooking pot.

This is the challenge of our generation – and one that seems to have now been embraced by two seemingly divergent ideological administrations. It’s hard to give up on something that so much effort has been put into – and also hard to stay the course when the end seems endlessly in “the future.” I’ve been disabused of my previous idealism – but increasingly resolved in the necessity of preserving the land I call home.

You can’t appreciate the magnitude of what we in America take for granted everyday until you’ve seen what life is without it – how desperate people around the world are for the hope and promise liberty brings. A land where war is an apparition only seen when desired via a newspaper or television screen. You learn what it really means to love something fully when you deeply and inexplicitly realize how much you desperately miss it, faults and all, no matter the distance or the time. We’re headed back to that place. Finally.

The General and the JTAC

Date: 28 November 2009
Location: Arabian Sea, South of Pakistan

Sitting behind cat four, my mind kept drifting back to what was happening back home. Or rather, what would happen. It was combat mission number twenty for me. The day prior and that morning, I felt a strange premonition about that flight, but couldn’t put my finger on it. A few hundred feet in front of me, the Commander of the US Central Command, Gen David Petraeus, was about to get the first cat shot of his life, ensconced in the back seat of our colorfully painted CAG bird. Meanwhile, Thanksgiving in the Gulf kept moving forward.

I thought about the table that was to be used back home. The history it had seen, the many people who had eaten off it. It wasn’t anything spectacular: just two long pieces of plywood found at some point decades before, stained and connected with hinges pinned together using stray nails. A couple of 2x4’s laid across two beaten sawhorses provided the platform for it to support the coming meal. A few years back, we started signing it in the spot where we ate that year, and the names had begun to stack up. Friends from college, an old girlfriend, new military families needing a place to spend the holiday, the odd traversing long lost family member. And of course, the names that were repeated over and over, but rarely in the same place. Most of the year it was stored in some garage, passed around from home to home depending on who was to host.

As we taxied into the shuttle, about to launch, a game played on that table from the late 1980s flashed into my head. I think this was where I got hooked, at 7 years old; where another tradition had flourished and continued on. I sat by my father’s side as he played the annual Thanksgiving Risk game in the dining room of my great-grandmothers house at 4911 Sunnyside. His opponents were my Uncle Joel, and our Colorado cousins, Bill and Frank. It came down to Bill, with the Yellow blocks, and my Dad, playing as the Black Horde. He (we), lost. I was devastated.

Thus the game was played for years after, continuing to this day. I eventually got my own team -- Black. At one point, I decided to add a sense of realism to the ancient board and created a permanent land bridge in pen between Australia and Peru. Apparently, this world is supposed to be flat. It was not looked kindly upon by my Father, the owner of said world. But despite some missteps, I learned the principles of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu at a young age without ever having read their books. Find your opponent’s center of gravity. Mass your forces. Expect the unexpected, especially from irrational opponents. Adapt. Use deception when necessary. Accept defeat magnanimously (I’m not sure I’ve worked that one out yet…) And never get involved in a land war in Asia. Another principle too: there comes a point in love and war where you may have to choose one over the other. Sometimes winning the war is the right answer, because if you don’t, she will. To your eternal chagrin.

So here I found myself, halfway around the world in the middle of the real thing, wondering who would occupy Afghanistan in a quaint Minnesota basement. I was a single black block, a pawn in the grand schemes of some strategic grandmaster. A grandmaster, interestingly enough, who happened to be launched off the same expansive ship mere moments before me.

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The weather has started to turn, and in dramatic fashion. From our location South of Pakistan, the change is barely noticeable: calm seas and warm, clear skies as always. We missed the oppressive heat of the summer, and the climate where our ships float is what vacationers everywhere seek. Occasionally the haze lifts enough so that at 25,000 feet, hundreds of miles in any direction are easily visible. Pressing up North, however, is markedly different.

When we first arrived in theater, the skies over Afghanistan were always free of clouds, with an impenetrable haze our only obstruction. The haze has slowly lifted, but layer upon layer of clouded buildups are now regularly encountered, especially when pressing into the jagged expanses of Northeast Afghanistan. The temperatures have come down dramatically too: in the North, they now equal those of my childhood home in the Northern climes of America during January. On clear days, the virgin snows of the towering mountains in the North punctuate the horizon from the edge of the southern deserts.

What follows are some observations about the landscape of Afghanistan, as seen on Thanksgiving, in the matter of a few hours transit from one end of the country to the other. A one thousand mile commute in each direction, passing from one geographical extremity to another.

Entering from the south introduces you to a barrenness appropriate to the desert that it is. For about 150 miles from the border with Pakistan to a startling and abrupt transition, there is nothing but red-hued, windswept dunes and the rare lonely outcropping of rock. Our moving maps within the cockpit capture this in an eerily perfect fashion: half circles in chaotic rows with virtually no contour lines. There is no notion of civilization, nor even empty carvings of where seasonal rivers flow. This is the case in every direction.

Then suddenly, it ends. Flying over this demarcation line is surprising. The unvarying red sand runs abruptly into a plateau of flat, grey rock that forms the foundation for the population within. It is a line that turns and juts, but unquestionably continues, as far as the eye can see – which is quite a ways from altitude. And just as there was no evidence of life to its south, civilization begins to teem just north of this natural border.

Here, alluvial plains of green spring from the rivers that flow from the mountains hundreds of miles away. This is by no means a concentration of people that we back in the States would refer to as urban. Rather, it is a ribbon of life along that most fundamental of life giving sources, water. A mile in width, maybe, from most rivers, filled or not. The evidence of seasonal outcroppings of water is visible, and what a torrent it must be to carve through the hard land, but since we have been here, most remain as empty as the terrain outside the irrigated farms. Square structures inhabit the edges of roads and in the middle of tracts of land. From the air, the farms are clearly divided by ditches and raised embankments, into parcels that must only provide subsistence and barely more.

A quick note about the buildings the population inhabits: Their very structure says much about the culture that lives within them. Their design is not merely unique to Afghanistan itself, but the entire region. They are all of the same general shape and internal composition, and when looking down upon them, I couldn’t help but think of flying over suburbs of the US. Not in the sense that they were built similarly, because they are starkly different, but in their ubiquitous uniformity.

Nearly all are walled compounds, with expansive courtyards inside surrounded by living spaces on two of the four walls. Without knowing the history of this troubled land, a keen observer would be able to tell that this is a society used to conflict, and not just from without. The walls are meant to keep the unwelcome out – even amidst a culture in which hospitality is one of the defining features. Their structure also shows the decentralized constitution and tribal nature of the Afghan people. This is not a society that implicitly trusts a national, centralized bureaucracy to provide protection: it is a requirement that must be met at the local, if not individual, level.

Even in the few large cities that exist, this same architectural framework is evident. Kandahar is the major urban center of the South, and its streets are lined with similarly built structures. Flying over it, I have never seen any building taller than a few stories. There are central areas, but it seems that they are more communal, and thus less evident, than would be the case in America. It is clear where the center of a region’s power lay in the States, even in smaller conglomerations of people: the big buildings and all major roads leading to the thrones of power. The haphazard structure of streets prevents this over here.

It is easy to tell where the NATO bases are from the air. They are surrounded by a wall, like the native buildings, but these walls are usually hundreds of meters long and only along the outskirts. Western buildings in their neat rows and corrugated roofs with perfectly aligned roads are evident within. Wires and antennae and massive vehicles fill the empty spaces. The clash of civilizations, writ through architecture.

Moving farther north, beyond the population center of Kandahar, the land begins to burst forth to greater and greater heights. The high plains increasingly become disrupted by isolated mountains, and then chains of mountains, some snow bound, others not. On the sides of these outcroppings, little villages are sprinkled, seemingly removed from any other elements of civilization. There appear to be no visible evidence of agriculture or easy accessibility to water, but there they sit. The roads are few; the passes unseen. The rectangular open courtyards remain, sometimes built on a slope. Eventually, the capital of this disparate nation appears.

Kabul lays at yet another stark physical border, nearly 250 miles North from Kandahar. The occasional peaks and high flatlands meeting the legendary Hindu Kush. I had seen Kabul once before, at night, but didn’t quite comprehend its isolation until Thanksgiving. It is surrounded on three sides by peaks that are part of the same chain of mountains that contain the worlds highest and most treacherous. In the summer and autumn, the haze obscures their majesty, and melted caps leave only a dull brown to contrast with the rest of the surrounding landscape. But what a difference the snow makes. An oasis deep within a bowl of towering, cold stone.

The crystal clear and frigid air leaves no particles to drape the range’s endless progression in opaqueness. The last bastion of civilization before embarking through the murderous passes of deep winter for those brave enough to risk the journey. James Michener describes the named genesis of the Hindu Kush in his marvelous book “Caravans.” He tells of it being referred to as such because of the deaths incurred by Indian merchants seeking the legendary crossroads of Samarkand across their heights. Seeing it firsthand makes the source believable.

Passing over these endless mountains and the deep valleys below is a bit unnerving. These are not the relatively quickly flown over mountains of the Rockies or even Alps. They are the creation of one tectonic continent slowly smashing into another immovable landmass, driving the land caught in the middle to stupendous heights as far as the eye can see. Afghanistan borders China and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan amidst these mountains, though no discernable natural demarcation is evident. Why men would fight for such regions, and politically contend for patches here and there, eludes me, but power is its own elixir. Regardless, it was here, at the end of the thousand mile trek – and the end of the world for that matter, that the day’s battle was fought.

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Not since General Eisenhower has there been a military celebrity as well recognized. To be sure, General’s Westmoreland and Schwarzkopf had their days in the sun (and in infamy, as the case may be), and General Powell is still widely respected by the American population. But our generation’s, and this war’s, Ike is General David Petraeus. The latter would likely dismiss this comparison, especially since Ike became President, but I think it accurate nonetheless (and didn’t Ike vociferously and genuinely object to the notion of his candidacy? But I digress into politics…). My unqualified admiration for the man is no secret, and seeing him in person was no disappointment.

We had known of his visit for weeks prior, although to be sure, for most of us it was just another DV coming to play on the Nimitz. But as his arrival approached, it became increasingly clear this was not going to be an ordinary visit.

For one thing, out came the paint cans and power sprayers. For the length of the entire starboard (right) hallway on the level of the ship just below the flight deck, sailors spent day and night whitewashing any area the General might traverse. Interestingly enough, the official schedule was written such that he would only see those hallways that were painted. Traveling from the right to the left side of the ship was comical in its disparity. Months of accumulated combat grime on the latter, while the former as if not a moment was wasted from keeping it clean. The carrier is not a clean place. If ever there was an analogy to putting lipstick on a pig, this was it.

On a flight deck walkdown two days prior to his visit, I saw other sailors hurriedly power washing the flight deck. The same deck we were to launch aircraft off of for twelve hours in each of the subsequent days including that of his arrival. The same deck that was to see engine changes and fuel transfers and leaky oil collectors drop black ooze onto its surface. Rumor was, the general might decide to take a run on it, and it had to be clean in order for him to do so. I generally discount the things I hear, but given the painting fiasco, I didn’t doubt it. One enterprising sailor even power washed a “Happy Thanksgiving” into the now dark, thick white line at the very end of the ship.

The ironic thing is that the man who arrived probably couldn’t have cared less what the ship looked like. The consummate warrior, the man who trod the halls of the White House and the streets of a collapsing Baghdad, was here to recognize the warriors and troopers who were in the grime day in and day out. But here the military showed its finest bureaucratic accomplishments to impress everybody’s boss.

In a somewhat sad turn of events, all the preparation for the General’s arrival seemed to have overlooked the necessities of taking care of the troops. When I emerged from the near empty Officer’s Mess after our Thanksgiving meal, I wandered up to the hanger bay and was shocked by what I saw. Enlisted sailors, many of whom had spent hours painting the walls, and cleaning the floors to present an image of perfection to our superior, were standing in an endless line hundreds deep waiting to get their meal. A meal that was due to close minutes later. I had never seen a line so long on the ship before. Somewhere the logistics chain failed, and priorities were askew. I did what I could for a few of them, but many still missed out on their meal. As a leader of these men and women, I felt ashamed. As far as I know, General Petraeus didn’t get wind of this – had he, I wonder how it would have turned out.

His personality would probably never have allowed such an oversight. In short, he is a self-deprecating and humble leader. I think a telling story is one I heard from some of my troops who got to eat Thanksgiving dinner with him. He didn’t want to talk shop at all, didn’t speak one word of the White House personalities he had sat with three days prior. His sole focus was on them, and their interests and things not of war. What was happening back at home, how their families were doing, eating up every moment and enjoying the company of deckplate Americans. He mentioned his joy at being out there with them, and seeing him say it in person while he visited the ready rooms, I believed him. His time seems to mostly be spent talking with politicians and our nation’s strategic leaders. Seeing the way they act on most days before camera’s, I can understand his relief for a few days respite from the self-important Beltway.

Late that night, the General took the stage in the hangar deck, and put on a show. The Nimitz was supposed to have hosted Jay-Z as part of a USO event, but at the last minute an MTV contract didn’t get signed, and the show was cancelled. The General joked that he was the replacement, and they decided to bring out “General P” instead. He cocked his ballcap just slightly to the side and struck a pose. The crowd erupted in laughter. He called up sailors and challenged them to feats of strength, winning most of them.

It’s a rare celebrity who is actually deserving of his acclaim, and even more so one who is so at ease with laughing at himself. He is an academic who has been the first to volunteer for combat assignments in the most dangerous and unwinnable situation. He has come out on top every time. It is no wonder he is so revered throughout our military and beyond.

I could tell he was at ease with this crowd. The last time I saw him on TV was during last year’s Super Bowl. His 5’8” slight frame was dwarfed by the massive Steeler and Cardinal captains who joined him at the 50 yard line for the coin toss. He said little, and somehow seemed out of place. It appears his natural niche is not on the contrived battlefield of the gridiron, but rather on one where lives contained within iron are risked for grids upon which nation’s fates are determined. On Thanksgiving, he was back on his turf.

His last stop of the evening was in the ready room of our sister squadron, the VFA-14 Tophatters, for a quick greet and go with the air wing’s Super Hornet aviators. Its not often we get to see men of substance so close, but here he was, mere feet away. It made the mission completed just hours before all the more meaningful, knowing the guy whose leadership was guiding our cause stood looking me straight in the eye.

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The transit across the length of Afghanistan was not expected. In fact, it only transpired at the last possible minute.

Our initial tasking placed us south of Kabul, with the mountains in view but far enough away to be complacent as to their effect. For an hour, we had meanderingly searched some roads for IED’s. I was in endless, slow left hand turns while my WSO operated the FLIR, looking for anything suspicious. The JTAC controlling us seemed more interested in seeing if some of our digital transmission systems were working correctly than what we were actually reporting (“hey, guys, thanks for the reports, but realize we’ve just had lots of snow, and its melting now, so a lot of what’s out there is probably just puddles of water.” Glad I’m here on a holiday…) Since it was Thanksgiving for him too though, I wasn’t too concerned with the boredom setting in, as it meant not much was transpiring. To pass the time, I counted down the minutes until our next tanker hit, then until we would head home, mentally calculating fuel flow rates and trying to predict how much extra gas we would have when we finally arrived. I know what you’re thinking…

Coming off the tanker, fat on gas, and slowly making our way back to our original killbox with the preoccupied JTAC, we got retasked. In an instant, the boredom disappeared when I heard the callsign of the element declaring the TIC and the location he was reporting from. These were SpecOps guys on the border – way up North. This is where the action was, and these guys get whatever they want. We used some of our extra gas to speed up our transit, but it still was going to take twenty minutes, leaving us with little more than fifteen minutes of on station time, barely enough to be of any use.

We entered the Hindu Kush, that foreboding region where empires had been absorbed time after time, never to be heard from again. I could feel the temperature within the cockpit drop as we passed overhead the snow covered land below, subconsciously turning up the cabin temperature. That premonition returned -- Nervous shivers and small beads of cold sweat started.

Upon checking in, and getting the situation update, the JTAC had immediate coordinates to pass so that we could engage the enemy attacking them. A spotter team that had engaged the American Special Forces earlier in the day had been tracked and identified.

The tactics of mountain warfare have caused headaches for generals, great and small, for millennia. No less daunting are the physics of mounting attacks from the air in such a region, especially for targets on ridgelines within deep valleys. The advent of precision guided munitions has significantly aided this endeavor, but any errors in target coordinates, laser energy or GPS satellites are magnified.

For instance, on a flat piece of land, a horizontal miss of ten meters is a miss of ten meters. On top of a ridgeline however, a miss of ten meters can mean a bomb falling hundreds of meters or even kilometers (.62 miles for you non-metric types) in an unpredictable direction depending on the slope of the incline surrounding the target and the terminal angle of the bomb. If the bomb vertically misses the ridgeline on say, a four thousand foot peak by a mere foot, it could travel the entire way down a steeply sloping embankment and impact the valley miles below. Not good.

In addition, bombs fall towards the earth. This is obvious. But this also means they cannot hit anything on their way down if they are to reach the intended target. Say, a 20,000 foot mountain. So you have to find an unobstructed run in. For preplanned missions, geographical software can determine this before we take off. For targets of opportunity, we make the best estimate possible airborne. While also accounting for the speed and direction of winds aloft (which at the high altitudes we need to work in while operating above towering peaks, are often quite significant). Sometimes the only run in heading available is unusable if the winds are unacceptable. Then you need to make sure that when using particular fuses, the bomb time of fall is long enough, but not too long such that the fuse runs out of power.

Fortunately, the computers in the jet take care of most of this. We just have to make sure the bomb falls unimpeded. In our case it did. There were a few seconds of panic after the elapsed time of fall had arrived and past with no visible impact on our IR sensor, but eventually we saw the boom in the correct location. The target was neutralized.

Within fifteen minutes of checking in, we were on our way back home, relieved by a section of Air Force F-16s. The changes in circumstances of this profession never cease to amaze me. You can be having the most uneventful few hours of your life on a holiday you never imagined missing, and in an instant, be called upon to flawlessly execute rigorous procedures to protect soldiers on the ground and kill those that would harm them. To turn it on and off, just like that – it certainly lends itself to fostering adaptability.

----

Upon waking up on Friday and checking my email, I got the report from the home front. In deference to my absence, the black pieces I traditionally used had been set aside in an observational status. The girls, Michelle and Sophia, took up the traditional mantle of the girl’s team carried forth for years, playing as the eponymous “Pinkies,” making their initial stand in my favorite base of operations, Australia. My brother, home unexpectedly from his Navy training in Virginia, managed to make a game of it. I got a running commentary from my Mom, and at the end of their day, she revealed my Dad won, his victory recorded in perpetuity on the back side of the game’s cardboard cover.

I’ve never missed a Thanksgiving with my family before. I hope I never have to again, even if it is spent with a personal hero doing a job I willingly signed up for. Sometimes, it’s just nice to be home.

God Bless,

Ben

Friday, April 02, 2010

Combat

“Jackhammer, Spear One Three, One Four checking in, AR complete in Dakota at flight level two three zero requesting clearance to Tango Delta four five for fragged tasking with Knife Zero One.”

We had just come off our first tanker of the day, a large three engined KC-10, the equivalent of a DC-10 used by commercial airlines, replenishing our fuel tanks after the hour long transit from the ship into Afghanistan. Our air wing had been conducting these missions for a little over a week, but even in that short span of time, we were beginning to get a feel for the lay of the land.

Over the primary radio came an unusually urgent reply from the British female who was directing air traffic in the southern portion of Afghanistan that afternoon. Female controllers are always mesmerizing to listen to, especially the ones with exotic accents. Perhaps this is planned – I think we take in what they say and actually respond to it better than a male's voice. This may be why all the emergency voices within the cockpit – “Engine Fire, Engine Fire” “Bingo, Bingo” – are women’s. Anyway:

“Spear One Three, you have been re-tasked to support TIC Echo Mike in Tango Foxtrot Three Five, contact your JTAC, callsign Orion Four, on Indigo Seven Four. Elevator to flight level two one zero for your transit en route.”

A troops in contact situation had arisen, and as a result, the Joint Tactical Air Controller on the ground had requested immediate close air support to assist him in combating local Taliban and insurgent forces. As we looked on our chart, it appeared that the killbox we were directed to, Tango Foxtrot three five, was right on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Only in exceptional circumstances were we authorized to violate the red line drawn on the map.

My heartbeat hastened, and the first thing that popped into my head, much to my surprise as to its vehemence, was “those damn Taliban bastards…” I was leading a flight of two F/A-18 Super Hornets into combat for the first time, with the skipper of our squadron and our training officer on my wing, both evaluating my performance and preparing to help the guys on the ground if need be.

This was certainly not what we had been briefed about, nor was it in an area we were then familiar with. A relatively benign overwatch scenario near Kabul had morphed into a possible kinetic situation with live fire being exchanged between combatants near a politically sensitive international border. I had to take a deep breath as I quickly ran through the procedures for employing the weapons on board, should it come to that.

Ten minutes later, we checked in with Orion Four on our encrypted frequency. We passed him our check-in information, and got the following reply:

“Spear One Three, One Four roger that. This is what we have going on here. About fifteen mikes ago we had a mortar round fired on our position. The suspected target escaped on foot about one and a half clicks into Pakistan into what appears to be a cave. We need you to sanitize the opening and let us know what you see. You are NOT, I repeat, NOT authorized to engage in Pakistan at this time.”

Part of me was relieved as the situation had deescalated somewhat, but the adrenaline was still coursing from the urgency in the voice of the previous controller. Spring-loaded to bring overpowering firepower at one moment, at the next expected to wait while we figured out the situation and took a step back from rash decisions. This would be a tricky nut to crack. Welcome to Afghanistan.

--

A few days before we started flying combat sorties, our skipper and Air Wing Commander (CAG) spoke to all the aviators. Nearly a year in training for these few months ahead, it was time for the pep talk. They were pretty short and to the point, but a few things stuck out.

Our Skipper: “Final release of weapons lies with you in the cockpit. When it comes down to it, neither me nor CAG will be in a position to tell you what to do. You will be responsible for ensuring proper hostile intent and identification has been met. You have been trained to make the right decisions, and we trust you. Now go execute.”

CAG: “There are two reasons why we do this and have prepared for this day for over a year. The first is that we have the honor of defending our country and fighting alongside the men and women on the ground who are keeping the people back home safe. Secondly, we do this because each and every day we get to see if we have what it takes, if we meet the standards expected of us. If the trust placed in our judgment and tactical proficiency is indeed deserved. Prove you have what it takes.”

The day began early with the mass brief. A quick update of weather up the Boulevard, our transit route into Afghanistan, and then in country. A tactical update with current operations ongoing in Afghanistan, followed by discussions of what each element of two aircraft was tasked to accomplish that day. Political and cultural descriptions sprinkled throughout, giving context to the missions. Lessons learned from the previous days, and things to watch out for today.

We then broke off into our various sections. The flow was pretty standard: an hour and fifteen minute transit from our carrier operating area to the south of Afghanistan, hit an Air Force refueling platform, provide close air support for an element on the ground for about 45 minutes, hit another tanker, go back for another 45 minute period of CAS, hit our third and final tanker, then make our way back to the ship. All told, over six hours in the air.

As this was only my third mission, I was still trying to figure out a routine in order to ensure I wasn’t forgetting anything when we finally walked to start up our jets. I ran through everything in my mind. ID card and dog tags. Check out a 9mm Sig from the squadron duty officer with associated ammo. Check out my blood chit and evasion maps. Review my game plan if I for some reason had to eject; if I get captured, if I get rescued. Check for an extra survival radio battery. Grab a few Cliff Bars and Piddle Paks. Fill up my water bottle. Get a seat pad. Fuel card and T-handle from maintenance in case we have to divert. Night vision goggles with bracket, just in case we get extended into the night hours. Products the Ground Liaison Officer had given us for each JTAC we were fragged to support that day. Smartpack with answers to nearly everything that may arise in flight. My flight bag was stuffed – I wasn’t sure it would all fit into the cockpit.

I’ve found there is a strange sense of comfort in the snugness associated with strapping into these airplanes. All our survival gear hugging tightly and perfectly fitted to our heads and torsos. Four leg straps, two lap belts, two shoulder harnesses keeping us immobile within the ejection seat. Publications and maps and the necessities for survival stuffed into the cranny just to the right of the seat. During primary flight training, I remember some of the flight instructors who originally flew large airplanes with spacious cockpits brag about their luxuries. I liked having nowhere to move – it was as if the airplane was now a direct extension of my body. A 59,000 pound hunk of metal to be manipulated by a mere 200 pound man. Forty thousand pounds of raw and untamed thrust to be harnessed by mere fingertips and neural synapses. Talk about leverage.

Once we were started, we taxied to the catapult, awaiting the official launch to commence. All of our systems worked as advertised, the check-in with our wingman was uneventful, and we were a full up round. We waited for twenty minutes in silence doing nothing. Hurry up and wait.

I snapped out of a brief daydream to the yellow shirt on my right waving his hands, indicating I need to taxi forward to bring the launch bar into the catapult shuttle. He looked to his right, then his left, then shot his right arm out. Tension.
Throttles mil. Launch bar up, light is out. Flaps full, indicating full. Engine instruments look good, nozzles look good, hyd pressure looks good. Stick forward… aft…left…right…rudders full left…full right. I’m good to go. “I’m set in the back.” Look out to the left, the Shooter pumps his fist into the air three times. Throttles full afterburner. A deafening roar fills my ears, even encased behind the thick glass bubble of the canopy and double hearing protection. I give a snappy salute to the Shooter. He salutes back and touches his left hand to the deck while kneeling down. My right hand grabs the handle on the canopy bow in front of me, my left arm locked keeping the throttles at their maximum setting. A quick breath in, waiting in the instant before the impulse takes effect.

We are plastered to the seat. Instantly you know it’s a good cat shot and we’re going flying. A 59,000 lbs, asym 3 combat shot is simply astounding. Nothing in the world is like it. Your head pressed back against the headrest such that you cannot even move it. Planes and people and flight deck blurs as your vision constricts to the soda straw in front of you. Accelerating from 0 to nearly 200 miles per hour in 2 seconds. Finally released from the acceleration and free of the deck, it takes a moment to come out of the haze, but you do, take a quick check turn to the left, bring the gear and flaps up, and accelerate to 300 knots at 500 feet.

“Spear One Three, One Four you are clear to join.” The Air Boss comes over Tower’s frequency and informs us our wingman has been launched in tandem with us, and is a few hundred feet to our right. There sits a sleek grey jet skimming the blue water on a bright day, slowly snuggling up on my wing. I’m reminded of why I do this.
After those few moments of sheer adrenaline and exhilaration, the next hour is remarkable for its lack of anything remarkable. So too is the land we soon find ourselves flying over.

Pakistan is absolutely desolate. I’ve flown over the expanses of the Western United States, passing over the deserts of New Mexico and rocky vacuum of West Texas, but this is something else entirely. It is the visual definition of godforsaken -- endless sand amidst dark gray rock outcroppings, no water, no greenery. There are washes aplenty where in the rainy season it appears rivers flow, but not now. There are a few oases of civilization, but even these are mere dots of black in a sea of dust. A constant haze layers just...sits over the entire region, and the only time you are out of it is when flying above 20,000 feet. It’s like being over a different planet.

The demarcation between Pakistan and Afghanistan is only on our political maps. The landscape shows no mention of a “border.” One endless sea of barren soil gives way to the next. But psychologically – psychologically there is a shift that takes place. I’m over the Line. This is no longer a training mission over the desert of Nevada, but an incursion into another sovereign nation. Our bombs are real. Our decisions have consequences. There are people who would love to shoot me down.

--

“Orion Four, Spear One Three is sensor on that target. Looks to be a cave entrance with surrounding buildings, no movers seen. Confirm coordinate Seventy-Three Delta, Golf Quebec, 9-4-5-2, 2-6-1-3.”

“That’s a good read back Spear One Three, copy that entrance and no movers. Request you search around that area a report back anything suspicious.”

We kept our orbit flowing, skirting the border as close as we could stand without actually going over it. Once again the lay of the land gave no indication that there were different countries. Villages and paths flowed across the dotted black line on our moving map within the cockpit, and outside one mountain gave way to another valley. This was quintessential tribal land, the people and cultures not restricted by international agreements but rather centuries and even millennia of intermarriage and caravans of trade. Here we were, acutely cognizant over a line in the sand, adhering to it while the mostly neutral, and likely hostile, peoples below bore more allegiance to their village elder than either Islamabad, Kabul or NATO Frameworks.
Our enemies and adversaries, after eight years of running and hiding and causing havoc, know how to exploit these political requirements. My WSO, callsign Creature, and I ruminated as we monitored on the fact that the cave this insurgent escaped into likely had numerous exits far from this entrance we were glommed onto. These guys aren’t stupid. Tunneling and underground networks have been used against us to great effect in the past, Korea and Vietnam being the most notable. Run to where we can’t get them after a quick strike. They say in war, never accept a fair fight. Insurgents know this better than anybody.

Three missions in, and we had stumbled upon the classic difficulty of a war such as the one we face in Afghanistan. We are forced to respond to hostile situations rather than shape them to our advantage. Our superior firepower arrived too late to catch fleeing and savvy perpetrators. That and the fact that superior firepower doesn’t really matter in the long run. The bad guys look like civilians. The civilians are suspected of being bad guys. In either situation, months of hard earned trust can be lost from a misplaced perception leading to a misplaced weapon.
A few days later I was supporting a British JTAC, perhaps the most professional I have ever worked with. As we returned from our mid-cycle refueling, we got word from him that they had taken fire from five insurgents who had escaped into a wooded region next to a canal. He was revved up, the normally calm descriptions giving way to a bit of stress and faint sounds of gunfire in the background. We got our sensors into the suspected target area, immediately finding a “hot-spot” with our infrared sensor and what looked to be people running back and forth between it and a building. Artillery fire had been launched into the region; perhaps this was a round that hit something. The JTAC followed with interest. Our suspicions were high, we were ready to go kinetic if need be.

Soon though, things didn’t add up. There were these hot spots all over the place. As the sun set, little red specks popped up outside our cockpit on the darkening land. It turned out they were camp fires. Our suspicions were unfounded. Later on the transit home, in the hour of nothing but straight and level fight, we discussed this within our two man crew. The running could have been kids playing as they are wont to do around campfires everywhere. How do you balance the benign with the threatening? A similar situation a few days ago: one of the guys in our squadron was watching a convoy of Army vehicles transit down a road when all of a sudden one of them exploded as an IED detonated underneath it. Asymmetry at its most poignant.

After spending less than two hours in comms with the Brit, and knowing nothing but his tactical callsign, a bond and kinship was developed that I cannot explain. The protector and protected, seeking to accomplish the near impossible and quell a home-grown insurgency so that security can be maintained for countrymen halfway around the world, many of whom will never understand what is occurring on their behalf. He mentioned he is headed home in a few days after seven months on the ground, glad to be returning to the UK. What I wouldn’t give to spend an evening in some London pub trading stories with him.

It is bitterly ironic that the Twenty-First Century sanitized war of technology (Shock and Awe, Network Centric Warfare, etc) we were promised by strategists and politicians and military industrialists has instead given way to one where a culture far inferior to our own with respect to economics and development is in many ways neutralizing the greatest military power the world has ever known. The War of Necessity is the one we have no idea how to win.

But we are trying. In an upheaval of the Rules of War, it’s a good day when we return back to the ship with all of our weapons unexpended. It means that the troops on the ground had no need to bring a rain of fire from above. In that particular region, on that particular day, the strategy of pacifying a restive population and winning their trust has been accomplished, even if but for a moment. Success is not measured by the number of “kinetic events,” but rather the lack thereof. The easily exploitable political requirements we operate under are, interestingly, the very policies that stand the best chance of defeating this wily foe.

Despite the ambiguities, it’s good to finally be doing something that has been for me over five years in the making. When I’m not flying over the beach, I look on the scheduling board to see when I next get to go. When I’m flying over the beach, there is deep satisfaction in what we are doing, even if the long run portends uncertainty.

So while the debate rages in Washington, and our military and political leaders fight over what should be allocated and who should be supplemented, we fly our daily missions dealing with the ambiguity that nearly incapacitates democracies. Seeing if we measure up to what is expected of us. It is all we can do.

God Bless,
Ben

Liberty Call

This was definitely something I could get used to. High atop the Park Hyatt hotel in Tokyo, I was eating dinner with two of my fellow aviators. Surrounding us was a panoramic view of one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and the points of light beaming from every direction left no doubt as to the statistic’s truth.

The place called itself “The New York Grille,” and while it styled itself after a very upscale western establishment, the characteristics were undeniably Japanese. My friend Fu had invited myself and Chainsaw to accompany him on this excursion (the names are real…), and since I had wanted to see the sights, I readily accepted. Plus, as a single guy with no financial obligations at home and nothing else to spend my money on, a lavish dinner was becoming more of a tradition than anything in port. Some guys liked to drink beers by the pool – a small cadre of us chose the opposite route.

Tasting menus, wine pairings for each course (to be fair, I just let Fu do the choosing – I’m far from a wine bon viviant), white linen tables while a jazz trio hummed in the background. Confident men and their well dressed ladies, business being conducted, celebrations being celebrated. After nearly a month aboard ship, with grease everywhere on the white walls, fried food being the norm, and the same flightsuits worn day in and day out, the contrast was stark. The bare necessities of shipboard life suddenly transitioning into the literal lap of luxury.

Our hotel was in the trendy Roppongi district, surrounded by gaudy displays of the elite of society: Prada, Gucci, Tiffany’s, Rolex. We had an American celebrity at our hotel passing through the lobby when we checked in, to be seen quite a few times during the four day adventure. Ferrari’s, Aston Martin’s, and even the occasional Rolls Royce greeted us in the hotel’s parking each evening.

That aside, it was relaxing and comforting to be in a place where life was normal. From my vantage point near the center of the restaurant, I spied a young couple on some sort of date – they had a table on the edge of floor-to-ceiling windows with a drop of nearly 75 stories. I was intrigued to watch this Japanese pairing – the late twenty something man accepted the check, and with a shy smile and near whisper, his female companion gave the thank you repeated universally throughout the world after an unforgettable evening. Across cultures and languages, it gave me pause to consider the emotions that are unwavering across the human race.

Tokyo was our first stop outside the United States, and perhaps an appropriate one for the mission we are on our way to undertake. The United States military still has a significant presence on the island nation, over sixty years after Japan’s defeat during World War II. I’ve been reading David Halberstam’s “The Fifties,” and I found it interesting that in the aftermath of that war, in what all elements of our society now believe to be effective techniques in nation building, there was significant political opposition to our now heralded saints President Truman and Secretary of State Marshall.

It seems that both sides of the aisle blamed them for “winning the war, but losing the peace.” The War was supposed to end the tyranny of fascism and bring about the democratization of Japanese society. And yet it didn’t go according to plan – at first. It would be hard to argue that Japan ever emulated the American version of democracy. For over fifty years, and until the watershed elections of the past month, the Japanese people were ruled by one party. But they prospered nonetheless, and have charted their own course under our benign occupation.

(As an aside, we arrived days before this momentous vote, and I noticed nothing that would indicate an election was happening. This may have been due my acute foreignness and lack of understanding of the language, but there were no signs, no overt advertisements, nothing like an American race. Perhaps that is the nature of Parliamentary elections, but I think it also was a reflection of the Japanese people themselves, and the subtleness with which they carry on with their society.)

I don’t really believe history repeats itself in an absolute sense, but there are certainly lessons to be learned that can generally be applied. The first and foremost of which is that it takes decades to truly discover the effect of foreign policy decisions, especially those that involve tens of thousands of troops in far off places. I think it would be safe to say that Truman’s stubbornness in the face of shortsighted political opponents paid off in the long run. And had far reaching consequences, both for good and ill, that we are seeing to this day.

The enlightening thing about being removed from your native land is that it provides a degree of perspective, and a wave of possibilities that open up if the traveler is willing to just observe. Moving on from the heady subject of Democracy with Japanese Characteristics, let talk about something a bit more entertaining: Baseball with Japanese Characteristics.

I’ve seen some fanatical sports fans in my life – but nothing compares to the Japanese. Most baseball games in the United States are pretty subdued affairs from the standpoint of fan interaction, except for maybe the World Series. In Japan, every game is like a college football game on steroids.

The first thing that caught our attention was that we could bring beer and food into the stadium. Wally the Beer Man was actually Yukio the cute brunette in a skirt (tasteful…), which was obviously a big hit. As soon as we took our seats, we noticed that the stadium was starkly divided: The Yellow and Black of the Hanshin Tigers along the third base side through left field, and the Blue and Black of the Yokohama BayStars (the home team) from the first base line to right field.

Pandemonium is the best word to describe every half inning. The fans of the team in the field, from the first pitch to the third out, chanted their team slogans at the top of their lungs. Everything was somehow coordinated, and the tens of thousands of fans knew exactly what to shout when. Each team sported a pep band (loud!) and huge flags that were flown in their section of the outfield stands. This went on for nine innings – constant noise and colorful displays. An amazing display of endurance if I’ve ever seen one. And there were cheerleaders. Our XO mentioned in passing that an enterprising junior officer should find out where they went after the games to hang out, but to my knowledge, we never found out…

It was a fascinating microcosm of their culture. Absolute devotion to a particular cause, individualism suppressed to support the common goal. Even amidst the chaos, politeness ruled – there were no violent outbreaks or vulgar feuds between the opposing fans. A culture built on hierarchy and honor. It was somewhat embarrassing as we Americans walked away from our section: littered throughout were the remnants of our evening while the surrounding sections previously occupied by locals were as if no one had even been there.

Tokyo was eclipsed not less than two weeks later, however, by Singapore. There is an old joke comparing Air Force and Navy fighter pilots. It goes on for some time, but the last line has something about Zoomies spending time at home with their wife and kids, while the single Naval aviator picks up the hottest girl in the bar – that bar, of course, being in Singapore. I understand the joke now.

Since I am by nature a political being, I’ll begin from that angle. Singapore is a benign dictatorship with a democratic process that is one of the most economically open and successful countries in the world. Utterly remarkable. I previously mentioned Democracy with Japanese Characteristics – Singapore has its own.

While America rages over health care and every other imaginable issue under the sun, the Singaporean people are apathetic – a native’s word, not mine. I met up with a very close friend of mine from college who I hadn’t seen in over two years, and since he now lives there, was able to see the city from a very unique perspective.

Its economic openness is reflected in the people that inhabit it and the languages it considers official: Chinese, Indian, Malayian and English. Immigration is highly encouraged, although the application process can be somewhat strict and drawn out. The market seems to rule everything, to great effect. Even the lower classes seem to be quite prosperous when compared to the rest of the world, and even American poor. It doesn’t hurt that Singaporeans save at a prodigious rate, and their adversity to risky investments has allowed their economy to miss most of the worldwide financial meltdown.

One party states are able to make decisions that are unpopular, but ultimately good for the society – in Singapore’s case free trade. They are also able to invoke unity that in adversarial democracies like America would never stand – the element that most stood out to me was a poster invoking “national unity to defeat terrorism” on many of the bus stops. Even after having never been attacked! Especially for one who loves the give and take of political discussion, it was interesting to see this single party government produce results without debate.

But autocracy does come with a cost. Laws and punishments that are, to put it bluntly, draconian by Western standards. Death by Public Hanging for drug distribution, caning for various relatively minor offenses. A press that is hardly free, and a society for which libel is frequently invoked by the government. The Wall Street Journal was recently successfully sued for defaming the government when it ran an editorial in its Asian edition critical of the ruling regime. Elections are held, and although there is an opposition, they are routinely routed – albeit fairly it must be said.

In discussing this one party system with my friend while walking down the very affluent shopping district – once again, with the Gucci’s and Prada’s and Tiffany’s and Rolex’s – we ran through the democratic Asian countries that this seems to be the case with. South Korea, up until the late 1980s, was basically an autocracy. So too was Taiwan and the Philippines. We’ve already discussed Japan. China and Vietnam have become increasingly capitalistic, increasing the wealth and prosperity of their peoples remarkably (with admittedly mixed human rights results), while maintaining the single-party grip on power. Prosperity, more than anything else, seems to prevent the inevitable uprising that would occur in America towards a ruling party.

The inclination towards engineering over politics is ever present as well. It was a sight to behold within the central library to see it packed with patrons reading in all corners and along every wall. I was most intrigued by their transportation infrastructure and method of attempting to keep traffic somewhat manageable – clearly with mixed results. To own a car, you must pay an annual fee that is set through an auction system. X number of permits are allocated, and the top X bidders get them for a set time frame. This greatly drives up the price of new autos, but there seems to be no lack of desire to possess them.

Additionally, much like the much publicized London system, there are various corridors throughout the city that cost a given amount of money at particular times of the day. So, for instance, a main thoroughfare may cost $1.00 to transit between 4pm and 8pm, but be free after that. This fee is deducted from a machine on each car that basically operates like a transportation debit card, and is also linked with the parking garage system. Many of the garages have sensors over each spot, letting potential parkers know which garages are full, and signs are posted throughout the city so you have an idea of where to go. All the garages are fully automated, and the debit system tracks when you enter and leave, deducting the appropriate (and remarkably inexpensive) amount.

Their housing plan is also quite intriguing. Public housing makes up a large percentage of living units, but instead of merely subsidizing rentals, the government forces its inhabitants to actually buy their property (subsidized based on income). After five years, they are able to sell it with no capital gains taxes. With the required ownership, public housing, at least what I saw, was remarkably clean and well kept – nothing like the projects that have beset American urban centers. To be sure, there are those that game the system, and make it work to their advantage, but for the most part, it seems to both incentivize responsibility effectively and provide housing to everybody who needs it. Real estate is such a hot commodity, that instead of asking a woman to marry them, a suitor may instead ask “will you buy an apartment with me?” (If you are under 35, only married couples can own real estate). Romantic.

The political, economic and transportation situations being what they are however, Singapore is a must see for any international traveler. The Night Safari, perhaps the only one of its kind in the world, was spectacular – lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, rhino’s, and all the nocturnal animals from around the world you never get to see awake and active in most Zoo’s. Plus there was something sensual about the Indian woman in the precise British accent who narrated the tram tour that brought everything to life.

Clarke Quay is a mesmerizing array of clubs and shops semi-enclosed by a unique glass roof and boardwalk of the Singapore River. Lots of very late evening were spent exploring this and Boat Quay. The Raffles Hotel, a vestige of British imperialism, stands proudly in the center of the city at a mere three stories, but with a history as rich as any hotel in Europe. For a nation whose self proclaimed pastimes are merely shopping and eating (half the downtown district seemed to be one huge above and below ground interconnected mall), there is certainly a lot to experience.

Soon enough though, it was time to leave and continue on our way. Days within re-embarking, we were informed that our deployment has been extended by two months. This wasn’t entirely unexpected, as the rumor mill was in full force prior to the official announcement, but still gave us a bit of pause.

No doubt more ports will be experienced, but for now we have a new and pressing focus: our first combat missions are mere days away. With that, I bid you all farewell until next time.

God Bless,

Ben