Tuesday, November 11, 2008
The first man is a handsome, yet somewhat tired looking figure, perhaps in his early to mid forties. He is dressed in the blues of an Air Force officer, with a crutch below his left shoulder, and in the background a throng of people stand cheering. Yet while he was the center of attention for the gathered crowd on the tarmac of the Minneapolis Airport where the scene took place, it is the second, and older, man that catches your eye.
For in his face are the lines of deep joy mixed with long-suffering tears finally welling to the surface. He wears a brown plaid hat tapered near the front with a distinguished crease down the middle and nearly imperceptible ear flaps on the sides. The pattern of his long coat matches that of his hat. Beneath the lenses of his glasses are the tears, and the faint smile of relieved emotion just below them.
The two men are embracing, and an observer is struck by the feeling that he can actually hear the prayer of thanksgiving being extended heavenward as the older man grasps the younger.
A Father sees his son for the first time in over five years. The Son had been off at War, imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton for the entirety of the period. The plane that brought him home sits near the crowd in the background. The Father kept the faith while he prayed for years on end for his son’s safe return.
The younger man is the husband of my great Aunt, the older his father. My mother is in the middle and high school band amidst the crowd in the background.
These family anecdotes, even if punctuated by a front page photo, don’t mean particularly much to a young boy growing up with baseball, Legos and airplanes to consume his energies and time. Perhaps the intrigue of the Air Force officer being a fighter pilot catches his imagination, but the impact of the homecoming scene that was so monumental evaded his understanding, at least in those formative years.
But even in the absence of understanding, the stories of those years between 1968 and 1973 were told over and over. My Great Uncle left to fight, and in his absence after being shot down and captured, his wife and children moved back to Minnesota to live with his wife’s mother. It was a stately home in Edina, adjacent to the still nascent Highway 100 and bordered by the Minnehaha Creek in the Country Club District.
My Mom and her brothers tell of those early years with amusement, and a tinge of sorrow. They had found new playmates in Frank, Peter, Liz and Bill, but the reason for their arrival was unwelcome at best. They were all children then, and managed to get into trouble, fight, make up, play make-believe. The seriousness of the adult world that plunged them into those circumstances was very real, but I don’t imagine they fully understood it. All they knew was that their Father or Uncle was painfully absent.
Meanwhile, as the children did as children do, the pilot’s wife, as all military wives throughout the centuries have done, waited and worried. She was surrounded by her brother and his wife. She had her mother and father to assist her with the children. She knew the plight of her husband, but was helpless to support him as she had vowed on their wedding day. She did all she could to keep her youthful and energetic family sustained amidst the absence of their father. She was lucky to get one letter a year from her husband. But She kept the faith on the home front.
Soon, a national organization of POW wives was formed, and She began communicating with and befriending the wife of then Captain James Stockdale, the senior American imprisoned in Hanoi. They fought their own government, and made the personal absence of their beloved husbands a national issue. Hearings were held, and even as America erupted into chaos on its college campuses and returning service members were spit upon and harassed, a subtle roar of support for the imprisoned pervaded its way through the national consciousness.
Half a world away, the hundreds of Americans captured by their enemies tried to build a society in the midst of unimaginable depravity and desolation. Their country was bound by concrete walls and iron barred windows. Their cuisine was moldy soup and rotten bread. Their culture created from the philosophers of old. Their character, tested and strained, remained resolutely American.
They devised ingeniously simple methods of communication to maintain human contact with their fellow isolated prisoners. Entire conversations were conducted by merely tapping on a wall – and in some cases the best of them could transmit upwards of fifty words per minute. Their deepest secrets and greatest hopes were passed sometimes between men who had never, nor ever would, meet each other face to face. They refused repatriation except for those cases allowed under the Code of Conduct, and endured terrifying tortures. All of them at one point or another broke, but their brothers were there to build them up slowly, empathizing with them as they too had broken. Some of them died, others went missing. All were physically broken, many mentally and psychologically so.
As only military men can do, they managed to recreate the rigid hierarchy and chain-of-command that they had known their entire lives. They assigned collateral duties to keep the men occupied. The leaders among the prisoners issued orders for conduct and defiance of their captors. The most effective of them were separated from their subordinates and placed in solitary confinement for their innovations. When faced with the prospect of being a propaganda tool for the enemy, their leader cut and deformed his face to such a degree that their captors finally understood their resolve.
At one point, a prisoner managed to sew an American flag out of bits of torn fabric. His brethren said the pledge of allegiance over and over. Upon hearing this, the guards came in, took the artisan and his flag, and nearly beat the former to death. Upon his return to the cell, bloodied and bruised, barely able to walk, the first thing he did was begin to sew another flag.
For a time, sickness ran rampant through the prison. As the prisoners were given only water to wash their cold metal plates with, sanitation was minimal at best. Yet, they devised a means to thwart illness spread through uneaten food. They simply licked their plates clean after each meal, rinsing them afterwards. Amazingly, the transmission of illness through insufficiently washed utensils ceased.
One of their most junior members, derided and then ignored by their captors, was ordered to accept release. He, despite his captor’s perception of him as having no intellectual acumen, had memorized the name and rank of every American in prison –over 750 in all. His return to the United States was the first many families had heard of their missing loved ones – and the extent to which Americans were being held prisoner in unimaginable conditions.
Yet throughout years of such treatment, in some cases surpassing seven and eight, the men kept the faith. And then one day, their unconditional release came. They, representing every branch of the Armed Forces, were headed home.
Even in their release, they gave no quarter to their enemy. Hoping to gain the good will of the world through the image of jubilant prisoners being released, their captors had cameras ready to record their elation. However, the now free Americans remained stoically silent and stone-faced until their freedom bird had lifted from the ground. Once safely airborne, they cheered and cried. They really were, finally, free.
Captain Jeremiah Denton, one of the senior commanders, and prisoner for over eight years, penned the following on the flight home:
"We are honored to have had the opportunity to serve our country under difficult circumstances. We are profoundly grateful to our Commander in Chief and to our nation for this day. God bless America."
Soon after, similar scenes of homecoming as experienced by my family were repeated around the country. The war may not have been won, but the men who fought it and their families who lived it remained faithful to the end.
Lost in the lexicon of civilian life are the tales of bravery and heroism that pervade every corner of military tradition. It is the men that precede us we pay homage to, and to whom we strive to match in standards of integrity and character.
We are an imperfect profession, populated with imperfect people, defending an imperfect nation. But intertwined with this very imperfection are the complimentary traits that lead inexorably to the innovation and spirit of liberty that has perpetuated our nation’s greatness.
It is the very tears shed at the homecoming of our heroes that make valid their sacrifices for our freedoms. Sacrifice is not sacrifice unless borne by the best of what we have to offer. To this, and them, we owe a debt of profound gratitude.
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Location: USS Nimitz; between Wake Island and Hawaii, Pacific Ocean
Dear Friends and Family-
When I was a little kid, I was obsessed with World War II, specifically the Pacific theater. I presume this comes as no surprise to anybody reading this, as the contemplation of all things military, Navy in particular, seems to catch my interest and inform my musings. My favorite movie was "Midway," about the eponymous battle in June of 1942, which I must have watched every weekend throughout middle school. My eighth grade history project was on the "Great Mariana's Turkey Shoot" and the recapture of Saipan and Tinian Islands in the Mariana's chain from the Japanese in 1944. Heck, last summer my mom found some of my Kindergarten papers, and on one that asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wrote "Air Force pilot." (disclaimer – I was unaware the Navy had an aviation arm at the time!)
So throughout my life, these histories have reached almost mythical proportions, only to be reinforced by my current profession and the role Navy fighter pilots played in each. I could point out on a globe where each of these chains were, and the path that was needed to get there by Halsey, Nimitz and MacArthur. But until I actually saw these islands for myself, as I recently did, the full impact of this written history was far from apparent.
In my past three months aboard this ship, the one thing I have come to appreciate more than anything else is how incredibly vast the Pacific Ocean is. We can take off, climb to 30,000 feet, and on a clear day, as far as the eye can see, view uninterrupted shimmering blue water. No land in sight, save a few scattered volcanic specks. Off the coast of Japan, its color takes on a more grayish hue, but its beauty becomes absolutely mesmerizing near Guam and other tropical islands. The deep blue of the deep ocean is just that. Its beauty belies the desolation it represents, but is compelling nonetheless.
Among this vastness are tiny oases of human activity separated by thousands of miles. It is surreal to fly over the island of Saipan, see that it is a mere few square miles of area, then glimpse the light shallows on its Western side. When I first saw them, I almost forgot to keep flying as it suddenly hit me that this was the very coral where thousands of Marines waded hundreds of yards to reach their landing beaches because their amphibious craft didn't have the draft to take them further. The coral upon which the landing and one of the lynchpins of the Island Hopping strategy was almost stopped in its tracks as many were cut down before they ever reached dry land. The coral upon where thousands of GI's, and tens of thousands of Japanese, died for a seemingly small piece of land in the middle of the Pacific.
A week ago, we passed by Wake Island. Unlike Saipan, accompanied by her sisters Tinian and Guam that comprise the major players of the Mariana Islands, Wake is really an atoll, and she is all alone. In what ended up being my last flight of this cruise, we took a section of Super Hornets to check the island out, and discovered that there is exactly one airstrip, and one golf course on Wake. That's it. In her midst was an emerald colored pool that took up most of her land. In my minds eye, I could see the thousands of landing ships surrounding this interruption of ocean, and almost feel the terror of the defenders as they saw the approaching armada on the once perpetually empty horizon.
And tomorrow, we will pull into Pearl Harbor, setting foot on American soil for the first time in months. The Nimitz will have her rails manned around the flightdeck with sailors and officers in whites, rendering honors as we pass the memorials to the sunken Tennessee, Nevada and Arizona. It is fitting that this coincides with Memorial Day, in perhaps the most sacred of all places for the United States Navy.
Yet while this cruise has for all intents and purposes been a peaceful one for us, with the only inkling of actual warfare being the aforementioned living history (and a few cheeky Russian bombers), it is the changes and refining process that I have undergone that will undoubtedly shape me for the rest of my life.
One of the things that continues to be the most significant for me is conversing back and forth with friends from flight school, some of whom I hadn't spoken with in ages, who are on assignment throughout the world. It seems like yesterday that we were all struggling through the same simulators, complaining about the same instructors, and dreaming of the day when we too would be shot off the front of a perfectly good ship. It is one of the characteristics peculiar to myself (I think) that I become closer to people through absence and subsequent reunion. Perhaps the reflection of hardship shared or revelry fondly reflected upon is the thing that solidifies brotherhood in my mind. But it is there nonetheless when I hear about passage through the Straits of Hormuz, operating off the coast of Australia, or making a port call to Marseilles. We may be separated by thousands of miles, and countless time-zones, but the empathy and understanding is universal.
This has not been an easy cruise, psychologically or mentally, by any stretch of the imagination. Especially as a Nugget, I've lost track of how many nights I've gone to bed tossing and turning in my rack, wondering if I will ever cut it. One too many one wires, the frustrations of life at sea coursing through my brain when I know I should be sleeping. After a bad landing at the boat, the hardest thing I have ever done is get up again the next morning, and convince myself to climb in the jet to try it again – wondering what the skipper is thinking still trusting me. Every time taxiing to the catapult at night, musing that I still have a chance to stay on deck – all I have to do is not flip that switch, controlled merely by my pinky, turning on all the aircraft's lights indicating I am ready to be hurled into the darkest blackness I have ever experienced. That's what a sane person would do. Yet every time, I for some reason flick the switch on anyway, meaning that at some point I will have to come back and land – and it will probably be even darker.
Cursing the fate of having nowhere to blow off steam because no matter where you go, I am still on the ship, able to be called back to the ready room at a moments notice. Sometimes the only solace being to close the curtains across my tiny cube of personal space, put on the headphones with a Beethoven Symphony and read through the latest issue (it being from Sept of '07, but still refreshing) of Smithsonian magazine stopping on an article about the homes of the founding fathers – in an attempt to take myself as far away from this place and the Navy as possible.
Then sometimes I get up in the air, things go right, and an unexplainable feeling of euphoria envelops me. The sun setting, orange and reds brilliantly bouncing off the clouds as another section of Hornets passes below me. I catch the three wire on a rails all the way, center ball pass, shut the jet down and smile as the plane captain asks how my flight went, the adrenaline keeping my spirits up at least through midrats (midnight meal). I've once again made the world safe for democracy, and CAG has nothing to be mad about. Yet I still wonder what life is like with trees and plant life, the beguiling smell and saunter of women, and good food. Mythical things we have all heard of, and maybe even experienced at one point in our lives, but seemingly out of reach.
Somewhere, some place, gas prices are apparently going up. Mortgages are being foreclosed on. I even hear there is an election going on, with a barnburner of a campaign and the associated meaningless commentary from self-important talking heads. Universities are graduating a new crop of lawyers, businesspeople, doctors, financers. The things that used to consume my daily life are merely echoes in the reality I occupy on cruise, and somehow they just don't seem that important. One day at a time, one more day, then maybe a time will come once again where life exists outside these metal walls. At least this highly concentrated environment has one up side – it puts into perspective what really matters.
When I first came to meet my squadron in Japan, I remember sitting in the waiting room of Narita airport in Tokyo, looking around, thinking of how great it would be to spend time getting to further know that culture. What it would be like to then spend subsequent years in various parts of the world just learning and living their different cultures. But as this cruise has gone on, and I have had the chance to visit quite a few other places, it has become apparent how much I miss the States and how incredible it really is.
When I fall asleep at night, it is not the rest of the world I dream about, but memories of my home. The rolling hills of Virginia horse country in the summer, exploring and discovering out of the way taverns amidst slowly settling mist. Experiencing the museums of Chicago, and the bustle of Michigan Avenue. Absorbing the magnificence of the Washington Mall at night, seeing Mr. Lincoln on one side and the glowing Capitol building on the other, then solemnly walking the Vietnam memorial as tears slowly well up being in the presence of fallen compatriots. Driving though Bel Air gawking at the mansions and gaudy displays of wealth, but loving the palm tree lined boulevards and falling in love with California. Running the Lakes of Minneapolis and stopping at the Bandshell to hear whatever concert happens to be occurring, then getting a scoop of ice cream from Sebastian Joe's. Driving through the Sierra's to ski Squaw Valley and catch a glimpse of Lake Tahoe shimmering on a cold winters day. Hearing from friends who have just led their first ER operation, taking about the shenanigan's of their kindergarteners, what the first year of married life has held. Most of all, the freedom to do whatever we American's please, whenever we please. The cacophony of opinion, both left and right, the marketplace of religions, the innovation of free markets and free peoples.
I am almost there, and for that I am grateful. My friends are still scattered throughout the globe, and though I will be back for the time being, part of me will remain with them, often in situations and environments more serious than any I faced in the Western Pacific. They will not see home for some time yet, but perhaps the history they are making now will one day inspire a young boy to dream, and see with his own eyes what the history books were really talking about.
Thanks for all your support -- it means the world.
Saturday, June 14, 2008
Location: USS Nimitz; North of the Mariana Island Chain, Pacific Ocean
Dear Friends and Family:
A few weeks ago, I received a letter via snail mail from a cousin of mine who is in middle school. After relating some of the various adventures that girls of her age undergo, none of which, I might add, I had any inkling of as a shy, nerdy boy when I was her age, she mentioned her attendance at a leadership camp she had been selected to attend. As only a young mind could so eloquently put it, she summarized the experience by noting that "nobody really brought back any mental leadership ideas or effects on people if you will." The moment I read this, I burst out laughing at its precocious honesty. Only Heaven knows the number of leadership courses and camps that I have been to that hardly imparted anything of value to me. Here is someone, as a young teen, who has seen through the bureaucratic morass of the school of thought that believes leadership can be taught through seminars and bookwork.
One doesn't really appreciate this truth until observing the crucible of uncertain situations and how those assigned to leadership positions react. And while the military is obviously well known to have a plethora of crucibles to choose from, I think the same can be said for nearly all professional civilian pursuits as well. An MBA, JD or PhD does not confer upon the bearer's inherent experience that time and again proves to be the greatest teacher. But since a wise mentor once told me to only speak of those things that I am personally knowledgeable about, I will attempt to convey some of my acquired musings within the confines of naval aviation.
The first thing that comes to mind is the position that I hold. It is literally at the bottom of the tactical hierarchy. And even our skipper, who within a squadron is the final arbiter and dictator (in the most respectful sense) of policy, is at best within the middle regions of national policy. To grossly, but still somewhat accurately, simplify things, I am the junior aircrew in a two seat aircraft, the second plane of a two ship section of fighters. Above us is a division lead, in charge of two sections. He is tasked by the operations department who in turn reports to the skipper. Above our CO is CAG, the carrier air group commander, in charge of all the battle group's air assets (typically seven squadrons). He reports to the battle group commander, usually a one or two star admiral, who in turn is tasked by in our case, PACCOM (Combatant Commander for the Pacific Area of Responsibility). He in turn reports to the Secretary of Defense and the President. When one contemplates this organizational chart, I really am just a cog in the machine. But still one piece of many that makes theoretical policy a reality. We jet guys tend to see the world as revolving around us and our particular squadron, but the Big Picture is far from that perceived reality.
One of the unique things about "leadership" in the fighter pilot world is that when we are leading, we are leading other independent operators. It is the ultimate in mission control, where directives are passed down by higher authority, but must be executed without supervision. The most fun flights I have been on are large force strikes, where 20 or more airplanes are in the sky, all with various roles, simulating an attack on a significant target, including air intercept assets as well as the ground attack elements and other players with very important suppression of enemy air defense roles. There is a strike lead in one aircraft, but as soon as the fight starts, he necessarily must immediately delegate general authority to various component leaders. He has given a general directive during the brief, but has to trust that when he sends them on their way, his element leaders will execute appropriately. There are times when all of us are acting independently based on evolving circumstances, making split second decisions without consultation that may affect the entire strike package. Even all powerful CAG can be at the mercy of an inexperienced pilot who chooses the wrong course of action at a pivotal moment (not that this has happened in my case! Thank goodness for the WSO in my back seat…but theoretically… ;-) ). This is in the tactical, dynamic world of combat. Fortunately, we often do not face situations like these for real.
For more day to day operations, the face of leadership, no matter where the directives originate from, is our skipper. If we get news we are extending our cruise, our skipper tells us. He has nothing to do with the orders, but is responsible for their execution. In our case, I will unabashedly say his leadership is remarkable. In the two months I have been here, I have seen more good leadership traits, and nuggets of wisdom, that are worth emulating than in my entire life. This is a man who gets it, especially one who has successfully led men into combat, arguably the greatest test of leadership acumen. This is a man who is spoken of with reverence among both the officers and enlisted, not because of his rank, but because of his example. At the heart of this lies taking responsibility for all actions, and being honest with both successes, and especially, failures. What you see with him is what you get.
Perhaps one of the lessons that has had the greatest impact on me is his mantra that all decisions ultimately originate with a person. This may seem obvious, but we in the military have a tendency to depersonalize things. "The Pentagon is sending us here." " The Nimitz screwed me again." "I can't believe the Navy is doing this." His standard response is, "wait a second guys, lets look at this. Somebody made this decision, not an amorphous entity. If its wrong, blame them personally. If its right, then don't complain."
Most of the guys have been gone from home for 10 of the past 13 months, this current "Surge" cruise accounting for the latter half of that. Complaints have been rampant, understandably, and lots of invective directed towards Big Navy. The skipper sat us down one day, and said, "guys, don't blame this entity 'Big Navy.' If you want someone to blame, lets look at the guy who wanted us here, PACCOM. His name is Admiral Keating. For those of you who know him, you know he doesn't mess around, and knows his stuff. If he says we need to be out here, then we do." For me personally, that was enough. That doesn't mean being away from home is any less stressful, or living on the boat any less uncomfortable, but there is a method to the madness, and someone at the top who knows what he is doing. I personally met Admiral Keating at my brothers commissioning two years ago, and he gained my instant respect for what he said and his impressive track record. There was pretty much unanimous, if somewhat disgruntled, agreement within the ready room. Adm Keating was a fellow fighter pilot, has made more deployments and lived in more places than many of us have years in the military, and can be trusted. End of story. Same with Congress (not necessarily the trust part…)– as an amorphous entity, it doesn't make military appropriation decisions, individual congressmen do and they each have names with personal histories. They may be wrong, but there is always someone responsible, not the impersonal entity.
By the same token, his command philosophy is to make sure people come first. He isn't here to increase retention or drive his troops into the ground. His belief is that anybody who serves has done their part, and a career isn't in the cards for everybody. He just doesn't want anybody to leave because of the squadron atmosphere…leave that exodus to the individuals who set deployment schedules. It is rare to find a leader who knows when to push people to their limits, and when to stand up to higher authority to make sure they his people keep their sanity. When our squadron (sans me of course) was in the Gulf last summer, the skipper rightly drove the Aces to exhaustion by the end because our mission was to employ in combat, supporting the boots on the ground. This time around, our mission is different, and knowing where the breaking point is, he has specifically asked for our squadron to be tasked less. In raw numbers, a CO looking to promote to something higher doesn't do this. But a skipper who knows his people, and holds their welfare as paramount in a non-combat environment, is one that will get the best from them when the flag goes up, and their full devotion is required.
For many in the Navy, there is a prescribed career path, and jobs along the way, that are "highly encouraged" (note: that phrase in militaryspeak means mandatory) to rise to the upper echelons. It is something subtle, but noteworthy nonetheless, that our skipper tells us time and again to make the decisions about our job choice for us, not the Navy. Do what makes us happy, not what the detailer would have us do. This, for me especially, has been a great encouragement. I think it speaks highly of someone who truly wants the best for his subordinates, and gives them as much information as possible to make informed choices.
I was recently reminded of a quote in a speech given by the current Secretary of Defense that I believe is appropriate in describing our Skipper, and has many other general applications as well. It is from the late Air Force Col John Boyd (a man I have mentioned before):
"One day you will take a fork in the road, and you're going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go one way, you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises, and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club, and you will get promoted and get good assignments. Or you can go the other way, and you can do something, something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted, and you may not get good assignments, and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors, but you won't have to compromise yourself. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That's when you have to make a decision: to be or to do."
I believe there are cases where you can both "be" and "do," but are only possible when the latter is the focus, and the former just works out. Anyway, my point is that character counts, and in some commands the party line is encouraged, and in others, commitment to principles is. Ours exhibits the latter.
The philosophy of the skipper trickles down to the rest of the squadron, as the philosophy of any leader, good or bad, tends to do. I'm not sure I have ever been in such a tight-knit group of men, with virtually no personality conflicts. In a group of over 30 highly type-A ultra-competitive personalities, confined to the same piece of real estate for 5 months, this is nothing short of remarkable. Part of it may be the fact that we are the only two-seat tactical squadron in the air wing, are constantly (in good fun) assaulted by the single seat guys in the daily air wing cartoon, and thus band together to defend ourselves, but after so long away from home, it is much more than that.
In large part, I think this overall philosophy comes from his experience as a humble enlisted sailor responsible for waste management maintenance (that's the polite way of putting it...) prior to getting his commission and flying Tomcats and Super Hornets. It was those incremental learning experiences wrought from difficult situations, and many failures, that enabled him to lead what is now a remarkable organization. The squadron isn't perfect by any means, and there are always areas for vast improvement, but there is something significant going on. Experience counts, and those that take it to heart make their subordinates effective in their jobs.
Being in the Navy, deployed, is not the easiest thing in the world. But someone was truly looking out for me when I was quite literally randomly assigned to this squadron. The Department Heads, who have all been in other squadrons before this, are constantly amazed at the environment fostered by the current front office.
The squadron, however, is in for a quick evolution. The core of combat proven and experienced junior officers are all finishing their tours in the next three months. We have had five new jacks (myself included) since last January, with more slated to come once we return home. The current skipper is turning over with our XO in July. Our most experienced department heads are about to leave as well. So as with anything in life, change is on the horizon, and with the advent of a new administration, it will be interesting to see how the culture and atmosphere of our little band of brothers adapts. Chaser (outgoing) and Wimbo (incoming) have known each other for a long time, since going through Top Gun together. But they are very different in their approach to situations and people.
I think it will be fascinating to watch this evolution. Organizational change and cultures have always been an intense observational fascination of mine, and it looks like I will be directly exposed to yet another case study (wow, there comes the uber-analyst in me). I will be at the heart of it, probably taking on more responsibility than I am prepared for sooner than I think. I suppose however, that is where the real learning will occur, and I only hope that I will be able to absorb and implement lessons learned from the mistakes that are inevitable.
As always, I appreciate the thoughts and prayers that have been diligently sent my way. We are (hopefully) on the final leg of our journey, and I can't wait to take some R&R to see some of you in the coming months.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
Location: USS Nimitz, East of the Mariana's Island Chain, Western Pacific
Dear Friends and Family-
Deep in the desert of Arizona is an aircraft graveyard . Relics of past eras of aviation sit row upon row upon row for literally miles and miles. Scrapped 747s next to gutted B-52 bombers, what were once state of the art F-14s next to ancient DC-3s. A virtual timeline of technology is evident , and the march of ever increasing obsolescence apparent. For an aviation enthusiast, it is a cornucopia of history embedded in one location. Yet, if you want their real stories, you need only go to any number of VFW's around the country and talk to the men who flew them. Some piloted piston driven prop behemoths amidst flak storms in Germany, some single engine jets over the clear skies of Iraq. But one and all, they are men who, in the words of Robert Heinlein, "voluntarily stood between the desolation of war and civilization."
Though the ages passed and innovations evolved, the daring spirit of the men (and in modern times, women) has remained the same regardless of the technological changes around them. It is the conscious choice of thinking men that makes Heinlein's statement possible, not the massing of industrial might and technological marvel.
I recently read an article in a conservative magazine entitled "The Military We Wish We Had." It laid out a laundry list of future technologies that the author, a former undersecretary of Defense for President Reagan, believed were a requirement for future success in projecting American power. New ships, new airplanes, new network integrated body armor, all while extolling the virtues of recent acquisitions of high cost items like the MV-22 Osprey and the F-22 Raptor, both aviation related, gold plated projects that have yet to find a modern practical use (my opinion, of course, but yet another discussion for another day). It was not an unsurprising view, and a few years back, I would have wholeheartedly agreed. Indeed, the conventional wisdom is that bigger, better, more costly widgets makes for a better military. But experience is the greatest teacher, and something changes when you actually deal with the people behind the rhetoric. Perhaps the piece should have instead been entitled "The Armed Forces Defense Contractors and Congressional Contributors Wish They Had."
This is not to say that I am opposed to technological advancement, as indeed the platform I fly in on a daily basis is equipped with the latest and greatest in whiz-bang technologies, providing situational awareness that would otherwise not be possible. Its ease of use and effectiveness is far beyond what was available to even an aircraft one generation prior. But it is to say that for far too long, and in too many defense circles, technology, versus people, has been the silver bullet. This mindset, though increasingly entrenched, is increasingly too one-dimensional. This is one of the obvious conclusions to be drawn from the protracted conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan; for a time, insurgents with little more than homemade explosives nearly drove the most expensive military in the history of the world away. Ingenuity and necessity defeated technology, and only when we turned to the human element, emphasizing interaction and personal engagement while reassessing what mere science could accomplish, did the tide begin to turn.
Being onboard the quintessential artifice of American hegemony, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, has given me a unique view of the benefits of technology in the military world. But even more importantly, it has shown me that at the heart of it all lay the souls and hard earned efforts of men. Every day when I walk in the ready room, I am reminded subconsciously of an adage uttered by one of my favorite philosophers, the late Col. John Boyd: "Machines don't win wars, men do. And they use their minds to do it."
This was made apparent to me at a recent all officers meeting (AOM…we love our acronyms). As is the tradition at the beginning of these sessions, the junior most aircrew stands before the assembled wardroom, and gives us a bit of squadron history. VFA-41 has a particularly rich past, dating to the Korean War. Throughout it's over 50 years of commissioned service, the Black Aces have flown nearly every type of fighter aircraft in the Navy's inventory. Such venerable platforms as the F-4 Phantom, the F-14 Tomcat, and now of course the F/A-18 Super Hornet have carried the emblem of the Ace of Spades. But when we talk about where our squadron has been, it is always about the men that carried the torch before us, not the machines they flew.
On this particular day, Flounder (the aforementioned junior aircrew) gave a presentation on a young lieutenant (j.g) (the rank I am now) who just checked into then VF-41 in the mid-1960s. Soon after reporting aboard, he was sent on a combat mission into the heart of North Vietnam, and was shot down. He spent the next several years of his life in captivity, finally being repatriated to the US at the end of the war. His words after his release can be summed up in the pride he expressed at having served his country honorably next to brethren of equal character and fortitude. This man was no longer just a statistic or number, but his story was now part of my story. It was the horrors he endured and the spirit of returning with honor that defined his role in the squadron, not the effectiveness of his bombing during that fateful mission. At first, I thought it a rather depressing way to begin the AOM, but as I sat and pondered this, it became apparent that while somber in nature, it was the Truth, a history that really was. This business isn't just Dress Whites and setting our hair on fire going mach 2. The very imperfection and potential for tragedy of the profession is what makes it real and challenging. And even for those who did their cruises uneventfully, it was their willingness to stand at the precipice of potential calamity and do so because they believed in something greater than themselves. All their individual stories, both happy and sad, are an element to the spirit of the squadron, all a vital part of what gives us the bond that keeps us sane amidst the dreariness and difficulties of cruise. It is what has made me, after only six weeks in their midst, an integral and unquestioned part of this family.
While each squadron has its own lore and history, this one is particular to ours. A fierce sense of pride and competition that has been honed over the past six decades of service. The strange thing about this is that I will never know 90 percent of the people who have sat in the chairs that make up the rows in the ready room, but their esprit de corps is ever present. They are the giants, most hardly known beyond their friends and family, whose shoulders we now stand upon. Their prior service, whether it be in wars popularly supported or not, effectively carried out or not, is what gives us the basis for the present which we have inherited. Their machines took them where they needed to go, but the men who coerced them into flight were and remain the deciding factor in making usefulness out of electrons and finely shaped metal. The lessons learned, and rules literally written in blood, are what makes us the Black Aces of today.
To be sure, this is not just a characteristic among aviators or even a single squadron, but one that is prevalent in every branch of the armed forces. The modern Marine and those who stormed the halls of Montezuma, the Soldier and the forces at Thermopolae or Valley Forge, even the Aegis ship-bound warriors and the seamen aboard John Paul Jones' wooden frigate during the Revolution have a common heritage that transcends time and innovation. The tools of their trade may have changed, but their spirit and warrior ethos have remained steady for millenia.
One of my dear friends asked me, "what are the men who you serve with like?" Perhaps the most relevant answer is that the men I interact with on a daily basis are not infallible, and as such far from what recruiting ads portray (save the Marines), yet their ordinariness is what makes them special. In some ways they are the most human of men. They make mistakes that have consequences, sometimes seriously life altering, and have successes that go to their heads. They are prone to emotional and physical stressors. There are brilliant men and those missing more than a few screws. Some are aggressively arrogant, and others silently humble. Some are devious pranksters, some dourly serious. Some want to lead men, others only care about flying. Most of their ambitions end at some stream at the foot of a spectacular range of mountains fishing for trout. They can and do lose, but pursue victory as tenaciously as any professional athlete. Being away from their families and loved ones saps their strength, and most good military men have mastered the art of complaining about this. Most just want to be home, but press on anyway. In all these things, they are a reflection of our greater society. They all have stories as varied and fascinating as the characteristics they encompass. Most of them are vastly different than me in temperament, ambition and intellectual pursuits, but it is this variety that makes them representative of the country and philosophies that they are defending.
Most significant, however, and the thing that sets them apart, is the character of citizen soldiers still doing their jobs after months at sea and cancelled port calls, with rumors of extension. Missed anniversaries, birthdays and constant disappointment from an always fluid schedule mark their days, yet here they are, voluntarily, day after day. As CAG put it during our Line Period Awards a few weeks ago (be sure to add a curse word between every other word!) – "This sucks, we know it sucks, but when it comes down to it, you guys made it happen, when the men at the top were watching, despite everything else going on, and you did it flawlessly." And it is quite true – even when morale hits rock bottom, these men suck it up and do their jobs anyway, often very well.
Thus no matter what tools or equipment Congress may or may not see fit to acquire for them, it is these Americans who are the heart and soul of our military. Our Skipper's command goal for this cruise is stated as such: "To bring every sailor and airplane back home safely…in that order." Take away the airplanes, and you still have a fighter squadron. Take away the men, and you have heaps of very expensive metal, nothing more. People are everything, the rest is just details.
I continue to do well, if not occasionally weary of daily life on the ship. Thanks for all your well wishings on this most intriguing of adventures.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Location: USS Nimitz, off the coast of Okinawa
Family and Friends-
Sometimes this job is just ridiculous. Like the attached picture (which has nothing to do with this story, but is still pretty cool, our squadron jet keeping up – quite unexpectedly -- relations with the Russians !). You look back on the day you just had, not really comprehending it actually happened. It seemed so real, TOO real, at the time, but when you sit down in the comfort of your own room (and you don't really appreciate the comfort of your own room, even if it is shared with 5 other dudes, until a day like today) to sit and ruminate over it, you can only imagine that it must have been a dream. And thus I write to understand it.
The day started out normally enough. Get up, grab some chow, roll into the ready room an hour before the brief. A few changes that we weren't aware of – namely that this would be the first time I would be flying the re-tanking jet so I could get familiar with the systems involved in air-to-air refueling. We were scheduled to do a low level, section (2-plane) bombing mission against a random point in the ocean. From the outset, we realized this probably wasn't going to happen, because a quick glance outside showed that there are broken and overcast cloud layers at about 2000 feet, and this means we don't have our requisite weather minimums.
We launch anyway as scheduled to get the tanking familiarization out of the way, and maybe practice some GPS guided munitions practice up high. Before we launch, the actual tanker who launched 45 minutes before us comes over the radio with a pilot weather report and tells all concerned that there are very few pockets of clear air between the deck and 23,000 feet.
The launch, however, goes off as planned, and we are the first off the deck. We had initially briefed to rendezvous with my lead aircraft at 16000 feet, but passing that altitude and still in the clouds, we audible a rendezvous at our backup of 23k. Finding this clobbered as well, and knowing our mission is probably not going to happen anyway, we keep climbing to see how thick the clouds are. We finally break out on top at 31k. When we get up there, I amusingly tell my WSO, "Wow, this is the highest I've ever been before…" He later relates that once he hears this (he being a LtCmdr with 15 years in various jets), silently tells himself, "oh, boy its gonna be one of those days…"
We finally locate our lead and surprisingly enough, he has found a patch of clear air about 40 miles from the ship in the mid teens, so we make it over there and rendezvous with him. On the way over, a flight of three Hornets from the Marine squadron pass in front of and below us, which didn't seem odd at the time, but later we would unexpectedly be meeting up with them in a place far from the boat. Anyway, we manage to get my re-fueling tanker stuff out of the way, dive through the layers to see if anything below is workable, and unsurprisingly, it isn't.
Checking in with the ship's approach controllers, they marshal us Case III, which means that the weather is pretty bad near the ship, and stack us at unusually high altitudes. They did so thinking there was clear air for us to hold in while we waited about 30 minutes for the launch before us to complete. This was not the case, and we start hawking our wing lines and canopy to ensure ice isn't accumulating on the jet (ice can only form where moisture is present, and this is especially true at higher altitudes where the temperature is below freezing and in clouds). Fortunately, we push at our assigned time, and make our way down.
When descending out of the Case III marshal stack, the controllers use two discrete frequencies depending on where we are from the ship. As we got closer and further down, they requested the usual switch. We went to the frequency we were directed to, and all hell was breaking loose. My windscreen was awash in rain, and even though it is 2 in the afternoon, I have to dim my displays and put up my tinted visor because it is so dark. Both of our precision approach methods are down, so the pilots coming aboard are being directed over comms as to where they are on glideslope and azimuth. Additionally, the ship keeps turning to chase wind such that the direction of our runway literally keeps moving in a circle. You are on centerline one moment, and the next instant an invisible line drawn from you to the ship (granted 10 miles away) has you coming at it perpendicularly.
Anyway, I've never seen conditions this bad. Over the freq we hear guys ahead of us with the dreaded "CLARA SHIP" call when they are on final approach to the boat. Clara, in naval aviation terms, means you don't see something. A simple "clara" means you don't see the ball telling you where you are in terms of altitude, and is somewhat common. The Landing Signals Officers (LSO) can talk you back into a position to see the ball, and execute a landing. Clara Ship means you cant see the ship. At all. You are three quarters of a mile (in todays case, even closer), flying 140 mph, descending into the unknown, trusting only the instruments in front of you and the calming voice of God coming through your headset. Imagine driving in the worst thunderstorm you can imagine, and you cant even see the lights of the cars in front of you. That's pretty much what it is, except three dimensional, with that third dimension (altitude) being the most critical element. But like I mentioned, Paddles (our nickname for the LSO's, from the days when they literally used to wave paddles around to let pilots know where they were on glideslope – which is why we call their job "waving a pass"…anyway), is talking us down as he can see our lights cutting through the rain and mist.
My first attempt at this I get waved off (meaning I have to go around) as soon as my WSO calls CLARA ship. The winds were out of limits for landing, so they just sent me around. Normally this wouldn't be a big deal, but since I'm flying a tanker platform, and oh by the way we are carrying the unexpended practice bombs and their associated rack too, the amount of fuel I have is a lot less than it usually is (we have a max weight with which we can land at, and the more things you put on the jet, the less fuel you can have when you land, as the weight of fuel is the only variable that can be altered. You start out with a lot more fuel, which is nice, but in the end there is always a tradeoff). So basically, the next pass its either trap, or divert to a nearby Air Force base.
The guy ahead of us got waved off as well, and he makes it around. He happened to be on of the Marines earlier mentioned. Except at the last minute, they change the final bearing on him by 30 degrees. Imagine coming into a commercial airport and all of a sudden the runway shifts to the right. He manages to make it over to his perceived center line in time, and has a great approach going, considering he cant see anything. We can hear Paddles telling him in their most relaxed voice, "you're on glideslope, a little come left, on glideslope, on centerline…" and then an exasperated, but calm "waveoff, waveoff, winds." The guy had the approach suitcased, and then bam, at the last minute, he gets sent away. From Tower: "311, you signal is Divert." They aren't even bothering with in flight refueling at this point because the weather is so bad, so they just send him off to the Air Force base 150 miles away.
And then it is my turn. This is the point at which the out of body experience begins. They talk about training taking over, and you don't really appreciate that until it actually happens. Your body just does what it has been seasoned to do time and again. It felt eerily like a simulator, except we never hear the reassuring "okay, you're on freeze now, you can come on out," Anyway, I admit I really didn't consciously know what was going on. My hands just moved. I tip over at 3 miles, and descend. The controller tells me to take 600 feet (in retrospect, this was a bad move, because as the later talk on indicates, when I heard the first low call, I became spring loaded to put on power when I didn't necessarily need to). I descend. The instruments that give us instant lineup and glideslope are still down, so Im doing this all based on rough numbers. My heart is racing, but I am consciously trying to control my breathing and wiggle my toes, which actually really helps. The controller tells me to call the ball. My WSO responds "CLARA ship" again. I hear the paddles talk on. "You're LOW…you're LOW coming up…good correction…you're a little high…lined up left, right for lineup…call the ball when you have it…you're a little high…right for lineup…" "Ball." I have a ball, but I cant see line up…for all I know Im going to hit the Paddles shack on the left side of the ship or the superstructure on the right. "Roger ball…a little high, easy with it…EASY with it…come left…right for lineup" (at this point I can hear the collective silent prayers as I see the ball zoom off the top of the lens and I desperately try to will it back on – a stable ball means you will more than likely trap)…"power back on, bolter bolter bolter. ARRGGH!!! I missed all the wires.
"113, your signal is divert, take heading of 120, climb at your discretion, contact Strike." I guess I actually expected that to happen, and whaddya know it did. I was going to Japan.
The only time I had done an emergency profile was in the simulator in a jet that was relatively clean of external stores. This time I had a lot of extra drag, and a 100 knot headwind at altitude. We are at a fuel state of 4,300 lbs, burning 7,000lbs per side per hour during the climb. I know that we will make all this up when we eventually descend, but it's a bit scary to see your fuel march down, with most of the distance left to travel. We make it to 40,000ft (a new altitude record again!) bring the power back to idle (fuel flow, 800lbs per side, whew!) and descend. That part was uneventful except for the icing we got and the associated caution which makes life exciting, but soon enough we were back into warm air, the air base was right as advertised, and we landed uneventfully. We landed with 2000 lbs of gas, and after flying out at the ship for so long, being at an airfield with 12,000 feet of runway as opposed to the 850' we have to work with felt extremely strange, and luxuriously long. Two of the Marine hornets were there, as well as another Navy hornet who had tried to tank, didn't get any flow from the hose after numerous plugs after miraculously finding some clear air to do so in, and made the quick decision to call uncle and head our way. He landed with 800lbs of gas. That, to a jet guy, is pretty much the scariest thing ever. We also had a Prowler land after us.
Of course, the Air Force wouldn't give us gas at first because we didn't have our credit card or authorization in hand to get fuel. I kid you not. It took an hour of haggling to finally convince them we were who we said we were, we didn't have any documentation because we planned to land on THE BOAT!, and at one point they even hooked up our jet, started fueling it then promptly stopped because higher authority wanted something in writing. I mean, we are on the same side right??? Defense appropriations are for the whole DoD, right? (I know better than this, as indeed the whole pie approach is about as far from the truth as the truth lies, but its fun to hassle the Air Force for being quintessentially and painfully bureaucratic every time they get the chance).
We eventually get our gas and take off for more excitement. Its somewhat telling that I actually feel more comfortable in the cockpit than I do on dry land at this point. Maybe it's a sense of control, or reverting to what we know we can handle. I dunno, but it was a very brief and interesting feeling that came over me. We check in with the boat, and they want to recover us right away. I guess the weather had gotten so bad, they canceled all the other launches for the day, so the deck was clear for us to land. This is a surprise to us, as we expected to wait for about an hour. We zoom down from 33k to 2k in a matter of minutes, dumping about 9000lbs of gas (about 1,500 gallons…i.e. about 9 months worth of rent for me, yet somehow when you work for the government, all concept of money seems to go out the window) on the way to get below max trap (wouldn't that extra fuel have been nice to have, say three hours ago…but water over the dam at this point, one of the many ironies of this job).
The first time around the second try is again a repeat of the last fiasco, except we finally have the misnamed "needles" (a boat controlled vertical glideslope and horizontal lineup indicator, which is actually a little circle that looks like a target, and its counterpart "bulls eye" which are no kidding needles, go figure), and the comm channels are silent with only us out there, which is a blessed respite from the cacophony of sound that made up the last recovery. Thank the Good Lord!!!! Something is finally going right finally. Now I actually know where I am in relation to the ship. Still cant see the darn thing until in close (maybe 1000ft from the back of the boat), and its still raining like you read about but I get to a good start and Paddles talks me down.
I see the ball…and can see the ship, but have no idea where centerline is, once again.
"Little right for line up..come left…good correction, on centerline."
One ball high, need to bring it down, but keep it energized, oops not enough power off
"a little high, Easy with it."
Right before I touch down, I think, ive got this. The ball is two balls (of five) high and ever so slowly trending down.
A slight tug, then unbelievably I see the end of the ship approaching and its not slowing down…YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!!!! I race off the end.
"Bolter bolter bolter, hook skip."
I later find out my hook came down EXACTLY on top of the three wire (the ideal wire to catch) and knocked it around a bit, dragging it for about 10 yards, then slipped off. Literally two inches either fore or aft and it either would have landed before the three and caught it, or just beyond it and grabbed the four. This is just not my day.
Regardless, I am in the air again. Food is down there. And suddenly I'm not nervous anymore. Probably because I used up all my adrenaline in the past three attempts, and have none left to spare. This last attempt starts out the same as the others, CLARA everything until the last few moments, a few in close lineup calls as I still cant see centerline until im about to touch down, and then that blessed blessed deceleration. The world has stopped moving around, I hear a "nice pass, dude" from my WSO, and as has only happened on the carrier, my left leg is shaking so bad I can hardly control the brakes and nosewheel steering the legs movement is responsible for.
An hour later, we are down at chow, as the other pilots gather around to hear our story. They want all the details. They add their own complaints about the ridiculousness of the Air Force. They talk about craziness behind the boat and commiserate. And for a few moments, Im the new guy who got aboard, who everybody wants to hear from. I talk more in that hour than I have probably my entire time here. I slap the back of the Marine who diverted with us when I see him in the officers mess, and Slugz, my WSO, gives me a surreptitious high five, and another "well done." I guess this is how a ready room becomes cohesive, the accomplishment of difficult tasks successfully.
I read somewhere yesterday ("Moneyball", actually, great book) that commercial airline pilots and baseball players crave places of sensory depravation. This now makes sense to me. I'm pretty sure all the boredom associated with this job is to compensate for the moments of mind-boggling action doing things that shouldn't be possible, but are done anyway, because they have to be. Crazy.
Hope you all are well…I truly miss you all, and as I put each of your names to this letter, truly and fondly remember the impact each of you have had on me. I love these guys, and this profession, but there really is no place like home.
Sunday, January 06, 2008
*DUNHAM, JASON L.
Rank and Organization: Corporal, United States Marine Corps
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as Rifle Squad Leader, 4th Platoon, Company K, Third Battalion, Seventh Marines (Reinforced), Regimental Combat Team 7, First Marine Division (Reinforced), on 14 April 2004.
Corporal Dunham's squad was conducting a reconnaissance mission in the town of Karabilah, Iraq, when they heard rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire erupt approximately two kilometers to the west. Corporal Dunham led his Combined Anti-Armor Team towards the engagement to provide fire support to their Battalion Commander's convoy, which had been ambushed as it was traveling to Camp Husaybah. As Corporal Dunham and his Marines advanced, they quickly began to receive enemy fire. Corporal Dunham ordered his squad to dismount their vehicles and led one of his fire teams on foot several blocks south of the ambushed convoy. Discovering seven Iraqi vehicles in a column attempting to depart, Corporal Dunham and his team stopped the vehicles to search them for weapons. As they approached the vehicles, an insurgent leaped out and attacked Corporal Dunham. Corporal Dunham wrestled the insurgent to the ground and in the ensuing struggle saw the insurgent release a grenade. Corporal Dunham immediately alerted his fellow Marines to the threat. Aware of the imminent danger and without hesitation, Corporal Dunham covered the grenade with his helmet and body, bearing the brunt of the explosion and shielding his Marines from the blast. In an ultimate and selfless act of bravery in which he was mortally wounded, he saved the lives of at least two fellow Marines.
By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty, Corporal Dunham gallantly gave his life for his country, thereby reflecting great credit upon himself and upholding the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.