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.


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.


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.


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.


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,