Understanding history is not always easy, especially if you are in the thick of things as it is being made.
I entered pilot training for the USAF in January of 1989 as part of UPT class 90-04. We would become the last of the cold-war warriors, but of course at the time we didn’t know it. We were a mess of egos and testosterone. The air of the flight room was thick with competitive vibes beating like the drum of a marching band. Unyielding. Dominant. Constant. We were competitors, peers, and wannabe warriors in the fight against godless communism. During the course of the year we lost half of our class. Some quit. Some were medically disqualified. Some couldn’t learn fast enough. We all started with hope and promise, but in the end the grinder made meat out of all of us.
We graduated in January of 1990, and headed out for follow-on training in our respective aircraft. During the summer of 1990 the cracks in monolithic Soviet Block expanded from tiny fissures to full-blown fractures. On August second 1990, Sadam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and the world would never be the same. By the time I reported to my duty station in September, the Berlin Wall was coming down.
The conflict I had trained for was irrelevant. Tactics became obsolete. Maps changed like the weather. I felt like I was all dressed up with nowhere to go. When the shooting started in the desert, I watched it on CNN from England and Germany.
In July of 1991 I deployed to Incirlik Turkey in support of Operation Provide Comfort. Our mission was to patrol Iraq north of the 36th parallel and provide some relief for the battered Kurds. We were instructed to “…fly so as to make your presence known.” To a fighter pilot, that is an invitation to buzz Main Street. So, that’s what we did.
We launched our A-10’s from Incirlik with a combat load and flew the hour plus to the northern border of Iraq. We would hit the tanker and airborne refuel, and then push into the Area of Responsibility. We would fly around checking on villages, outposts, and the remnants of the dreaded Republican Guard. Then we would leave Iraq, hit the tanker again, and make our way back to the ‘Lik.
During my three months there, things were quiet. I never fired a shot, or dropped a bomb. I began to feel like the entire thing was a waste. On several occasions Turkish fighters would get gas from the same tanker we used. We would fly into Iraq to “protect” the Kurds. They would bomb the Kurds just across the border in Turkey. Same tanker. Same day. Same Kurds. Maddening.
All I wanted to do was go home to my wife and son.
In my search to find a purpose in my efforts and risks, I began to notice things. Crops were being planted. Homes were being built. Villages were growing. Roads were being repaired. Lives and communities were moving forward.
There in the cockpit of an A-10 over northern Iraq, I began to see the fruits of my efforts grow and ripen. It was small and difficult to see, but our efforts were making a difference. We had given some reprieve to a weary people, and they were trying to put their lives and communities back together.
Years later in a supermarket in Dallas, I noticed that several checkout clerks and bagboys were speaking a foreign language. Being the curious type, I asked them where they were from. They were all Kurds that had escaped the violence and made it to the USA while I was patrolling the skies overhead. We shared stories. We shook hands. I left with the feeling that maybe I had been a part of helping someone else find freedom.
Today we are in the midst of dramatic changes. We face a stateless enemy whose ideology counters the core values of our republic. We have difficulty understanding why they want to kill us. We struggle to find our way through this conflict, both collectively, and individually, because it has affected us all in some way. After almost ten years, we cannot claim an overall victory.
Understanding history is not always easy, especially if you are in the thick of things as it is being made. Sometimes it is years later before you understand and appreciate the history you were a part of and the lessons learned from the experience. I hope I live to learn the lesson of today’s history.
BTW, I'm the A-10 on the left.