The Pragmatic Volunteer
A Memoir: Part Nine
"The Pragmatic Volunteer" is a twice weekly series. Check back every Wednesday and Friday for the latest installments!
Part One -- Part Two -- Part Three
Part Four -- Part Five -- Part Six
Part Seven -- Part Eight
Author's Note: What follows is the poorly thought-out and loosely examined history of the life of a guy who didn’t much matter in the grand scheme. But he mattered. We all matter. And I had a hell of a lot of… fun and such along the way. I intend to chronicle some of the experiences of a 23-year career in the United States Air Force.
In early October, we were advised the Wing would be deploying KC-135 and support personnel for combat operations out of several forward locations. We were sending one intel troop and one communications security (COMSEC) specialist to each of them. We were running out of intel people who were qualified to perform all aspects of the daily flying mission, and I recommended to my boss that I be one of the intel folks deployed. She was hesitant, arguing that I was new to the unit and to the mission. I mean, my last job was teaching people how to do harm in an academic setting. This was the opposite of all of that. The lady was smart. In fact, she was a nuclear physicist (and now holds a Ph.D). I countered that though I was new there, I had been an intel guy for a long time and was familiar with the requirements of supporting flying operations. I don’t know if my ‘I’m good enough, doggone it’ convinced her or if it was the fact that it was either her or me, but I was deploying. We had no one else.
The first place myself and my COMSEC section leader were sent was Rhein-Main Air Base. These folks were assigned to the intel flight because we shared security needs, and we all worked directly with the aircrews on mission support. The flying squadron also ran a piece of their planning activity in my vault, but they were not subordinated to my flight.
At Rhein-Main, there were no spaces save an old vault in a condemned building awaiting demolition. The vault was in the basement at one end of the facility. There were several other rooms one walked past to get to the vault. Many windows were out and there was mold and mildew everywhere. It was odoriferous. But the vault was secure enough and had an approved type of door, and we had a modern GAO-approved digital combination lock installed before we started storing classified in there. The things we had to go through during those few days to ensure we adhered to proper security procedures would make a certain failed presidential candidate laugh and email someone for a glass of iced tea. And since the things we had to talk to the crews about were classified, the crews (and on one occasion, several American reporters – that was tricky) had to come to our stinky vault to take their mission briefs. So they all got to experience the love of that nearly-subterranean palace we worked in.
Since TSgt COMSEC and I were the lone specialists in our fields, we were busy. We worked the flying schedule. That is, we went in before missions to brief the crews and we went in again to debrief them when they returned. Both of us, every mission. I had managed to acquire each of us rooms to ourselves in the old (also condemned, but not in nearly as bad shape) billeting building we were assigned. This was because we would be napping and moving around at all hours, and other people had more regular schedules. Still wasn’t fun, but at least no other fucker was snoring during my naps.
After about ten days, we were sent to Souda Bay on the northwestern portion of Crete. Great! Another exotic island for me! Yeah. Our mission didn’t change, and there were still just the two of us. The things we do for you people.
We moved from Frankfurt to Crete on one of our KC-135s. The minimum crew aboard the aircraft is three: A pilot, a copilot, and a boom operator who is also the loadmaster. On this transfer, in addition to moving all the personnel and equipment needed to do the job at Souda, we had receivers scheduled along the route. These were C-17s doing missions in Afghanistan. C-17s need a lot of gas, so we were heavy. Within scant pounds of maximum allowable loadout for flight operations. The boomer was nervous. Between and a couple feet behind the two front crew seats, and with the boomer’s station on the starboard bulkhead, there was a steel ‘jumpseat’ which pops up from the deck and is locked in place to support an observer. On the takeoff from Rhein-Main, I was in the jumpseat and on headset. As we gained speed and approached the end of the pavement, I could sense Boomer’s nervousness, but he remained silent. Finally, as it looked like that red line might get crossed by rubber (which would be a VERY BAD THING), the pilot calmly said “Rotate.” Boomer immediately, and I mean before the pilot had the word all the way out, said “Thank God.” He was nervous. So was I, but he knew to be. I was just freaked out. And the front wheel left the ground and everybody lived ever after. Or at least after.
Our receivers had overestimated their fuel needs and only took about half the load we had taken aboard for them. Makes you think, huh? Had they been able to be more accurate, we’d have been able to “rotate” in a normal fashion and Boomer wouldn’t smell so funny. But militarying ain’t easy.
I did get a chance to go into the boom pod while Boomer was washing the windshields of those Globemasters. Might as well. There was nothing else to do and the in-flight movie sucked. It was incredible. Getting that close to another big jet in the sky… it is a thing to behold, I promise you. Still think we should have force-fed them that extra gas they made us bring, though.
When we got to Crete, we were too heavy to land because we still had all that extra fuel aboard. There are a lot of rules about that shit. You can’t just spray out jet fuel from cruising altitude traversing various countries who allow you in their airspace. That's what makes chemtrails! So the driver asked Crete to allow us to dump the stuff in the Med. That was an unpopular idea with the tower, so we flew in circles around that part of the Sea for an hour and a half. Can’t spill it in the ocean, but it’s alright to burn it. Greeks, man. We. Are. Sparta!
I don’t recall how long we were on Crete, but it wasn’t as long as we’d been in Frankfurt. Maybe six or seven days. But we did get a couple moments of down time. We were in a hotel on a small mountain overlooking the bay – yes, I admit: it was a beautiful view. And the calamari was to die for. The things you people do for us. We took taxis down to the nearby town, which was exciting. Like Korean Honey Badgers with deeper tans.
By the end of October we were back at Mildenhall. Still running 24/7 ops, of course. We would be for a long while. In the coming days and weeks, I rewrote schedules time and again as our spaces were required to accommodate personnel from the Air National Guard back home who had been called up to help in the massive efforts underway against the Taliban and others who had helped al-Qaida attack our homeland. The unit I remember working with the most was the Tennessee Air National Guard. I had always thought of Guard guys as somehow lesser than we active duty folks, mainly because at Bergstrom there had been an Air Force Reserve unit who used to visit our snack bar and they looked like poor facsimiles of Air Force guys. Uniforms, hair, boots… bro, do you even military? But these guys were professionals, and they helped change my opinion of weekend warriors. For one thing, my entire job was to suit up and serve every day. These guys had jobs and families back home and they had to leave all that behind to serve. That has to be a tough life. Tougher than mine. My views forever shifted. Still, I never could get used to their enlisted guys calling officers by their first names. As it happens, one E-6 was the supervisor of one of the O-5s in their ‘real’ jobs back home. Life is funny.
In March 2003 we invaded Saddam’s Iraq for the second time in my career. My unit was again called to action because of our long legs and other assets besides our pretty smiles (which were pretty fucking charming if I do say so). The same month, Tex and I decided we weren’t working out so well. She went back to the Republic, and I lost my mind for a little while. I finally got approved to take a little leave and went back to my hometown. This was the first time I’d ever flown home for leave while stationed overseas. It was therapeutic and sorted me out pretty well. My head cleared and I was back to whatever normal means. Shit happens.
And then in remarkably short order, I met a girl.
One night in my local (this is what British, or at least English, people call the pub they frequent most in their village), a big, easily-angered but mostly not-too-irritating gym rat whom I knew from the pub decided I was macking on this bird he fancied. I was talking to her and this girl I met, but none of that mattered to Sir Charles Atlas. He was drunk. I was wearing a heavy leather jacket and he grabbed it by the collar, lifted me enough so I couldn’t gain traction, and took me out into the courtyard of the pub. I might have been able to do something, but I had no idea he was mad or why he was doing this. He could sometimes be an alright bloke, and I didn’t want to risk making things worse. He knew where I lived. And thick as he was, he was a hard bastard. You wouldn’t fight him.
As we crossed onto the pavement outside the back door, Sir Charles released me back to terra firma and left my back to the big window in the door. The guy knew tactics. Some little dingleberry who decided he was the Gymlord’s personal protector (this happened a lot... Fennies, man), punched me in the back of my head. When I say “punched,” I don’t know what I mean. But it was irritating, nothing more. I stood facing Sir Charles and at that moment, I raised my index finger in the universal ‘gimme a second here’ sign to him. He nodded. As I turned to address this gnat, a very large woman of my acquaintance was grabbing it bodily and flung it into the hedge by the wall. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. And Sir Charles also found it a bit amusing. It broke his rage. So I didn’t get killed and am still here to write this. Lucky you. And luckier me.
I also met Bruce Dickinson (the front man for Iron Maiden) during my time at Mildenhall. He was doing a show about human flight on the Discovery Channel and came to our unit to film an episode. The flying squadron, which was in the same Ops Group as my squadron and situated downstairs from my vault, walked him through various aspects of mission planning and I went downstairs just to say hello. So it was that the guy known as “The Air Raid Siren” flew with a unit which had been known as the 100th Bomb Group in WWII. It was part of The Mighty Eighth. One of my guys even brought his guitar for Dickinson to sign. I thought that was a bit much, but allowed it because, well, I wanted to meet the guy too. I get it. I just don’t ask for autographs.
When my tour at RAF Mildenhall was up after four years, I still had enough time on my current enlistment that I was required to choose another duty station. I did not wish to leave England so I tried to extend at my current assignment at Mildenhall. My CO decided to disapprove my request and called me into his office to tell me himself. He also told me why. I couldn’t disagree with his logic or his leadership. I was disappointed, but that guy has my enduring respect. Sir, I salute you.
Next in the FINAL installment:
Rex Marries a Girl. Tune in for the drama.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.