The Pragmatic Volunteer
A Memoir: Part Four
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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.
While in the P.I., I was afforded the opportunity to go on a couple interesting business trips. The first was to Osan Air Base in the Republic of Korea (that’s the southern one, aka the good guys). I went there with another guy from my unit, and I was sad when I learned it was him. He outranked me (pay grade E-5, rank Staff Sergeant (SSgt) to which I would gain promotion via the tried-and-true USAF method of sitting for a test that March), and he was useless as tits on a bull on the flightline. He reminded me of Judge Reinhold, but lazier and more of a wanker than Reinhold’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” character. It was January, and for those who never watched M*A*S*H: It gets fucking COLD in South Korea in the winter. At least Judge could be shamed into getting coffee while I was ass-in-the-air in an F-4 cockpit. In an open aircraft shelter. In January. In Korea. Fucker.
We were there for an annual combined (which means U.S. forces working with others nations’ forces, in this case RoK troops) exercise which was then called Exercise TEAM SPIRIT. Don’t ask me what they call it now. The crazy Kims always complain that we’re provoking some sort of war with them because they have delusions of grandeur and think the world cares about their retarded inbred asses because they might figure out how to deliver nukes via ICBM. That might happen. Someday. But I’m betting the pink slip the other way. And so the name of the exercise changes often. But it is still held every year in some form or fashion. Take that, fat boy!
As one of only two troops from the PAVE TACK shop (the main reason we kept F-4E at Clark), I had somehow been assigned a rack in a GP Small (a six-man framed tent) which served as sleeping quarters for the Wing Senior Enlisted Advisor, a CMSgt (E-9) whom I had never met before. But since it was immediately across the snow-covered dirt track from the latrines, I wasn’t complaining. Much. I will say the latrines were awful. It was a big tent. Plywood sheets horizontally mounted along either side with large holes cut out at intervals. Under each of these holes was half of a steel 55-gallon drum. There was no running water. You do the math.
Another guy, a kid whose specialty I don’t recall, was also assigned that 6-man tent as sleeping quarters. And this dude snored. He’d be asleep and we were pissed at him as if he were doing it TO us. All of us. People are funny. We kept yelling at him, but of course that doesn’t fix snoring. One night early on, we decided to put this cat outside on the snow-covered gravel path in front of the tent. Four of us lifted that noisemaker, still snoring, and deposited his cot in the snow outside. It was snowing at the time. He woke up with the early morning sun in his eyes. He was shivering and he was mad as hell. I went to work. The Chief never woke during all of this. That’s my story, and I guarantee it’s the Chief’s as well.
We had one down day (no flying activity) and I was able to go on a tour of the Demilitarized Zone between the DPRK and the RoK. The place is actually called the Joint Security Area (JSA). It is sometimes referred to as Panmunjom, a city just north of the JSA. Running through the middle of the Zone is the Military Demarcation Line, which is marked by a sidewalk. Straddling this sidewalk are several ‘shotgun’ buildings, each with half in either country. The ‘tour guide,’ a squared-away U.S. Army sergeant, took us into one of these buildings and described all the Urinary Olympiads that had taken place over the size of the little flags and the height of their stands on the negotiating table and all sorts of other idiocy. It is ridiculous, but kind of funny. On the other side of that table, one was standing in North Korea. Everyone got a photo standing on the other side. I lost mine somewhere along the way.
The other fascinating trip I took was to participate in my first war. Operation DESERT STORM, it was called. Apparently, Saddam Hussein had decided he wanted Kuwait’s oil riches and access to the Persian Gulf more than the Kuwaitis did, and he invaded the little country to take it. The CinC at the time (Bush 41) decided that it was in America’s interests to undo this invasion and ensure the continued sovereignty of Kuwait. I agreed, but my opinion had nothing to do with it. I served at the pleasure of the CinC and of the American people. I did my job in all cases, irrespective of my personal thoughts or opinions on a given mission. We all did (and do). That is what “public servant” actually means.
Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990. I had reported that morning for a required training evolution, a Professional Military Education course called Noncommissioned Officer Leadership School. Back then, this was the PME course one had to complete in order to sew on SSgt (E-5), the rank I had recently been selected for due to my mad testing skills. We were standing on line to weigh in (the military loves to weigh people) and CNN was on a television in the room. So I heard the very first report that Saddam had invaded. Since we were on Luzon, which is a fair distance from the Kuwait Theater, we carried on with our day, and indeed, with the entire 5-week course.
So anyway, later that year a bunch of us and some of our F-4E were dispatched to Incirlik Air Base in Adana, Turkey to help beat up Saddam when he foolishly decided to defy American insistence that he comply with international law. We were to get there aboard a C-5 Galaxy cargo jet. After a false start (we all boarded, cargo was loaded, plane started its takeoff roll… and had to brake hard because some critical system or other had failed), we finally took off the next day. Our route to Turkey took us northeast to traverse CONUS and Europe en route. We ‘went the long way’ due to the political position of a large nation on the southern route, a position which would have ended our mission had we needed to land there unexpectedly.
After a couple stops for gas (did I mention the Pacific Ocean is vast?), we landed at Hickam AFB outside Honolulu, Hawaii. Here, our equipment mysteriously went ‘hard broke,’ meaning it couldn’t fly again until some part or other could be requisitioned, shipped from CONUS, and installed / tested. Sounds good, right? Well, during the 4.5 days we were waiting, we were on ‘Incirlik tent city’ per diem money, but we were in Honolulu. So we weren’t doing tourist things much, though I did go to Waikiki Beach once. We also had to check in a couple times every day, so island hopping was right out. We remained on duty status throughout.
We finally made it to Turkey. Incirlik AB was, we were told, in range of Saddam’s SCUD missiles, which at the time he enjoyed firing seemingly randomly at things he didn’t like. SCUD-B is a famously inaccurate weapon, but the Republican Guard (Hussein’s best army guys) did manage to hit some things, mainly in Saudi Arabia. As far as I know, no SCUD ever impacted Incirlik AB in my time there. We got set up, managed to fly one night of missions, and… the war ended. We had a great deal of testing equipment (including huge steel frames for lifting and maneuvering the PAVE TACK pods as we worked on them), tools, travel cases for those huge pods, etcetera, with us. Clark AB was scheduled for closure soon (on this, more in a bit), so the decision was made to transfer a lot of that stuff to other units instead of sending it back to our home station. So, while we spent most of our 40-plus days on Incirlik after the war had ended, we were still kept busy by all the movement and paperwork required to transfer all that stuff.
A few things did happen though. Three of we Clark guys took a taxi from our tent city home to the main gate to check out Adana. None of us had ever been to Turkey before and we had some free time, despite my protestations about how busy we were. We got to the gate and the number on the meter was ridiculously large (in the thousands of Turkish lire). We had no idea how much we owed in dollars. We asked the cabbie, a large fellow with a big mustache and a beard and he said “One hundred dollars. One hundred dollars or I kill you all!” After a tic, we realized he was joking – he couldn’t take all of us. Probably. So we each handed him one dollar, he smiled and said “Very good. Have a nice day.”
One night early on when we finally had a second, we went to the beer tent. Not an open bar (run by AAFES – yay capitalism), but a pretty sweet deal given the circumstances. Other units had been using Incirlik to prosecute the air war on Iraq regularly (we were fashionably late), and on that first night in the beer tent, a young aviator was talking with his buddies about his previous mission. He described hitting his aim point so precisely that it caused secondary explosions and he was certain he had achieved his mission goal. He said, quite loudly, “Dude, it looked like the fucking SUN came up behind us!” That fellow has from that minute to this been known to me as Captain Van Halen. Dude.
On the night the war ended, our second night of flight ops, we were running our checklists making sure the jets were all good to go for their coming missions. We were doing the important things too, like putting love notes on bombs with a Sharpie. Night operations are better in an air war, and most missions over enemy territory were conducted in the early morning hours. An F-16 was on the trim pad, maybe 150 meters away from the jet we were working. That whiny bitch.
So some dude in civvies came running at us from out of the darkness, screaming some shit I couldn’t really hear and didn’t care about. I had a big torque wrench in my hand, so I was as good as I was going to get. He was pretty far away from us when he started his target run (rookie), and as he hit the pavement, two Turkish airfield security dudes converged like the proverbial flies on that piece of shit. And there was no ‘show me your hands’ or ‘get on the ground’ like on TV. They tackled this cat. Hard. They were smacking him around as they led him off to the Midnight Express or whatever it is they do. It was beautiful.
A little while later, rumblings earlier in the day that we might shut down ops were jelling up. We first noticed jets coming back early and not having deployed their munitions on targets. And in fairly short order, we got word that we were indeed shutting down, at least for the night. We all kind of figured the deal was over. Not that any of us were intel or HQ people, but we were in a war zone. We tried to keep up with that stuff.
We flew back to the Philippines via the much shorter southern route earlier denied to us. So I have actually circumnavigated the earth once in my life. Take that, Ferdinand Magellan!
A couple months after we got back, the United States’ plan to close Clark AB and Subic Bay Naval Station (in nearby Olongapo City) was finalized, and would effectively end U.S. military presence in the Philippines (at least as far as I knew). According to the papers (Stars and Stripes) and the military television service, this was because Corazon Aquino’s government had demanded a rent increase (we paid to be there – not an occupation force) President Bush’s administration was unwilling to pay. We were retiring a lot of the F-4 fleet anyway, and Cory was a stubborn person. No enmity; she was doing what she thought best for the country she led. I like a gal who will fight for her state. But Subic? This was serious. We were never, ever, ever getting back together.
The Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC), headquartered in San Antonio, (the Air Force likes Texas. A lot) sent a bunch of counselors to Clark AB to work with each individual member to figure out where we would all go in this out-of-cycle upheaval. My choices at the time were Misawa AB in northern Japan (on Honshu, the main island) or Seymour Johnson AFB in North Carolina. I lobbied for Japan, but TRIJtM insisted on Goldsboro. Like me, she didn’t like the cold; unlike me, she only wanted to live in places where the people on TV spoke English. When momma’s happy, everybody’s happy. So Seymour it was. We were to be rotated out before the end of the year. That was the ‘best-laid plan’ in this case…
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.