This story was told to Col. Ron Albers for Motts Military Museum and is reprinted here with permission.
It seems to me I couldn’t have chosen two more differing career paths. My civilian job has been as a high school English teacher. My military MOS is a Warrant Officer UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter pilot. I have been teaching since 2006 at Gahanna Lincoln High School and flying since 2005, as part of A Company, 1-137 Assault Helicopter Battalion, Ohio Army National Guard. I graduated from Army Flight School at Fort Rucker, Alabama in May, 2006. Since then, it’s been challenging keeping up with both professions.
National Guard personnel have the same minimum flying requirements as Active Duty aviators. To accomplish this, I fly once a week. These days are long. School starts at 0735, although I’m there well before that. I leave school around 1515, and arrive at the Army Aviation Support Facility located at Rickenbacker International Airport south of Columbus around 1600. We plan, preflight, fly our mission, put the aircraft away and leave Rickenbacker by midnight. That next day alarm at 0500 can be a bit rough. Throw in the once-a-month drill weekend and two weeks in the summer and pretty soon I’ve been flying for five years; it’s gone quickly. I have been happily readjusting to this hectic lifestyle after returning on December 23rd, 2009, from a tour in Iraq.
I left my house October 10th of 2008 and returned December 23rd, 2009. All that time wasn’t in Iraq. We spent a few weeks at Camp Ravenna in Northeast Ohio in November, training in the woods. We spent several weeks at Camp Perry on Lake Erie in December, shooting weapons. We spent time at Ft Sill, Oklahoma, in January, conducting flight operations. With all our training being in such cold weather, we wondered if we were going to Iraq or the Chosin Reservoir. But we did ship out in February for Kuwait. The vast majority of our unit had never been to combat. Most of the men and women joined for college money, never dreaming they’d actually be sent to war. I deployed for a year in 2004 with the Guard, but it was to Europe. In the guard, it always seemed as if it was someone else, some other unit deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan. Well, enough “someone elses” got sent, and now it was our turn. Our farewell ceremony, held in St John’s Arena, was a sobering event. I kissed my wife Sarah goodbye for the second time in 5 years. This time I also kissed my 4 year old daughter and 2 year old son goodbye. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We took an entire Ohio Guard Helicopter Battalion to Iraq: 30 Blackhawks, 60 pilots, 120 crew chiefs and 200 support personnel. Once we were in country, an active duty unit from Alaska was put under our headquarters. It wasn’t long before our aircraft began to be targeted. On almost every daily intel brief, one of the insurgents’ major goals was to affect an aircraft shootdown. They were after headlines. We were after them.
The battlefield in Iraq is a vicious attack/counterattack affair. Our thin-skinned Humvees were quickly targeted by IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). The DoD, Department of Defense, quickly countered with up-armored Humvees. The IEDs became more powerful, and the insurgents even developed an entirely new and more powerful explosive: the EFP, or Explosively Formed Projectile. The DoD responded with MRAPs, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. These MRAPs have a v-shaped hull that deflects upwards blasts away from the vehicle and its occupants. Then the insurgents started mounting these IEDs and EFPs horizontally; so we mounted armor on the sides of the MRAPs. Now they target the windows. It’s an amazing escalation of technology. With so many variables, the Armed Forces turned to aviation for one solution.
Aviation assets have saved innumerable lives in Iraq. We were briefed that those who stand and fight Americans in Iraq die quickly. The smart insurgents learned that lesson. The dumb ones didn’t, and died. So, we have selected for smarter enemies. With explosives the enemy’s main resource, attacking ground vehicles is the easiest and most economical method. Aircraft are far harder to hit than ground vehicles. Our potential paths are unlimited. Aviation lives in a 3D world, while vehicles are stuck in 2D. The mission of the Blackhawk is myriad. But the vast majority are flying “ass and trash” missions. We fly troops (the asses) and supplies, (the trash.) Every troop we fly on a helicopter is one less troop having to convoy on the ground, effectively making one less target for the insurgents, or at least a more difficult target. That was the majority of our missions over there. We flew thousands of soldiers around Iraq, keeping them off the streets. It is a service that I take much pride in doing.
As safe as aviation is, it still can be deadly. In addition to insurgents, the weather was a constant factor. The predominant weather feature that affects aviation assets in the desert was shamals, or dust storms. Shamals are the Arabic word for a strong wind (greater than 30 knots) moving northwest from the Persian Gulf that accumulated loose dust as it traveled north. Most people picture the wall of dust moving across the desert as in the movie The Mummy. We saw those. Most of the time, it wasn’t as dramatic as that. It was often simply a hazy dust that seemed to settle in gradually. Oftentimes while flying, visibility would suddenly decrease, or be much less than reported. These storms were strange. The dust would just seem to stay suspended in the air. The sun, filtering through this dust, would create an orange tint to everything. Entire days were spent in an orange-lit world; it was surreal. We constantly coughed up this orange-brown powder. We took to wearing gator necks around our faces, sunglasses and boonie hats to keep out the dust. There was little skin exposed, save hands. These measures helped some. But this dust was as fine as talcum powder and seemed to have a way to work in through the smallest chinks in our armor. We found it everywhere when we would start to peel of layers of clothes.
These shamals would last anywhere from a couple of hours to a few days. The longer the storm lasted, the thicker the covering of dust on everything. During these storms, we would clean off our outside “patio furniture” every few hours. It was unbelievable how much dust could accumulate in such a short time. The aircraft themselves would turn orange. It would take a crew to clean off most of the dust from the windshields and windows. The worst of the dust storms were often accompanied by unbelievable heat. These two factors complimented each other well. Not only was it often above 120˚, but one had to stay fully clothed to avoid having the dust turn to mud as it settled on your sweaty skin. And even at these ambient temperatures, it was nothing compared to the inside of a static Blackhawk, blades turning, as we waited for our customers. The thermometer in a Blackhawk has a maximum temperature of 50˚ C, which is 122˚ F. This was routinely well past the 50˚ mark. And by the nature of aviation, helipads aren’t exactly set up for shade. The one piece of equipment that really saved us from severe dehydration was a little slice of heaven called the Microclimate Cooling Unit (MCU). This was a vest worn against the skin under the t-shirt, uniform, body armor, survival vest and other miscellaneous aviation-specific required equipment that the Army, in all its wisdom, has deemed necessary for flight. It had multiple tubes that were sewn into the vest that connected to the aircraft. Through these tubes was pumped cool liquid that cooled the body core considerably. It was a strange feeling to have our torsos cool, but sweating profusely from the rest of our bodies. Even with these vests, we sweated through every piece of equipment we had on; but it helped, nonetheless.
During a shamal, we lost a soldier. On September 19th, 2009, SPC Michael S. Cote was killed when the Blackhawk he was riding in crashed in Balad, Iraq. SPC Cote was a 20-year-old from Louisiana who joined the Army and ended up in Ft. Wainwright, Alaska. He met his wife Ashlee in basic training. They were married shortly after AIT. Their daughter, Brooke, was born in March; when Mike was in Iraq. He met his infant daughter when he went home on leave and did nothing but hang out at his house with Brooke and Ashlee. A dear friend, SGT Lauren Pirchner, took her vacation this year to Alaska to meet his wife and daughter. The bonds forged in Iraq run deep. She took Ashlee to a local range to shoot. Mike loved shooting. SGT Pirchner can only marvel at how strong a person Ashlee is to go through this trial. She, at 20, is a widowed mother raising a daughter. In addition to Mike’s death, there were several serious injuries. One soldier is still in a coma. One is recovering after being pinned beneath the helicopter. When it crashed, as it disintegrated, his leg hung outside the aircraft at the last second, and it rolled on top of it. Another soldier had a complex fracture of his leg and crawled around the helicopter, dragging his leg, to dig out his trapped brother with his hands. All who knew the soldiers involved were affected, deeply.
In August of 2009, I was six months into my tour in Iraq. Iraqi elections were looming and violence was increasing. On the 19th of August, two huge truck bombs detonated in Baghdad killing over 100 and wounding over 500 Iraqis. That day stands out in my mind because I actually felt the concussion from those bombs. We were stationed on Camp Victory, on the west side of Baghdad. The bombs targeted government buildings on the east side of Baghdad, over six miles away. The buildings we were in rattled. This was no mortar attack. Those bombs went off in an attempt to tear down what the US has built in Iraq. These bombings affected me personally that day because I felt them, but there were hundreds, if not thousands, that had just as much impact on the war effort that I didn’t feel. These bombings would happen often. Our flight routes often took us over these sites, and we could easily see the aftermath. Dozens of cars burned to the ground, buildings were demolished or had large chunks missing, blood was in the streets. As we flew in relative safety in our aircraft, it was hard to imagine how the normal people of Iraq were carrying out their lives when incidents like this occurred regularly.
Our flights took us to most corners of the country. We flew as far north as Mosul, as far east as within viewing distance of Iran, as far south as Al Basrah and west as Al Asad. We flew air assault missions and VIP transport missions, to include Vice President Biden and the senior commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno. We flew ring routes, ferrying troops and contractors all over the country and hero missions, carrying dead American soldiers. I logged over 280 hours of combat time and over 150 combat missions. Seeing things happen in Iraq made us appreciate home. Upon returning, I found myself looking forward to dreading Mondays again and looking forward to the weekends; it meant I was not in Iraq, working unending 14 hour days. It has forever altered my viewpoint on what’s important in this life. I thank God for bringing us safely home.
And when all soldiers eventually return home, I hope they are all greeted as I was. Our busses turned into the St John’s parking lot to a waiting crowd. As soldiers unloaded the busses, children started streaming across the parking lot. It was like being in a movie: children running into their daddy’s and mommy’s arms, long hugs filled with tears, soldiers finding it difficult to walk inside because their children won’t let go of their legs. It was a sweet moment I will cherish forever. God Bless those away, and those they’ve left behind.