Letters from the front: The war on terrorism up close

Like all wars, the war on terrorism is producing moments of valor, hours of tedium, and many unforgettable impressions for the troops on the front lines. What follows are excerpts from three e-mails written by Americans fighting in and near Afghanistan in what the Pentagon calls Operation Enduring Freedom.

This dispatch, written in November, is from an aviator aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. He flies an F-14 Tomcat, the Navy's aging but supersonic jet fighter, which in the past decade has been converted into a bomber as well as a fighter. He writes about the topography of Afghanistan, rivalry with the U.S. Air Force, the dedicated enlisted sailors who maintain his airplane, and the camaraderie with British airmen.

For Thanksgiving, the ship dressed up the wardroom, dimmed down the lights, and put out a nice T-day spread and, for a brief moment, it was almost like being home. Sure it was. I don't know too many folks who live in a gray tin can with 5,500 roommates, but what can you do?

We had flights scheduled for later in the day, so scores of aircrew had to fight off the tryptophan nods during their six-hour flights over Afghanistan. Can you see the headlines now? "U.S. Fighter Down Over Afghanistan. Turkey Overdose Suspected. Should Have Gone for the Dry Ham."

The flights over Afghanistan continue. The country's landscape reminds me of northern Nevada, without the casinos. As you cross over the southern border with Pakistan, you are met by hundreds of miles of desert. After the "Desert of Death" (as the charts call it), you get into rolling hills and occasional 2,000-foot mountain ranges. From about mid-Afghanistan and north, the country turns into dark brown mountains that max out around 13,000 feet. Snow tops a majority of these peaks, which remind me of the area surrounding Fallon, Nev., one of our training areas.

As you near the northern border by the -stans, Uzbeki- and Turkmeni-, the mountains start easing off and work down back into light brown, sandy plains. Off to the northeast are big snowcapped ranges that reach up to 25,000 feet. Overall, extremely rugged-looking terrain in Afghanistan. To date, I have not seen one tree.

The rural areas are littered with villages that are filled with collections of roofless, four-walled structures that appear to be abandoned. The "cities" are completely unremarkable and colorless, with no structure being any taller than two stories. The only color I've seen in these cities besides the ever-present light-brown hue is the occasional red streak coming from the Taliban gunners as they open up with their anti-aircraft artillery.

There is some farmland present, but it is infrequent and minimal. In a nutshell, Afghanistan is a giant pile of brown to light-brown rocks that is bordered to the south and north by huge deserts and bordered to the east by an even bigger pile of rocks.

The only signs of life that I have seen are vehicles (Toyota appears to be the SUV of choice) moving on one of the country's three main highways, some lights in the smaller towns at night, and Taliban tough guys running from their convoys of military vehicles right before multiple weapons impacts.

The bombs keep falling on the Taliban. Sometimes you get in country and drop, sometimes you can't. As you can gather from all of the news coverage, the ground picture is changing radically, and as a result, the airstrike players are a bit more restrained.

Designed to fight a war against an immobile enemy with fixed targets, the Air Force is having a hard time with this fluid-battlefield stuff, scenarios to which the Navy and Marine Corps routinely train. I'm sure they'll do fine when they get their 13,000-foot runways built in.... Oh, that's right, they don't have any runways nearby. Guess those boys should have invested in some carrier decks a few years back. I realize that the previous statements are heavily biased, and ridiculously true.

A few funny stories for you before I sign off:

I talked previously about the air-to-air refueling that goes on over here. Over time, you get a feel for who the cool tanker drivers are and who the dolts are. The dolts? U.S. Air Force guys, of course. Love all the gas they carry, but they have no personality whatsoever (big shocker there). Cool tanker guys? The Royal Air Force! Love these guys. They will always go the extra mile (literally) to make sure you get your gas when and where you need it. The RAF tankers are ALWAYS on station and on time.

Apparently, the F-14 is their favorite platform, so as an added benefit post-tanking, you can pull up alongside the pilot's window, and he'll shove some literature up against the window for your perusal (your guess on the type of literature displayed).

A few days ago, we were directed to hang on this RAF tanker's wing until we received our mission tasking. After about 10 minutes, I decide to strike up a conversation with the crew (we monitor the same frequency while getting gas) to kill time. Thus began the comedy. After a 30-minute exchange of good-hearted jabs, the British tanker pilot delivered a challenge to our flight of two F-14s. But first, let me explain a little bit about in-flight refueling.

As I have mentioned earlier, to get gas while airborne, we have to put out a refueling probe that extends out from the right side of the jet about 2 feet outboard and forward of the pilot's head. The tanker is dragging a 20-foot hose, which ends in a basket that looks similar to a badminton birdie. The basket is about 2 feet in diameter. Now, the hard part of tanking while flying at 300 mph is getting the probe in the basket, because as you near the basket, the air disturbance created by the nose of your jet causes the basket to move up and away from you. Also thrown into the moving-basket equation is general air turbulence, as well as the "ham fist" of the pilot who is flying the tanker. Sometimes you get in the first time, sometimes it takes a couple of stabs.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, so this RAF guy says, "If you F-14 chaps are truly America's Finest Fighter Aircraft (my quote from a previous discussion), then you should have no problem getting into the basket first time, right?"

I respond with, "Yeah, I usually bat about .900 with these poorly designed Brit baskets. The problem is that when I get in close, I find myself thinking about Margaret Thatcher naked, get sick to my stomach, and miss the basket. Tell you what, we'll put a case of beer on both Tomcats getting in the first time."

Did I mention that he's flying a DC-9-type tanker, where a basket comes off of each wingtip, which exacerbates the turbulence problem by virtue of the rough airflow over the wingtip? Screw it. The bet is on.

The call finally comes for us to go hit some targets and it's time to get topped off. The pressure is on. I head over to the tanker's left wing, my wingman over to his right. And as we are closing in, I tell my wingman, "Now, as you get in close, try not to think about all of the great English warriors of the past: the Spice Girls, Boy George, Wham!, and Dame Edna. Just free your mind and be the basket."

A couple of corrections later and just as I plug (on the first attempt), I scream over the radio: "Revolutionary War, baby!" My wingman was good on his first attempt, too, so the final score was U.S. 2, England 0. I doubt we'll see the beer, but who would want a case of warm Brit beer anyway?

Speaking of beer, somewhere in the Navy regulations it's written down that for every 45 consecutive days that you spend at sea without a port call, you rate two beers. Two weeks ago, they broke out 10,000 beers for the crew to tear into, for this deployment's first of many "beer days."

With beer day fast approaching, multiple discussions erupted in the squadron ready room over how to best maximize the beer-day allotment. Do you starve yourself for two days to increase the "buzz" potential? How about giving blood two hours prior, to assist in decreasing the amount of blood in your alcohol system? Do you nurse your two beers over a two-hour span, or just chug 'em and ride the wave? Which type of beer gives you the most bang for the buck? Foster's? Yuengling? MGD? All very important and crucial questions.

After much mental anguish and repeated calls to the flight surgeon inquiring about blood-donor opportunities, I decided on the "full-fed, Foster's chug" game plan. Rumor has it that over 22,000 beers were killed. Hmmm... 5,500-person crew, two beers per person. Hey! Someone went through the line more than once! No comment. Only 20 days until our next beer day, so I will take inputs on any improvements to my game plan!

One last thing before I complete my novella: Please remember in your thoughts and prayers every single enlisted sailor that is slugging it out here on the USS Teddy Roosevelt. The aviator types have it easy, in that we get to leave this ship for six fun-filled hours to fly into a foreign hostile land and blow stuff up. We have variety and excitement in our days.

But think of that 19-year-old kid up on the flight deck 17 hours a day, fixing the same jets day in and day out, while maintaining the same daily routine. Imagine doing that for over 70 days straight (only two days off in the last six weeks). He looks forward to four things: 1) getting off his feet for five minutes, 2) eating bland Navy chow, 3) sleeping in a cluttered space shared by 239 other sailors, and 4) port calls. His variety and excitement comes mainly during in-port visits and, to date, we have had none, and oh, by the way, there isn't one in the near or even distant future. They are the real heroes of Operation Enduring Freedom, because it is through their efforts that we are able to launch and ultimately defend American shores. Through it all, you rarely hear one complaint from these kids, despite the fact that they are working harder than anyone on this planet, in the most dangerous "office space" on Earth -- the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.

Hope this e-mail finds you all safe and having a great holiday season. Don't worry about us, we are doing great out here. I can honestly say that there is no other place in the world I'd rather be than right here, right now, sticking it to the Taliban.

Later.

No Burqas In This F-14

Dispatch No. 2 comes from a radar intercept officer -- "RIO" in Navy slang -- who sits in the backseat of an F-14 and is in charge of dropping the bombs and watching out for enemy planes and, if necessary, putting them in the radar crosshairs for the kill. In this case, the RIO is a woman who is also flying off the carrier Roosevelt. Her front-seater, the pilot, is also female. The irony of two women dropping bombs on the Taliban, who barred girls from even attending school, is not lost on these two naval aviators.

Well, let me tell you about my day yesterday. I started out pretty bummed that back home in Virginia Beach, the Tomcat community was having its annual Fighter Fling -- a huge affair at the Marriott in Norfolk. We were all missing it.

But I didn't stay bummed for long. I went out on a 6.5-hour mission over lovely Afghanistan, met up with a ground-forward air controller, and he directed us toward some nice juicy targets. Sum total between four Tomcats and two F/A-18 Hornets: 13 laser-guided bombs and eight MK-82 500-pound bombs. My pilot and I (another chick, by the way -- chicks rule!) were personally responsible for getting one tank with a GBU-12, 500-pound laser-guided bomb, and a little airburst of love dropped on some troops in the open with a couple of MK-82s. Sniff! It was BEAUTIFUL! I get a tear in my eye, just thinking about it.

In general, the guys are doing some great work. I've passed on some video to those that can download it. Some in particular: Video shot from an F-14, of a B-52 dropping a string of about 20 or 30 MK-82s. Looked like little rabbit turds dropping out of the airplane. After the drop, the camera slows down and you can see them explode in a line along a road. Pretty cool.

Another favorite of the air wing is an F-14 video of a laser-guided bomb falling off the other Tomcat. The camera follows the bomb all the way down, until it explodes on a truck. Another good video was a Marine Hornet that dropped a GBU on what he thought was a building, which turned out to be a petroleum facility or some kind of storage facility. That one ended up on CNN the other day when [Rear] Adm. [John D.] Stufflebeem was briefing the press. The secondary explosions were freakin' phenomenal and completely unexpected. The shock wave was eye-watering.

Lastly, we sent some guys out the other day that found a convoy moving out like they had somewhere important to be. They must have heard the jets, because all of a sudden the trucks come to a screeching halt and you can see little white dots making for the hills right before the first bombs roll in and take out about three or four of the vehicles. If there was ever a time for a Rockeye [cluster bomb], that was it. That one made it on CNN for the admiral's daily briefing as well.

I think it was some Tomcats from the carrier Carl Vinson that got the opportunity to do some actual strafing of troops in the open, when a U.S. ground-forward air controller was being overrun. I wish I had the video of that. Nothing like peppering the enemy with a little 20mm high explosive incendiary -- they're like tiny little grenades that come out of the gun and explode like popcorn when they hit -- way cool. They drove back the enemy advance, and the forward air controller and his team made it through for another day. Go, Navy Air.

Other than that, it's cruise. Too bad I can't have days like yesterday all the time. Take care all, and in another two months or so, I should have more fun and games to pass on.

Regards.

A Night Rescue At Sea
The final e-mail is from a sailor aboard the USS Russell, a destroyer on operations in the Indian Ocean. He writes of a rescue on December 12 of the crew of four aviators from an Air Force B-1 bomber that crashed into the ocean after mechanical difficulties forced it to abort a bombing run into Afghanistan. The four airmen had to eject from the aircraft before it crashed.

As everyone knows, we had a busy night. No matter what you hear on the news, this is the story:

We watched on radar and talked on radio to this B-1 that left [the island of] Diego Garcia around 2100 hours last night. At about 100 nautical miles out, they called in an emergency. One of their engines was out, and they couldn't get it going again. They turned around and started heading back, stating that they were OK and that they would get back to Diego Garcia and fly around the island a little to burn off extra fuel, then land. They didn't make it back. Shortly after the U-turn, they disappeared from our scopes without a trace.

It's close to 2200 hours when this goes down, and the captain gets on the ship's public-address system to tell us what happened. We head straight for their last position at over 30 knots.

On our way there, we started preparing for the worst. We manned up our two rigid-hulled inflatable boats with a whole bunch of guys and gear. We had night-vision gear, blankets, first aid, stretchers, Gatorade (the pilots were pretty happy about the Gatorade), and a whole bunch of other stuff. Each boat had a corpsman (for medical help), a signalman (in case the radios died), an engineer (to fix the boat), an officer (to be in charge), a coxswain (to drive the boat), a seaman (to do anything the coxswain says), and a rescue swimmer (to bring the pilots out of the water).

Elsewhere on board the ship, the crew was preparing stretchers and stretcher-bearers. All sorts of lookouts are being manned. It was pretty hectic.

So, the captain gets on the announcing system again and tells us what he knows: "A B-1 bomber went down. They have a crew of four. We are talking to one of the pilots on his rescue radio. He is in his life raft and doing OK. He can hear voices around him. Where they are is in a shallow area that the ship can't get to. We are going to stop about five to 10 miles away and send the boats down to the pilots."

Just when we stop and begin to put the boats in the water, he gets on again: "Two pilots are now together and in their rafts and doing OK. They can hear voices around them still." So, I'm now thinking that all four are accounted for and alive and talking. This is good.

We dropped the boats into the water. Mine went in second. Then, it didn't start. But that's what the engineer is for. It only took a few minutes to discover a loose cable on the battery. We got going a mile or two behind the other boat. On our way out, we could smell all of the jet fuel from the bomber. All I was thinking was that I hope I don't have to swim in it.

After about seven miles, the other boat said that they had found the two that were talking on the radio. We slowed down a bit and begin to close in on their location. We were looking all around. So were the search planes. There were three planes, all doing low-flying runs this way and that way, with their landing lights on. It was kind of wild.

As I watched the water that one of the planes was lighting up, I saw a flash. As the plane flew by and the area darkened, it was easy to see a strobe light not too far from us. We jammed straight for it.

When we got closer and slowed down, we saw that it was indeed a pilot. He said that he was OK, so we just leaned over and pulled him in. The ejection process is a pretty violent evolution. He had rope burns on his arm and neck and face from various straps and stuff pulling tight when the chute opened. He was pretty stiff and sore, too. Also, he didn't have his raft. It was torn away from him at some point before he got to the water.

At this point, we were told to transfer our guy to the other boat with the first two guys in it. Then they were going to take them back, and we would stay and look for the fourth.

As we were about to start over to meet the other boat, we saw a flare. All three pilots said, "Don't worry about us, let's go get our buddy." So, both boats headed straight for him.

We got there about the same time as the other one. We decided that we'd pick him up to even out the loads in the boats. I actually got to get into the water for this one.

The guy was in his raft and we didn't want to get too close, because we might foul our prop on his parachute or sea anchor. I jumped in and swam up to him. "Good evening, my name is... and I'll be your rescue swimmer for the evening." It got me a smile and a chuckle. This guy is OK, too. He asked me what the drill is to get him out of the raft and into the boat. I tell him that he rolls out and I give him my flotation device. Roger that.

He rolls out and grabs the flotation device, I grab him, and we kick over to the boat. They lifted him into the boat and we were on our way. Mission complete, job well done.

On the way back, they told us what happened. Once their engine failed, other systems started dropping off-line, too. They were down to one generator when the last straw came. The attitude (not altitude) indicator malfunctioned. Now they couldn't tell if they were flying level or not. And when they did figure it out, they were flying upside down and heading for the water. At night, with calm seas and the stars reflecting on the water, it looks like sky all around. So they all ejected at over 5,000 feet. Kind of a wild story.

Anyhow, the captain gave us a holiday routine today, so I am going back to bed. God bless the men and women in uniform who serve to protect our freedoms.

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