Monday, May 26, 2003



biography by Ronald Reagan

courtesy of Readers Digest - October 1979

We called him DUKE, and he was every bit the giant off screen he was on. Everything about him-his stature, his style, his convictions-conveyed enduring strength, and no one who observed his struggle in those final days could doubt that strength was real. Yet there was more. To my wife, Nancy, "Duke Wayne was the most gentle, tender person I ever knew."

In 1960, as president of the Screen Actors' Guild, I was deeply embroiled in a bitter labor dispute between the Guild and the motion picture industry. When we called a strike, the film industry unleashed a series of stinging personal attacks on me - criticism my wife found difficult to take.

At 7:30 one morning the phone rang and Nancy heard Duke's booming voice: "I've been readin' what these damn columnists are saying about Ron. He can take care of himself, but I've been worrying about how all this is affecting you." Virtually every morning until the strike was settled several weeks later, he phoned her. When a mass meeting was called to discuss settlement terms, he left a dinner party so that he could escort Nancy and sit at her side. It was, she said, like being next to a force bigger than life.

Countless others were also touched by his strength. Although it would take the critics 40 years to recognize what John Wayne was, the movie going public knew all along. In this country and around the world, Duke was the most popular box-office star of all time. For an incredible 25 years he was rated at or around the top in box-office appeal. His films grossed $700 million-a record no performer in Hollywood has come close to matching. Yet John Wayne was more than an actor; he was a force around which films were made. As Elizabeth Taylor Warner stated last May when testifying in favor of the special gold medal Congress struck for him: "He gave the whole world the image of what an American should be."

Stagecoach to Stardom

He was born Marion Michael Morrison in Winterset, Iowa. When Marion was six, the family moved to California. There he picked up the nickname Duke - after his Airedale. He rose at 4 a.m. to deliver newspapers, and after school and football practice he made deliveries for local stores. He was an A student, president of the Latin Society, head of his senior class and an all-state guard on a championship football team.

Duke had hoped to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and was named as an alternate selection to Annapolis, but the first choice took the appointment. Instead, he accepted a full scholarship to play football at the University of Southern California. There coach Howard Jones, who often found summer jobs in the movie industry for his players, got Duke work in the summer of 1926 as an assistant prop man on the set of a movie directed by John Ford.

One day, Ford, a notorious taskmaster with a rough-and-ready sense of humor, spotted the tall USC guard on his set and asked Duke to bend over and demonstrate his ball stance. With a deft kick, knocked Duke's arms from his body and the young athlete on his face. Picking himself Duke said in that voice which then commanded attention, "Let's try that once again." This time Duke sent Ford flying. Ford erupted in laughter, and the two began a personal and professional friendship which would last a lifetime.

From his job in props, Duke worked his way into roles on the screen. During the Depression he played in grade-B westerns until John Ford finally convinced United Artists to give him the role of the Ringo Kid in his classic film Stagecoach. John Wayne was on the road to stardom. He quickly established his versatility in a variety of major roles: a young seaman in Eugene O'Neill's - The Long Voyage Home, a tragic captain in Reap the Wild Wind, a rodeo rider in the comedy - A Lady Takes a Chance.

When war broke out, John Wayne tried to enlist but was rejected because of an old football injury to his shoulder, his age (34), and his status as a married father of four. He flew to Washington to plead that he be allowed to join the Navy but was turned down. So he poured himself into the war effort by making inspirational war films - among them The Fighting Seabees, Back to Bataan and They Were Expendable. To those back home and others around the world he became a symbol of the determined American fighting man.

Duke could not be kept from the front lines. In 1944 he spent three months touring forward positions in the Pacific theater. Appropriately, it was a wartime film, Sands of Iwo Jima which turned him into a superstar. Years after the war, when Emperor Hirohito of Japan visited the United States, he sought out John Wayne, paying tribute to the one who represented our nation's success in combat.
As one of the true innovators of the film industry, Duke tossed aside the model of the white-suited cowboy/good guy, creating instead a tougher, deeper-dimensioned western hero. He discovered Monument Valley, the film setting in the Arizona - Utah desert where a host of movie classics were filmed. He perfected the choreographic techniques and stuntman tricks which brought realism to screen fighting. At the same time he decried pornography, and blood, and gore in films. "That's not sex and violence," he would say. "It's filth and bad taste."

"I Sure As Hell Did!"

In the 1940s, Duke was one of the few stars with the courage to expose the determined bid by a band of communists to take control of the film industry. Through a series of violent strikes and systematic blacklisting, these people were at times dangerously close to reaching their goal. With theatrical employee's union leader Brewer, playwright Morrie and others, he formed the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals to challenge this insidious campaign. Subsequent Congressional investigations in I947 clearly proved both the communist plot and the importance of what Duke and his friends did.

In that period, during my first term as president of the Actors' Guild, I was confronted with an attempt by many of these same leftists to assume leadership of the union. At a mass meeting I watched rather helplessly as they filibustered, waiting for our majority to leave so they could gain control. Somewhere in the crowd I heard a call for adjournment, and I seized on this as a means to end the attempted takeover. But the other side demanded I identify the one who moved for adjournment.

I looked over the audience, realizing that there were few willing to be publicly identified as opponents of the far left. Then I saw Duke and said, "Why I believe John Wayne made the motion." I heard his strong voice reply, "I sure as hell did!" The meeting and the radicals' campaign was over.

Later, when such personalities as actor Larry Parks came forward to admit their Communist Party backgrounds, there were those who wanted to see them punished. Not Duke. "It takes courage to admit you're wrong," he said, and he publicly battled attempts to ostracize those who had come clean.

Duke also had the last word over those who warned that his battle against communism in Hollywood would ruin his career. Many times he would proudly boast, "I was 32nd in the box-office polls when I accepted the presidency of the Alliance. When I left office eight years later, somehow the folks who buy tickets had made me number one.

Duke went to Vietnam in the early days of the war. He scorned VIP treatment, insisting that he visit the troops in the field. Once he even had his helicopter land in the midst of a battle. When he returned, he vowed to make a film about the heroism of Special Forces soldiers.

The public jammed theaters to see the resulting film, The Green Berets. The critics, however, delivered some of the harshest reviews ever given a motion picture. The New Yorker bitterly condemned the man who made the film. The New York Times called it "unspeakable ... rotten ... stupid." Yet John Wayne was undaunted. "That little clique back there in the East has taken great personal satisfaction reviewing my politics instead of my pictures," he often said. "But one day those doctrinaire liberals will wake up to find the pendulum has swung the other way.

Foul-Weather Friend

I never once saw Duke display hatred toward those who scorned him. Oh, he could use some pretty salty language, but he would not tolerate pettiness and hate. He was human all right: he drank enough whiskey to float a PT boat, though he never drank on the job. His work habits were legendary in Hollywood - he was virtually always the first to arrive on the set and the last to leave.

His torturous schedule plus the great personal pleasure he derived from hunting and deep-sea fishing or drinking and card-playing with his friends may have cost him a couple of marriages; but you had only to see his seven children and 21 grandchildren to realize that Duke found time to be a good father. He often said, "I have tried to live my life so that my family would love me and my friends respect me. The others can do whatever the hell they please."

To him, a handshake was a binding contract. When he was in the hospital for the last time and sold his yacht, The Wild Goose, for an amount far below its market value, he learned the engines needed minor repairs. He ordered those engines overhauled at a cost to him of $40,000 because he had told the new owner the boat was in good shape.

Duke's generosity and loyalty stood out in a city rarely known for either. When a friend needed work, that person went on his payroll. When a friend needed help, Duke's wallet was open. He also was loyal to his fans. One writer tells of the night he and Duke were in Dallas for the premiere of Chisum. Returning late to his hotel, Duke found a message from a woman who said her little girl lay critically ill in a local hospital. The woman wrote, "It would mean so much to her if you could pay her just a brief visit." At 3 o'clock in the morning he took off for the hospital where he visited the astonished child and every other patient on the hospital floor who happened to be awake.

I saw his loyalty in action many times. I remember that when Duke and Jimmy Stewart were on their way to my second inauguration as governor of California they encountered a crowd of demonstrators under the banner of the Vietcong flag. Jimmy had just lost a son in Vietnam. Duke excused himself for a moment and walked into the crowd. In a moment there was no Vietcong flag.

Final Curtain

Like any good John Wayne film, Duke's career had a gratifying ending. In the 1970s a new era of critics began to recognize the unique quality of his acting. The turning point had been the film True Grit. When the Academy gave him an Oscar for best actor of 1969, many said it was based on the accomplishments of his entire career. Others said it was Hollywood's way of admitting that it had been wrong to deny him Academy Awards for a host of previous films. There is truth, I think, to both these views.

Yet who can forget the climax of the film? The grizzled old marshal confronts the four outlaws and calls out: "I mean to kill you or see you hanged at Judge Parker's convenience. Which will it be?" "Bold talk for a one-eyed fat man," their leader sneers. Then Duke cries, "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!" and, reins in his teeth, charges at them firing with both guns. Four villains did not live to menace another day.

"Foolishness?" wrote Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko, describing the thrill this scene gave him. "Maybe. But I hope we never become so programmed that nobody has the damn-the-risk spirit."

Fifteen years ago when Duke lost a lung in his first bout with cancer, studio press agents tried to conceal the nature of his illness. When Duke discovered this, he went before the public and showed us that a man can fight this dread disease. He went on to raise millions of dollars for private cancer research. Typically, he snorted: "We've got too much at stake to give government a monopoly in the fight against cancer."

Earlier this year, when doctors told Duke there was no hope, he urged them to use his body for experimental medical research, to further the search for a cure. He refused painkillers so he could be alert as he spent his last days with his children. When John Wayne died on June 11, a Tokyo newspaper ran the headline,
"Mr. America passes on."

"There's right and there's wrong," Duke said in The Alamo. "You gotta do one or the other. You do the one and you're living. You do the other and you may be walking around but in reality you're dead."

Duke Wayne symbolized just this, the force of the American will to do what is right in the world. He could have left no greater legacy.
Sgt. John M. Stryker USMC
"Sands Of Iwo Jima"


Saturday, May 17, 2003



Shortly after the arrival of the regiment on Vella Lavella, LtCol Victor H. Krulak, CO of the 2d Parachute Bn was advised of the impending Bougainville landings, and was ordered to land w/a raiding force on the island of Choiseul, there to create a disturbance in order to confuse the enemy and to mask the true location of the major assault.

Two diversionary amphibious landings were made the night of Oct. 27-28: the 2nd Marine Parachute Battalion landed on Choiseul; and New Zealand's 8th Brigade, together with Navy Seabees (U.S. Naval Construction Battalions), made an unopposed landing on the Treasury Islands on Oct. 27.

Both operations served their primary purpose of drawing Japanese troops away from Bougainville, but the positions gained in the Treasuries, including valuable Blanche Harbor, were held and strengthened to provide staging for the landings on Bougainville.

The Marines left Choiseul by landing craft after a week of harassing Japanese troops and damaging barge and supply bases.

The commander of one of the relief craft which returned the raiding party to Vella Lavella was Lieutenant, later President John F. Kennedy.

The above from....
U.S. Marine Corps Special Units Of World War II
By Charles L. Updegraph, Jr. History And Museums Division
Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps
Washington, D.C.
Printed 1972

Gunny G's Old Salt Marines Tavern

Monday, May 12, 2003



Orlando Sentinel
Sponsored by

Simply Semper Fi
By Roger Roy
Sentinel Staff Writer

April 27, 2003

The gas mask had hung at my hip for so long it felt almost permanently
attached, and I'd gotten to where I'd reflexively reach down to make
sure it was there, like checking for keys before locking the car door.

But now I handed the mask and the rest of my issued gear to the Army
captain, and he checked off his list: atropine injectors, pants and
jacket to my chemical-weapons suit, rubber overboots and gloves. He
marked off the list and slid it over the counter, and I signed it.

"You are now officially disembedded," he told me, and I'd been around
Marines so much I was almost startled he hadn't said, "Good to go," the
Corps' catchall phrase that means you're ready for anything, even if it
involves bayonets and a beach that somebody else thinks belongs to them.

I almost mentioned that to the captain, but I figured, he's Army, he
wouldn't get it. A few weeks earlier, I wouldn't have gotten it myself.

For more than a month, I'd been, in military parlance, "embedded" with
the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, traveling and living with the
Marines as they pushed north from Kuwait to Baghdad.

It was an experience that had swung dizzily from rewarding to
exasperating to frightening, and now that it was suddenly over I was
still sorting through its ups and downs. That night after turning in our
Marine-issued gear at the military press headquarters in Kuwait City, I
had dinner with a reporter I'd been with since before the war started,
Wayne Woolley of the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., who'd been embedded
with the same unit. At the five-star Hilton looking out over the Gulf,
we ate smoked salmon and fresh fruit and smoked Iraqi cigarettes. We
wished you could buy alcohol in Kuwait, and managed not to feel guilty
even though we knew the Marines we'd left in Iraq the day before were
still eating MREs.

Over dinner, we rehashed our experience and came to a conclusion that
would have stunned us if someone had suggested it a month earlier: If we
were 18 or 19 again, neither of us was sure we'd be able to resist the
urge to join the Marines.

The idea was troubling on several levels. First, practically speaking,
we should have known better by then. Being with the Marines meant we'd
been through the whole war without a hot shower, learned to consider
ourselves lucky when we had a new MRE box for a toilet and occasionally
worried we were about to be shot. We'd seen how the Marines had to make
do with old or insufficient gear, some of it dating to the Vietnam era.
It's hard to argue that willingly subjecting yourself to such a thing
isn't a sign of simple-mindedness.

Beyond that, it was hardly a ringing endorsement of our ability to keep
our distance from those we were writing about. I'd covered police,
courts and politics without ever once wanting to be a cop, a lawyer or a

Fortunately, I'm old enough that our discussion that night was purely

But I think our reaction explains much about the Pentagon's decision to
embed several hundred reporters for the war in Iraq, the first time the
press has enjoyed such close war-time access to the U.S. military since

Someone at the Pentagon had figured out what we now recognized: No
matter what you think of the military as an institution, it's hard not
to admire the actual rank-and-file troops.

Who would write glowingly about the Marine Corps bureaucracy for trying
to push a convoy of 150 supply trucks through hundreds of miles of enemy
territory with too little fuel, too few radios and not enough heavy

But it's a different story when told from the seat next to a 19-year-old
lance corporal at a wheel of a truckload of high explosives who hasn't
slept in two days and is just trying to get the mission done.

Before the war, I'd never spent much time with the Marines, and I wasn't
sure what to expect when I was assigned to them. I think I understand
Marines better now, but I'm not sure I can explain them.

They tend to do things the hardest way possible.

They call each other "devil dog" and say "Hoo-rah."

They are loud and rough. They have lots of tattoos. They'll ignore you
or torment you if they think you're a fake. They'll do anything for you
if they like you.

They'll believe the wildest rumors. One told me, early in the war, that
he'd heard the Army, rather than the Marines, would occupy Baghdad
because the Marines "break too much stuff."

Marines tend to think and travel in a straight line.

They have a talent for complaining and swearing that I've seldom seen

I heard entire conversations between Marines that consisted of nothing
but acronyms laced with profanity, something like:

"Where's your #&% NCO?"

"At the ^*&$ COC for *+$ CSSB."

"We need some #@* LVSs and a couple of *#% MTVRs."



Marines get things done. They follow orders. They would sometimes do
crazy things if they thought they'd been told to.

Once, during a convoy stop, a young Marine begged us out of an MRE box
we'd been saving for a toilet. When Woolley gave him the box, he made a
joke about bringing it back, but the Marine thought he was serious.

Five minutes later, the Marine was back, offering the no-longer-empty
box back to a horrified Woolley.

It had Gunnery Sgt. Kevin Mlay, who was standing there when the Marine
brought the box back, shaking his head.

Marines may not be the smartest, Mlay said, but you have to give them
credit for following orders.

That doesn't mean they're afraid to point out that their orders may be,
to politely paraphrase an often-used Marine term, messed up.

"That's (messed) up, sir," is a phrase I heard countless times.

I'm sure it was the first thing the Marines said when they saw the reefs
at Tarawa or the Japanese positions on Mount Suribachi.

There were endless variations of the phrase -- "Sir, that's totally
(messed) up," and "Sergeant, you won't believe how (messed) up it is."

But after complaining, the Marines would do what they'd been told, even
if it didn't make any sense.

Most of the Marines were very young, most lance corporals only 19 or 20.
That may be why I ran across so many of them who managed to have both a
sentimental streak and a mean streak.

I saw Marines who didn't have any extra food or water give what they had
to Iraqi children begging on the roadside. But the same Marines laughed
like crazy when they heard about a Marine who filled an empty MRE bag
with sand, sealed it up and threw it to begging children.

One Marine officer I knew liked to call his Marines "the most demented
young people our society can produce." He wasn't really kidding, but he
still admired them, and I did, too.

The Marines Woolley and I had been embedded with were in the
Transportation Support Group, which included the Orlando-based
reservists of the 6th Motor Transport Battalion. They were running
convoys of ammunition, food, water and fuel, and fighting wasn't
supposed to be their main job.

They were ordered to more or less ignore civilians unless they were
hostile. If they took fire, they weren't to stop: Getting the supplies
to the front was more important than getting into a fight, especially
since the fuel and ammunition trucks in a convoy would have been
vulnerable targets.

Their orders encouraged a sort of
don't-mess-with-me-I-won't-mess-with-you policy. But if someone messed
with them, they were inviting the worst.

Marines return fire with a relish.

At a base south of Baghdad, I heard a young Marine reporting to an
officer about how his convoy had taken sniper fire from a mud brick hut
near the highway.

Did you return fire, the officer asked, and the Marine told him casually
that the Mark 19 gunner had gotten off "about 100 rounds."

The Mark 19 is a sort of machine gun that fires grenades, and 100 Mark
19 rounds would be enough to level most villages in southern Iraq, let
alone one mud brick hut.

But the Marines figured anyone who messed with them had it coming.

Maj. Michael Yaroma of Oviedo, like all officers a dedicated student to
the psyche of his Marines, told me how he'd found a young Marine
tormenting a fly at their base south of Baghdad.

The flies in the desert are big, ugly, biting things, and the Marine had
caught one and pulled its wings off. As it tried to crawl away, the
Marine poked at it with his finger, asking "How do you like it, huh? How
do you like it?"

"What the hell are you doing?" Yaroma asked the Marine.

"He was (messing) with me, sir, so now I'm (messing) with him," the
Marine said, and then he went back to his fly.

When the Marines began pulling out of Baghdad last week, replaced by
Army units, news reports noted how the Army tended to patrol the city in
convoys of Humvees, while the Marines had been on foot and mixed with
the locals.

I'd seen it myself. There were times in Baghdad when a few Marines would
be on guard at a busy intersection where there were hundreds, even
thousands of Iraqis filing past.

Many of those Marines seemed to enjoy the close contact, laughing,
waving and joking with the Iraqis the best they could given the language

But I also knew that none of them would hesitate to light up the crowd
if it came to that.

A lot of the Marines I met recognized that their experiences in the war
had changed them.

After dark at a camp in Central Iraq, we were sitting with about a dozen
Marines, and one of them of them was telling the group about his
experience handling Iraqi prisoners, which the unit transported back to
holding camps.

The prisoners weren't treated gently, and the Marine was demonstrating
how the guards would give them a string of contradictory orders the
Iraqis didn't understand anyway, making their point by aiming their
rifles at the prisoners' faces.

"We're like, What's your name! Shut up! Stand up! Sit the hell down!"

The Marine was waving his loaded M-16 around wildly and finally Sgt. Rob
Anderson told him, "Put your damn rifle down."

The Marine sat down and, after a few seconds, he said, "When I get home,
I'm taking an anger-management course."

Everybody cracked up, mostly because they knew he was completely

I found that even officers who had been studying Marines for years still
scratched their heads over them.

One fascinated by their quirks was Maj. Jeff Eberwein, an oil-company
executive in civilian life who has a degree in medieval literature from
Boston College. The books he'd brought to read during the war included
Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Eberwein liked to joke about how Marines did things the hardest way.
Since they'd arrived at Camp Saipan in January, the Marines had to wear
their full battle gear -- flak jackets and helmets and carrying their
weapons -- even to the mess hall and latrine.

I thought the conditions at Camp Saipan were bad, with tents that didn't
keep out the dust storms and foul-smelling portable toilets. But it was
luxury compared to conditions after the war started.

And the Marines, who had assumed they would be using holes for toilets
and eating standing up even in camp before the war, thought it was great
they had toilets and a mess tent with chairs.

Eberwein did a hilarious version of a sergeant's reaction to any Marine
who complained about the mess hall food, which was actually awful.

"Do you think they had strawberry jam on Tarawa, Marine?! Did they have
orange juice at Iwo Jima?!"

One day at the big Marine base south of Baghdad, Eberwein and I watched
a Marine take a wrong turn with his LVS, a monster all-wheel drive
truck, and come up to a ditch with a berm beyond it. The Marine could
have backed up a little and turned to avoid the obstacle. But the
shortest path was straight ahead, and after sizing it up the driver just
gunned the motor and the big truck plowed over it, tires spinning and
steel groaning.

Eberwein liked to say that Marines think finesse is a French sports car.
But the truth is he admired their single-mindedness to getting the job
done. That day as the truck disappeared through the cloud of dust, he
just shook his head and said, "Mission accomplished."

But while Eberwein tended to be more reflective than most of the
Marines, I came to realize he was one of them.

We were at a camp late one afternoon when one of the Cobra helicopter
gunships patrolling outside the Marine positions suddenly began firing.

Marines grabbed their rifles and ran over the berm, hoping for a fight.

In a few minutes, they all came back grumbling: The Cobra gunner must
have been only clearing his weapon, and there was nothing out there to
shoot at.

Afterward, Eberwein joked about how only Marines would be disappointed
that they couldn't get into a firefight.

But he'd been the first one over the berm.

If we reporters often puzzled over Marines, there were things about us
that didn't make sense to them, either.

The first two questions Marines would ask us when they found out we were
reporters were: Did you volunteer to come, and do you get paid extra for
covering a war?

They acted like we were crazy when we said we'd volunteered, even though
they were all volunteers, themselves, for the Corps if not for this
particular war.

They also thought we were crazy when they found out we weren't paid any
more to cover a war than to cover a city council meeting. But I always
pointed out that the extra pay the Marines were getting in Iraq was only
a couple of hundred dollars a month, scant compensation for being shot

A surprising number of Marines, unaware that journalists were forbidden
to carry weapons, asked if we were armed.

When we told them the rules prohibited weapons for journalists, more
than a few assumed our denials were just to make it seem we were
complying with the rules, and that we really had some sort of weapons.

Others seemed almost alarmed for our sakes that we were unarmed. Many
insisted on showing us how to fire their M-16s.

After one long, scary night on a convoy in southern Iraq, Sgt. Joseph
Gomez had asked me if I could throw. I knew Gomez played baseball last
year on the Marine Corps team, so I answered that I could throw about
like a girl, why?

He held out a green ball printed on the side, "Grenade, Frag, Delay."
You pull the small pin first, he said, then the larger pin, and throw

I couldn't imagine ever using the thing, and tried to stay away from the
spot in the bed of the truck where Gomez kept it tucked in between the

At first, when we'd climb into a truck we'd wait for one of the Marines
to move the weapons that were lying around. But after a while we'd just
pick up the rocket launcher or M-16 and move it ourselves. Most of the
Marines, after we'd spent some time riding with them, would hand us
their rifles to hold while they climbed in or out of the truck, and it
became so second nature I never thought about it until later.

Maybe that would have made us fair targets. But on the convoys, one of
the biggest dangers was snipers, and there was no reason to believe
they'd have any idea we were reporters rather than Marines, or that
they'd avoid shooting us even if they knew.

The reporters I knew, myself included, didn't expect any Geneva
Convention niceties if we were captured, noncombatants or not.

In any case, my sense of security was directly in proportion to my
confidence in the Marines around me.

We spent the first week of the war with Marines I came to trust
completely -- Gomez and his crew on a truck that provided security for
the convoys, driver Lance Cpl. Robert Kissmann and .50-caliber gunner
Scott Stasney.

Gomez, whose parents live in Sanford, was only 23, but the others on his
squad had the same sort of confidence in him. "He's my daddy," was how
one Marine in Gomez's squad described him.

Gomez called his M-16 Marie, after his wife's middle name, and even his
choice of wife I regarded as a sign of his bravery, since he'd married
his platoon sergeant's daughter, a thought that made even the toughest
Marines cringe.

I always figured nothing bad could happen until Gomez had fired his last
round, but I was with him during my scariest moment of the war.

On an Iraqi highway south of the Euphrates, during a blinding dust
storm, our security truck stopped to guard a stalled truck full of
ammunition and guided missiles while the rest of the convoy drove ahead.

The dust and howling wind cut visibility at times to only 50 or 60
yards, and Iraqi trucks and cars would suddenly appear out of the dust,
often turning to speed off.

We felt like a whole Iraqi army could be 100 yards away in the dust and
we wouldn't know it.

The wind blew dust in my eyes even with my goggles on, and I was
standing behind the truck, out of the wind. I wasn't particularly
worried until Gomez came back and told me he couldn't see and asked me
to take a look at his eye. That was when I realized all my confidence
was tied up in him.

His eye was bloodshot and full of sand, and I dug out the worst of it
with my fingernail, then washed it out with a bottle of water. It still
looked bad but he said it felt better, and he went back to the road.

The mechanics were still working on the truck, and a few more Marines
had joined us, when we heard a loud squeaking clatter coming up the road
behind us.

We all knew what it was even before someone said it was tracks, which
meant armored vehicles.

A day earlier, American Cobra gunships or F-18s would have massacred any
Iraqi tanks that dared to venture out, but now nothing was flying in the
dust storm.

Eberwein yelled at a Marine to grab the AT-4 rocket launcher from one of
the Humvees, but I had no confidence in the little rocket.

Besides, you could tell there were several sets of tracks coming up the
road. And I already had a vision of a column of Iraqi tanks coming up
the road and was trying to figure whether it would be better to run
north or south and how long it would take to get out of sight of the
road in the dust storm. I was about to disembed myself on foot.

But when they clattered into sight, the tracks belonged to four U.S.
Army Bradley Fighting Vehicles, which were as surprised as we were by
the encounter. They stopped suddenly, backed up and crossed the road,
keeping their cannons trained on us even as they rolled past and
disappeared into the dust.

I managed to snap a photo of the Bradleys just as they came out of the
dust, but when I looked at it later the image was blurred, as if I'd
moved when I took the shot. I don't think I could blame the wind.

Aside from the fact that the Marine's inclination was to fight and mine
was to run, another difference between the press and the Marines is we
tended to see things as black and white, sometimes in ways that seemed
comical to the Marines.

One night, some Marines had dropped me off after dark at an advance camp
for our unit. I was fumbling around trying to unroll my sleeping bag
when I startled a Marine who came walking around the command tent, which
I was sleeping next to so I wouldn't be run over by a truck in the dark.

"Friend or foe," he asked me, and I had no ready answer. Technically, I
was no one's foe, as a non-combatant. And while I'd made friends who
were Marines, to call yourself a friend implies some compromise of

After a long pause I finally mumbled "Reporter," and when the Marine
laughed I wasn't sure if it was because of my answer or how long it had
taken me to spit it out.

To the Marines, the biggest difference between us was that we were more
or less free to do as we wished.

Technically the rules were that we would stay with our assigned unit,
and that someone would keep track of us. Our press badges said "Bearer
must be escorted at all times."

But within a day of the war's start, we were pretty much free to do as
we wanted, jumping on and off convoys and wandering around wherever we
could get a ride and find Marines to give us water, MREs and a place to
throw our sleeping bags.

We learned to avoid unfriendly officers, and the friendly ones directed
us to convoys that were heading closer to the action, even telling us
when we should jump off to another unit.

Unlike the Marines, we could dress as we wanted and sleep until we
wanted to get up.

But the biggest difference was that we could leave whenever we wished.
Many Marines told us they couldn't believe we would stay out there if we
had the option to go home.

I think it was the knowledge that we could pull out whenever we wanted
that cemented our connection with the Marines.

Just before Woolley and I flew out of Iraq on a C-130 back to Kuwait, we
were saying our goodbyes to the Marines at their base south of Baghdad.

Staff Sgt. Charles Wells, a firefighter and EMT for Orange County Fire
Rescue, made a point of pulling us aside before our flight.

The Marines hadn't known what to expect when they heard reporters would
be living with them, Wells said, and some had feared the worst, that
we'd pry into personal details or try to portray them as bloodthirsty
baby killers. But Wells told us his Marines appreciated how we'd lived
as they'd lived, gone where they'd gone, eaten what they'd eaten, used
the same MRE boxes as toilets and slept on the ground they'd slept on.

By then Wells knew we'd understand exactly what he meant when he told
us, "You guys are good to go."

We considered it the highest praise.§ion=/printstory

Copyright � 2003, Orlando Sentinel

Sunday, May 11, 2003


10 May 2003

MILINET A Cobra Pilot's Eye-View Of Iraqi Freedom

By: Major Jamie Cox, USMC


CALLSIGN “DEADLY” – SNAKES IN THE ATTACK* A Personal Account of an AH-1W Pilot During the War with Iraq

Author’s Note – This personal account of the war in Iraq was written to convey to my family and friends just what I went through during the war. Therefore, it is not an official history of what my unit accomplished or participated in, but rather a “Rated PG-13” and unclassified version of what I experienced. My concern is that this journal is forwarded in e-mails to others outside of my circle… and I want to ensure that when this falls into a stranger’s hands, that what I’ve written is taken in context with the how and why I composed this piece. These observations and opinions are mine alone. They don’t represent my command, or the United States Marine Corps. JLC

INTRODUCTION As I reflect back on the past month that I spent in Iraq fighting the war, I’m amazed at what we accomplished. On a personal level, I’m astonished I’m alive. On the micro level, I’m truly overwhelmed at what my squadron achieved. We flew nearly 3,000 combat hours with 27 helicopters and we did not lose a single Marine to an accident or to the Iraqis. On the macro level, I’m astounded at the intensity with which the Marine Corps fought the entire war. ….The Marines’ tenacity won the war. Through pure luck, I was fortunate enough to be part of this team.

I kept a small journal during the course of the war. It’s not all that organized. Sometimes I didn’t write for days on end because of the tempo of operations. Other times, I didn’t write for days because of the severe boredom (mostly after the hostilities stopped). Some of the events that I wrote about rated one or two words in the journal… enough to jog my memory. Other events were captured in a paragraph, because I wanted to graphically encapsulate a moment that I had witnessed or taken part in. My methodology of making entries into the journal was haphazard at best. I never logged entries by date. Events were simply entered with a bullet at the front, followed by my thoughts. Some entries were late and out of order. So if actions appear to be out of order, it’s not intentional. My goal here is to capture my exact mindset so that I can relate them to you. Besides, once the war started, every day was a blur.

This series of recollections is based solely on my perspective. My point of view was that of a Marine, a squadron operations officer… and a flight leader and pilot flying AH-1W Super Cobras. Depending on your physical location, your experience level, and your ability to process incoming information, will determine how closely your perception mirrors reality. In aviation, we call it “situational awareness”. It’s human nature to expect differing perceptions by different people viewing the same event. For example, my co-pilot/gunner throughout the entire war was “Kujo”. Although he only sat 3 feet in front of me in the cockpit, Kujo’s recollection of a particular event may not exactly match mine, because at a given moment, we may have not had the same level of situational awareness. I know that General Franks, the theater commander, had a different point of view than me… just like I had a different perspective than what the Lance Corporal driving an M-1 Abrams tank into Baghdad had.

I apologize for the length of this document in advance. It’s going to be rather long because I’m going to do my best to portray to you not only situations, but my thoughts and emotions, too. I’ve pared this down a couple of times through some revisions… so hopefully I’ve kept this relatively pertinent to the highlights of my experience.

This is my best recollection of what happened.

THE LEAD UP TO DAY ONE Two days prior to the war officially beginning, a good portion of my squadron’s aircraft and aircrew departed the ship to move to an austere dirt airfield in Kuwait. This facilitated our ability to get to our assigned targets quickly, as opposed to trying to launch off the ship, which would add to the distance to the target. Typically, shipboard launch cycles are more complicated than those launched from ashore. I was lucky enough to be designated the division lead for a flight of four Cobras that were tasked to destroy Iraqi border posts that could send a warning to other Iraqi military units of our pending invasion. The mission was to be executed at night.

The day that we flew off the boat, my CO had asked the ship’s Catholic chaplain if he would offer each of us general absolution prior to our departure. Just prior to the flight briefing, the priest entered the ready room. After saying a short prayer, he absolved us of our sins, and I was able to take communion for the first time in many years. Mind you, I’m not your model Catholic. I can tell you that I was clutching the crucifix that I had received from the chaplain that morning… and had a lump in my throat. Remember the old cliché that “there are no atheists in foxholes”? It’s true.

For the former-athlete in each of us, do you recall the feeling you had before the big game? We called that light-headed, queasy-stomach, feeling “butterflies”. As I flew off the boat that day, war hadn’t even been declared. We were still in the last minute diplomacy stage. Nonetheless, I was more nervous than I have ever been before. I felt like I was launching into Hell. It’s humorous to me now, in hindsight, that if I only knew then what I know now, I would have saved my butterflies for a few other missions I flew in the war. I mean, for God’s sake, all I was doing this day was repositioning my aircraft from the ship to a dirt airfield to prepare for the war. But I knew at that moment that I was heading toward a fight… and that was a bit unsettling. During these times, you think about your family. I thought about my wife, my kids, my parents, and my brother and two sisters. You beg God for strength.

At the clandestine airfield that we parked our aircraft, we were sleeping in tents, eating Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs), and going through our final mission details by studying target photos. We rehearsed each phase of the mission. I can recall sitting on my cot, watching Kujo, who had his eyes closed, mimicking the hand and finger movements that he would have to do, in order to fire the missiles at our assigned targets. Identified as aviators at this airfield camp simply by the fact that we’re wearing flight suits, we’re not identifiable as officers because we’ve removed all our patches from our flight suits. About half way through the day, the Gunnery Sergeant who ran the camp came into our tent and informed us that as members of the camp, we’d be put to work. For two hours, the Gunny had us working like an awkward construction crew… building tent frames with two by fours, and then stretching the canvas over the frame. Looking back, it made for a nice break in the mind-numbing mission planning. And the Gunny was a pretty memorable character.

Living in the sand for the first time, we realized that even the lightest of winds caused quite a bit of the sand to turn into dust in the air. With ten knots of wind or more, visibility could quickly be reduced to next-to-nothing. Something that would definitely affect us later.

Back home in the States… and even on the ship… we all are accustomed to getting the latest news and developments at a moment’s notice. FoxNews, CNN and all the other cable networks bring it to you live, twenty-four hours a day. But at this austere airfield, like most places we go to fight, there’s no news service. We had received snippets of information that the war had started with some Tomahawk missile strikes through military radio and e-mail traffic. Reality hit quickly when I was walking from the command post tent back to my living tent. Hearing a loud whining/screaming noise in the sky, my eyes turned up to see who was flying over the camp. I was expecting to see one of the jet boys zipping overhead, showing off. But as the noise got louder, I saw a missile flash over the camp. It’s on its way from Iraq toward Kuwait City. That’s when the air raid sirens began to growl. That whole damned day, we were busy running into the cement pipe bunkers they had put in place to protect us, wearing our chemical suits and gas masks. The first time was tense. By the fifth time, the amusement factor was low. I remember hearing the air raid siren once, and then hearing a loud BOOM. Looking up, we saw that a Patriot missile battery had intercepted an Iraqi SCUD missile right over our tents. Because we were scared to death of the chemical threat, the gas masks immediately went back on… and we ran for the bunkers… again.

THE FIRST MISSION OF THE WAR Back when I was growing up, I loved to read books about the World War Two era. One of the phrases that stuck in my mind from reading those books, that the GIs used when things weren’t going just right, was SNAFU (Situation Normal, All F*@ked Up). My God did that apply the first day of the war. Now remember, we were planning on executing our first mission at night. That’s key for a couple of different reasons. First, you can take advantage of the cover of darkness: the Iraqis wouldn’t be able to see us. Second, the squadron’s schedule is set by the launch time of the aircraft. Maintenance crews need to have advance notice to prepare the aircraft for flight. Pilots have to get the required amount of rest, and then prepare for the mission. On this day, no less than five times, the word changed on what time they wanted us to launch. It ranged from, “GO RIGHT NOW!” to “Go 8 hours from now”. It was a mental rollercoaster. My stomach was going from knots to somersaults all day long.

Around dinnertime, the word to launch finally comes, and of course, it’s GO RIGHT NOW! My flight of four is supposed to be the lead flight out of the airfield, but our timing is all screwed up. The winds have picked back up, and visibility is less than a mile. In the confusion, another flight of Cobras departs the airfield ahead of us. Oops. Lots of talking on the radios to sort it out. For those of you who haven’t looked through a pair of NVGs (Night Vision Goggles), they are built for use in darkness. If there is too much light, then they don’t work correctly. The worst time to fly on the goggles is right after sunset. And of course, that’s when we had launched. The sand in the air is something that we hadn’t dealt with too much in training. In accordance with our peacetime training rules, if visibility is poor, you don’t fly. Common sense – safety. But in war… when American lives are at stake, sometimes you have to push the edge of the envelope and deal with conditions that you’re not normally accustom. With the reduced visibility and lack of moon that night, I can say that that was the darkest night I’ve ever flown in my life. Now mind you, I’ve been a Marine for almost 15 years. I’ve been flying Cobras since 1990. I’ve got a fair amount of experience. But this was dark. Seat-cushion-clenched-in-your-butt dark. Not only did the sand hang in the air to minimize horizontal visibility, but also the desert that we were flying over was completely smooth and lacked any detail. You couldn’t tell, from two hundred feet above ground level (AGL), how high you were. No depth perception. You couldn’t see obstacles until you were right on top of them. That’s a bit nerve-wracking.

Our flight of four flew north and reached the release point. The four-ship split up into two 2 aircraft elements (a flight of two is called a section… two sections makes a division). My section went to the right. My CO’s section went to the left. We proceed to our firing points. Upon arrival, Kujo is working the FLIR (Forward Looking InfraRed) sensor to find our assigned targets. Unfortunately, the target area photos didn’t quite display all the surrounding terrain features that were in the FLIR’s field of view. What seemed like hours for Kujo to pick out the right targets, actually only took about a minute or two. As I’m sitting in this hover, waiting for Kujo to find the targets, I look down to my right side. On my NVGs, I can see a Kuwaiti family outside their house, looking up into the sky, and watching the “fireworks” show. Kujo locates the targets… three missiles away. Border post destroyed. Thank God that’s over with.

After the initial border post strikes, my section proceeds to a FARP (Forward Arming and Refueling Point) that had been set up only hours prior near the Iraq/Kuwait border. None of us had been there before. The FARP was located on an asphalt road… but there were power lines and sand all over the place. Just to land for gas took me four attempts. I kept having to wave off because of the lack of visibility. Not being able to land because of visibility had never happened to me before. I’m fighting panic and despair. We’re just about out of gas. Finally with Kujo’s help, we make it safe on deck. After refueling, we shut down and assumed a strip alert. In this alert status, we’d get a launch order when the Marines on the ground needed CAS (Close Air Support). In the mean time, my CO’s section gets gas at the FARP, and proceeds back out for a CAS mission. Thirty minutes later, he returns, and says that visibility where they wanted him to go was horrid. Now about my CO… a tough man. One of the best “sticks” in the squadron. And if he’s telling me that it’s bad, then you know it’s bad. I get a launch order. Great.

On my second flight of the war, the fear factor is pretty high. Not because of the Iraqis… it’s the lack of visibility. We can’t see in front of us. I can only see a road underneath us, so Kujo navigates us down the roads, making turns at intersections… and we pick our way back up to the front. Once there, the Grunts are starting to push across the border. They’re taking sporadic mortar fire. Because of the reduced visibility, we couldn’t find the enemy for them. Low on gas. Time to head home. As we travel back toward our original sand-and-tent base, I can no longer keep tabs on where the ground is. There are tall radio towers and power lines everywhere that we can’t see. I jerk back on the stick once, when I saw that a radio tower that was less than fifty feet from our aircraft. I’m starting to get vertigo. Kujo bails me out. Flying right down the highways and roads, we pick our way back to our base. Aeronautical navigation charts were worthless that night. We needed a Rand McNally roadmap.

After landing, I remember my knees knocking. I thought it was just me… until I saw the rest of the pilots who had flown that night. To a man, each was ghost white with near-death stories to tell. We dragged ourselves back to our tents to get some rest. But from that point on, we were woken up every thirty to forty-five minutes because the Iraqis had launched another damned SCUD missile that was heading in our direction. We didn’t sleep a wink. Every time you just approached falling back asleep, the air raid siren would growl. You’d throw on your gas mask, and then trudge (not willingly) back to the bunkers. Some guys decided to forego the bunkers, and just slept on their cot wearing their gas mask. I tried that… felt like I was suffocating. Some guys just slept in the bunker.

Just after first light, we launched back to the ship to get our aircraft back for routine maintenance. I was working on zero sleep in the past 24 hours. As I made my approach to the ship, I was cleared for the landing spot just abeam the bridge. I looked up to the Flag Bridge once I was on deck and saw some of the MAG (Marine Air Group) staff looking down at us… giving us thumbs up, and big smiles. I was emotionally spent. The plane captain had to help me out of the aircraft. My legs felt like they were going to give out on me. Down into the ready room, our MAG commander, “Boomer”, was standing at the front of the room. I’ve known this man for five years now. He’s a good man. A family man. Almost fatherly to the officers. As I set my gear down in one of the chairs, Boomer walked up to me. As the tears welled up in my eyes, he put his hand on my cheek and told me how proud he was of all of us. All I could manage to say with a huge lump in my throat and tears about to stream down my face was, “Skipper, it was so goddamned dark out there.” I thought that if the rest of the war were like that, I wouldn’t survive. That was my first mission.

NOT FINDING THE FIGHT AND THE WEATHER My next flight in the war was in the vicinity of Basrah. We launched off the ship and proceeded to the FARP for gas about an hour prior to sunset. We pushed up north to work with the British. In the dwindling daylight, I came to realize that although the Brits and I are both speaking English, we aren’t speaking the same version of the language. I just can’t figure out what they want me to do… and where they want me to go. Just after sunset, I had flipped down my NVGs, which have two independent battery packs for power. Battery set one dies immediately. No problem, switching to number two. Dies. Great. I can't see anything. My dash two that night, "Murph" and "Kramer", make a desperate call on the radio to avoid traffic. In the haze and darkness, another section of Cobras had some how intermingled with my section. One of the Cobras passed right in between my aircraft and Murph's. Near mid-air collision. Great. Spent the whole night searching for work. Frustrating. The oil fields in Rumaliyah that the Iraqis set on fire light up the sky. You couldn’t even look in that direction with your NVGs because the intensity of the light degraded the abilities of the NVGs to the point where they were basically useless. Sent to search for Iraqi troop movements to the north of a river. Can see some Iraqis on the FLIR, but cannot tell if they are soldiers or not. Can’t engage them. Felt like we were missing out on the action. We recovered back aboard the ship after first light, having not fired a single round.

The weather turned bad. Sandstorms throughout the entire region clobbered the skies. Even at sea, visibility was reduced down to less than a hundred yards or so. It continued for three days. During that time, frustration grew amongst the aviators. A portion of our squadron had made it ashore before the weather had completely closed in, and was able to do some limited flying. But for us, we were relegated to watching CNN and FoxNews on the television. Watching your brother Marines in combat, and being unable to go out and provide support for them, was one of the most exasperating things I’ve ever had to deal with. Finally, the weather cleared. We get another chance to help out with the effort.

AN NASARIYAH We launch off the ship and head up to a FARP about one hundred miles deep into Iraq. From there, we launch up north to the city of An Nasariyah. While we were on the ship during the bad weather, we had seen on TV the intense action going on in that city. This was my first real flight during the daylight hours. Approaching the city, I felt completely naked. At night, the darkness hides you from the Iraqis, but in the daytime, you’re there for everyone to see. Really makes you feel vulnerable. We make our way around the west side of the city, avoiding the built up areas. On the north side, a Marine unit has just crossed the river, and is waiting to continue up the road. Approaching their location, we get directed to engage an enemy mortar position that is located on the river’s bank. We roll in with rockets and guns. Holding back over friendlies (where it is relatively safe), Kujo spots enemy anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) and regular artillery just to the Marine unit’s west. After receiving clearance from the FAC (Forward Air Controller), we engage. Back over friendlies again. Looking down, we notice that there are two Marine LAVs (Light Armored Vehicles) that had been hit prior to our arrival. We had heard on the news that some of our Marines had died in that ambush. Sobering. Out of gas. We race back to the FARP for reloads and more gas. Back to the fight. The Marines have resumed their movement up the road to the north. Now we’re escorting their convoy along the roads. Military gear and trucks all along the roads. We engage a truck with ammunition in the back. Secondary explosions. Cool. A few kilometers to the north, we spot some Iraqi soldiers in a ditch waiting to ambush our vehicles when they get close. Huddled in the trench, they began to move, undetected by the Marine convoy, toward the road with their weapons. Up to this point, we had destroyed a lot of military equipment, and smashed military buildings. This was the first time we’d be specifically rolling in against another human. This attack definitely had a different feel to it. I put the aircraft into a dive and strafed the trench with the cannon. We continued escorting and shooting as the Marines marched to the north. We race back to the FARP for more gas and reloads.

That night, we returned to where the Grunts were located when we had left them to go get gas. It’s dark now. The Marine vehicles are parked in a coiled formation… so that each individual vehicle can fire in a specific direction to protect the rest of the vehicles in the coil. Each tank and LAV is assigned a particular sector of fire. As we approached, we could see that they were in a pretty decent firefight. As we moved to get over their position, fire is going out in every direction from the coil. TOW missiles, 25mm chain gun, M-1 tank main gun, and heavy machine gun fire. We were so low over them that the firing of the machine guns made your teeth rattle. Every couple of minutes, a FAC would give me a rollout heading, and I’d either ripple a pod of rockets, or blast away with the cannon. Everything was danger close.

When you’re a brand-new Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps, you begin your career by going to The Basic School (TBS) at Quantico. During your six-month tenure at TBS, one thing they demonstrate to you is called the “Mad Moment”. In this demonstration, they essentially show you what it looks like with machine guns shooting, artillery shooting, tanks shooting, and aircraft shooting, all at the same time. The demonstration lasts about 5 minutes. Up north in Nasariyah that night, the mad moment lasted for hours. Except now there were bullets flying in all directions.

The tactics that the Iraqis used this night were a sign of the times to come. Using the cover of darkness and small guerilla-type teams, they’d attempt to sneak up within RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) range of the Marines. Often, they’d drive vehicles with their headlights off at a high rate of speed right into the Marines’ position, with the hopes of killing as many Americans as possible. This particular night, I saw the Iraqis drive a Greyhound-style bus at full speed with its lights off right at the Marines. An M-1 tank main gun round slammed into the bus just as it reached the Marines’ perimeter.

A Brit GR-1 Tornado jet checks in with the FAC, and is going to work in conjunction with my flight to protect the coil. Much like my first encounter with the Brits, the FAC was having a difficult time describing to the jet crew exactly where the Iraqi targets were. After talking the pilot onto the target by using a large fire as a checkpoint, the Tornado begins his target run. As the jet passes over the city of Nasariyah, all hell breaks loose. Large caliber AAA and SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles) begin to race through the sky in every direction. 100-millimeter AAA rounds looked as though they were in slow motion as they arced up into the sky and exploded. Low trajectory shots angled through the darkness around us. This was the first time we’d been shot at. It was absolutely terrifying… and nearly made me freeze on the controls. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my whole life… it was petrifying. Out of gas. Avoid the city. Make our way back to the FARP. Launch one more time to the coil. It’s no better than earlier that evening. After shooting again, we proceed back to the FARP. We shutdown the aircraft and sleep for 2 hours. It was freezing cold. No cots or tents; no sleeping bags. We slept on the ground next to the aircraft. Long transit back out to the ship at first light.

AL BASRAH Tasked with supporting the British forces around Basrah again, my section launches off the ship in the mid-afternoon and proceeds to the British headquarters, which is outside the city. Arriving at their location, we shut down our aircraft in order to conduct a face-to-face briefing with them. After having some difficulty communicating with them earlier in the war, I want to ensure that we’re on the same sheet of music. Talking to their U.S. air liaison team on the ground, “Howdy”, who’s my wingman, and I are tasked to screen north of the city to check out suspected sites where the Iraqis are waiting to ambush British ground forces. We depart the Brit headquarters and fly to the north side of the city, where we begin conducting armed reconnaissance. As soon as we began our search, Kujo locates military equipment bunkers where the Iraqis had stockpiled ammunitions and weapons for their troops. The bunkers are everywhere. To describe the bunkers, they are basically about the size of a two-car garage. There is no roof. And the walls are large dirt berms that a bulldozer has made. They are good to protect against ground fire, but essentially worthless against aircraft. As we size up the weapons cache, Kujo spots an AAA piece with large stashes of ammunition at the ready near it. Kujo engages with a TOW missile. Rolling off target, I spot Iraqi tanks in bunkers. They’re T-62 tanks, which are exports from the Former Soviet Union. One by one, we begin to pick off the tanks with our TOWs and Hellfires. Finally running out of missiles, we race back to the FARP for reloads. As we arrive at the FARP, I spot a Marine truck convoy departing the airstrip. Our ordnance team had gotten word to leave the FARP and proceed up to the north to the next base. Without the ordnancemen, we won’t get any reloads. Trying to flag them down from the air, I finally decide that the only way to get them to stop is to land on the road in front of them. Once I landed the aircraft, Kujo jumped out and ran over to tell the convoy commander that we need them to go back to the airfield. Thankfully, they complied. We race back up to the north. Approaching the site where we had last attacked, we discover more Iraqi tanks. One by one, the tanks explode. Iraqi soldiers were diving into bunkers and shooting back. Setting up from the west, Howdy and I roll in to attack the bunkers with flechette and high explosive rockets. Done with that area, we resume our search. Just to the north of the tanks, we locate some military trucks with military supplies and ammunition in the back. We destroy 5 of them. Confident that we’ve hit everything that was a threat, we head back to the Brits’ location to shut down and get some food. It’s funny… the Brits were having trouble getting air support because they weren’t in extremis like a lot of the other coalition forces… so we were the only air support for them that whole day. When we asked for some food, we were expecting a full British MRE, which we had heard great things about. Instead, all they gave us was one packet of a heated meal. Nevertheless, it was pretty good.

Launching out again that evening in support of the Brits, they had tasked us to attack a suspected covert meeting site that the Fedeyeen forces had been using. Following that, we were to attack the Ba’ath Party headquarters in Basrah. Lastly, we would fly up and conduct visual reconnaissance for some of the Brit infantry units. Upon launching, we realized that the Iraqis had started some oil fires in the outskirts of Basrah. What they would do is dig a large trench with a bulldozer, and then fill the trench with oil. To obscure visibility for aircraft, they’d light the trenches on fire, which would put up a thick black smoke into the air. That night, the smoke was hanging in the air from 350 feet to about 1,000 feet. Working our way around the southern side of Basrah, so that we can find the Fedeyeen meeting site, we begin to take a heavy amount of small arms fire. We could see the muzzle flashes on the ground as the Iraqis were trying to shoot us. The volume of fire is enough that we have to turn around and move back to the western side of the city. From there, we move to the firing position we had selected to engage the Ba’ath Party headquarters. Finding the three buildings on the FLIR, Kujo begins to pump Hellfire missiles into the buildings. “Mookster”, who is Howdy’s copilot, begins to shoot TOW missiles at maximum range into the buildings. It was quite a sight watching all these missiles going down range. After hitting the buildings, we proceed up north to meet up with the infantry unit. They had taken fire recently from a village to the north of their position. We couldn’t find anything. We took gas, and then proceeded 60 miles to our new home ashore in Jalibah.

THE ROAD TO AL KUT The next mission cycle I flew in was to support the Marines as they moved up the highways between An Nasariyah and Al Kut. We launched in the early afternoon to head up north. Upon reaching the front lines, the FAC that we were to support had his unit stopped along a road while they reconnoitered a small village up ahead. On arrival, we were tasked to check out the village. Not fully aware of the threat, we pushed north along the highway to check out the village. As we moved around the western side of the small town, large black puffs started appearing around our aircraft. After a pregnant pause, loud booms were heard. Someone in the village was firing large caliber AAA at us. Screaming to break left into the radio, our flight turned hard and moved back to friendlies. Kujo, ever the wizard, lased the AAA battery and got a location. Passing that location to the FAC, Marine artillery put salvo after salvo of high explosives on the enemy site, which was most impressive. Would hate to be on the receiving end of that. We return to a FARP for gas, and then back up to the fight. That evening, the Marines had once again gone into the defense for the night. Iraqis were still using unconventional tactics… guerilla type movements. They’d attack our boys in small groups and set up roadblocks using telephone poles along the roads.

Pushing toward Al Kut and Baghdad, the next mission cycle was supporting the Marines as they blocked the Republican Guard from retreating from Al Kut to Baghdad. Meeting up with the Grunts near a river, we began to conduct reconnaissance forward of the friendly lines. To their north, we located an Iraqi artillery position. At the same time, the FAC wanted us to return to their position to engage some Iraqis that had camouflaged themselves near a large ditch embankment. Racing back to the Marines, we engaged the Iraqis with rockets and guns. Hit the trench line and a truck. Back up at the artillery site, Kujo begins to shoot the missiles at the artillery tubes. We destroyed 5 guns and 2 trucks. One of the trucks was carrying fuel and when hit by Kujo’s missile, disappeared in a high order explosion.

FROM AL KUT TO BAGHDAD One evening, we were launched to a FARP to stand strip alert. We were prepared to support any Marine units through the night. No launch order was received. At approximately four in the morning, we were preparing to launch back down to our base at Jalibah when a launch order was given for us to support Fifth Marines as they began their push up the highway toward Baghdad. Tired, but excited at the prospect of seeing some action after a long night of waiting, we raced toward the contact point. As we approached their position in the predawn light, we could see bombs from our jets going off in the distance. Arriving at Fifth Marines’ location, we contacted the FAC. Our assignment was to screen forward of their nightly position, in anticipation of the massive movement toward the capital. Looking forward of our friendly lines, we spotted an Iraqi unit that had dug in around a mosque. All around the yard surrounding the religious facility, the Iraqis had put their military trucks, command and control vans, and weapons in the tree line surrounding the mosque, thinking that we wouldn’t be able to engage them for fear of hitting the church. Kujo and I opened up with Hellfire missiles. “Wally” and “Tinkle”, my wingmen, engaged the targets as well. Looking down at Fifth Marines, all the Marines were out for their morning coffee… and watching the show. I spotted a fuel truck in the tree line. Hit it with a rocket from 3 kilometers. Massive explosion. And not a scratch of damage to the mosque.

The night portion of one mission was supporting one of my old friends, “Sideshow”, who is a Cobra pilot assigned to a Marine Grunt unit as their FAC. Salman Pak is a small town located about 30 miles or so from Baghdad, along the banks of the Tigris River. That night, I was flying overhead cover for Sideshow's unit. His armored vehicles were moving toward Salman Pak, which had a large contingent of Iraqi army troops. The night prior, a West Coast Cobra had crashed in this area. It had apparently hit a set of large power lines. Around Baghdad, the power lines were about 350 feet high. The wires and the stanchions are tan in color... so they are next to impossible to see during the day... and you almost never see them at night. About 11:00 p.m., we were orbiting just to the west of Salman Pak, looking into the city with our infrared sensors and our night vision goggles. After several reconnaissance sweeps, we detected an Iraqi military compound in the center of the town, and it contained a surface to air missile battery and other military hardware that the Iraqis were using to defend the town.

I maneuvered the flight to the west, and I rolled my aircraft in to the target so that we could shoot the missile battery with one of our missiles. As Kujo was lining up the shot, I noticed two flashes from my right side. Looking over, I saw two heat-seeking missiles racing up toward our aircraft. Rolling the aircraft into a violent nose-down maneuver and expending decoy flares, we screamed for the ground to break the lock that the missiles had on our aircraft. We had started out at 800 feet or so above the ground, and I pulled the nose up around 100 feet. After bottoming out of the dive, we had descended all the way down to 50 feet, and had successfully broke lock with the missiles. As we recovered back up to a higher altitude, we realized that high power tension lines surrounded us. Two miracles occurred that night. First, we managed to not get hit by the missiles; and second, we somehow managed not to hit these large power lines, which were like spaghetti all over the ground in that area. I remember screaming into the radio at my wingman, "MISSILES, RIGHT TWO O'CLOCK, BREAK!" My copilot was busy screaming "WIRES, WIRES, WIRES!" The whole event happened in slow motion. Seemed like an eternity. But in reality, the whole engagement was over in about 4 seconds or so. Those heat-seeking missiles travel at about Mach 2.5 (about 1,700 MPH). Not a lot of time to react... and not enough time to be scared. I saw Sideshow up in Tikrit toward the end of the war. He told me those missiles had missed me by about 50 feet. We laugh about it now...kind of.

On another day mission, we’re working the highway that connects Al Kut to Baghdad. To the north of that highway, a Marine unit is screening into the countryside. Iraqi tanks are located in that vicinity. Talking to the FAC, he cannot observe the Iraqis from his position, so he delegates the clearance to fire to me. Checking in on station at the same time is a section of Air Force A-10s with the callsign Eager 31 and 32. Giving them my coordinates, I directed the A-10s to my position. Simultaneously, I cleared Wally, who was my wingman, to start engaging the Iraqi tanks. With the A-10s overhead, I began to talk their eyes onto the various tank targets. Clearing them to use their 30-millimeter cannon, they roll in from above and begin to strafe the tanks. Their cannon is so loud that I can hear it from 2 miles away in my aircraft. It was quite an awesome sight. That day, we destroyed eight T-72 tanks.

As the battle for Baghdad was in full swing, one early morning, we were just about complete with our strip alert and on the verge of taking off and heading back down to Jalibah to get some sleep. We receive a launch order to proceed to Baghdad. Evidently, there was a large fight building in the downtown area of the city. Arriving at the suburbs of the city at first light, we begin to hold in an area that we felt was relatively safe. Down on the ground, urban Iraqis were outside of their houses watching us flying around. It made you nervous – you couldn’t tell who was friendly, and who wanted to harm you. Something as simple as watching men looking up at you while talking on a cell phone made you wonder just who they were talking to on the other end of the phone. Traveling as a light division (3 AH-1Ws), we continue to hold and try to sort out what is going on in the city before we stick our noses in. Howdy is one of my wingmen. He takes a small caliber round into his engine door. The fight in the city was too hot. Without the specific approval of the commanding general, we can’t go in to provide fire support. Frustration mounts because the FAC wants us to come into the city to conduct reconnaissance; but the volume of fire coming up out of the city is too high. Out of gas, we start our trek back to Jalibah.

BAGHDAD TO TIKRIT As the fight for Baghdad concluded, the Iraqi forces that still wanted to resist moved up north to Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit. Needing to relocate to be closer to the fight, a portion of the MAG moved up to an abandoned airstrip outside of Salman Pak.

My first day flying out of Salman Pak, we were directed to escort a Marine ground unit that was working its way north out of Baghdad. Once I contact the FAC, I realize that it’s my friend Sideshow, again. Running out of maps, Sideshow asks me to reconnoiter a route for his vehicles to travel safely. He’s attempting to get over to one of the major highways without getting decisively engaged with the Iraqis. Talking to the lead vehicle in his large column, we begin to give steering commands to the drivers: turn right… take your next left by the two-story building. Out in front of Sideshow’s unit, we located Iraqi artillery waiting for the Marine unit to come within range. Setting up with Wally, we begin to engage the artillery battery. After destroying it, Sideshow’s unit proceeds. Running out of gas, we race for Salman Pak, and we meet up with one of our UH-1N Hueys, flown by “Friar”. He joins my section. We proceed back up to Sideshow’s location and continue escorting his column into the night. Upon our return to Salman Pak for the night, our mechanics discovered bullet holes in one of my rocket pods. Good thing they didn’t penetrate and set off the ordnance hanging on my aircraft.

Launching out the next day as a hunter – killer team (2 AH-1Ws and 1 UH-1N), we’re directed to a landing zone located in the city of Baghdad. Proceeding to their location, we fly overhead and see that the Marines are located in a soccer stadium in the city. We land at their location. Hundreds of Iraqis are standing out in the streets watching us land. Feel extremely vulnerable… again. Climbing out of the aircraft, I tell Kujo, who is staying in the Cobra, that if he starts taking fire, to take off and get the aircraft to safety. Conducting a face-to-face brief with the FAC, our understanding is that they want to use the Huey as a command and control platform, but they won’t need them for another couple of hours. Friar, the Huey pilot, volunteers to stay at the landing zone. I don’t want to keep the Cobras there because they tend to be temperamental when it comes to starting them back up. The Cobras launch and we head up to the north near Samara to get gas and locate the new FARP.

Near sunset, we head back down to Baghdad to join Friar in the landing zone in Baghdad. Landing at night, I leave Kujo in the aircraft with the same instructions: if you start taking fire, get the aircraft out of here. Heading into the command post, we’re debating with the FAC on what the proper use of our aircraft is in this situation. As we’re walking out of the command post, one of the duty officers calls out that there will be a large explosion in the next few minutes because the Marines are going to demolish a building with explosives.

Walking back out into the night to the aircraft, as I’m climbing into the rear seat, a huge explosion goes off just outside of the soccer stadium complex. I haven’t plugged in to the intercom yet, and I can feel Kujo starting to roll the throttles from idle up to the open position. He’s starting to pull in power for takeoff and I haven’t even gotten all the way in the aircraft yet. Getting on the intercom, I begin to scream that the explosion was friendly fire. It was the demolitions going off that the duty officer had yelled about. Kujo, up to that point had no clue as to what was going on… and was ready to get the hell out of there! Settling him down, he relaxes to the point where we managed to not go blasting into the night with me hanging half out of the aircraft! I chuckle about it now…Kujo doesn’t!

We flew more ground escort that evening. Long trains of vehicles pouring out of Baghdad, as the Marines moved up north of the city to pursue the retreating Iraqis.

MY FINAL BATTLE Launching out of Salman Pak as a hunter – killer team, we proceed toward Tikrit, where the last Iraqi resistance is still standing. One of the Iraqi airfields outside that city was being used as a FARP. Approaching the FARP and contacting them on the radio, we’re informed that they are taking artillery fire from the Iraqis. With plenty of gas remaining, my flight begins to conduct reconnaissance to the southeast of the FARP, in hopes of finding the Iraqis who were firing on the Marines at the FARP. Flying over a date tree grove, we find what we’re looking for: Iraqi artillery and surface-to-surface rockets. As the sun is setting, we await permission from the command and control system to engage. As the sun sets, we are given approval to attack. Rolling in from the north, we begin to engage the Iraqi artillery. Rockets and 20-millimeter cannon fire hit the tree lines. Setting up for subsequent attacks from the west, my CO’s section joins the fight. After multiple passes with our cannons, rockets and missiles, the Iraqi artillery and rockets are destroyed and burning.

After receiving gas and more weapons at the FARP, we launch out to the west, where Howdy is beginning to engage an Iraqi bunker complex. The whole complex was about 500 acres worth of large warehouse buildings and berms containing Iraqi ammunition that was being used to re-supply what remained of Iraq’s armed forces. Requesting as much jets with bombs as he can get, Howdy begins to direct the laser guided bombs onto the various targets. My hunter – killer team orients to the north side of the complex and begins to shoot missiles into the multitude of bunkers. The explosions ripping out of the complex go six thousand feet into the air. The night sky is so bright that you can see without NVGs. Sympathetic explosions rip from bunker to bunker. The explosions are so intense that mushroom clouds erupt from the inferno. As Howdy runs out of gas, he hands off the forward air control duties to me. Using our laser, I begin to direct the jets into the target area. Designating targets for laser guided bombs and missiles, I pick up where Howdy left off. The explosions are increasing in intensity. I recall seeing several movies where the explosions and special effects were awe-inspiring… but I never thought that it looked realistic. This night, the explosions from the bunker complex far exceeded anything I had ever seen in a movie theater.

Out of gas, we race back to the Tikrit FARP for gas and more ammunition. Back up at the complex, I begin directing as the forward air controller again. As I was hovering to control the jets, Kujo is pumping more missiles into the unhit bunkers. Wally, in the Cobra next to me, is engaging bunkers with his missiles. Friar, in the Huey, is orbiting behind us to provide security. After lasing for approximately 25 laser guided bombs and missiles, Friar calls out that we’re taking fire. In the light provided by the huge explosions, an Iraqi artillery unit had zeroed in on our position, and we began to take fire. Moving away from the artillery explosions, another Iraqi unit began to fire missiles at us. The enlisted crew chiefs in Friar’s Huey return fire. Our flight pushes clear of the area and back to the FARP.

After a short rest at the FARP, we launch to assess the damage to the bunker complex. Circling to the south, we locate another Iraqi storage facility about ten miles to the south of the original. At this location, Iraqi military trucks are pulling into the warehouses and bunkers to load ammunition to take to their units. Getting permission to engage the target, we first begin by directing a jet to drop a laser-guided bomb on a warehouse that munitions were being loaded. The bomb obliterated the building. Requesting as many bomb-laden aircraft as possible, we begin to destroy the storage point, building by building, using only our laser designator. The Iraqis had stored enough munitions in this whole area to supply them in their fight against us for years. Explosions rocked the whole sky. Geysers of fire are still erupting from the bunkers to the north. The whole world appears to be on fire.

After depleting our missiles, rockets, gun ammunition and gas, we head back to the Tikrit FARP… then fly back down to our temporary base at Salman Pak. Although I would fly more security missions in the days and weeks to come, that was my last real fight of the war.

MINDSET In e-mail from friends and family, I’ve been asked many times about fear. I do not recall, throughout my life, being confronted with a situation that combined real physical and emotional fear. I know that there were many times in my life that I was afraid of something… early last year, I almost lost my Dad and I felt completely helpless and childlike because I couldn’t make my Dad’s health instantly better… and in aviation, I’ve been in scenarios that have made me physically uncomfortable. But upon reflection, I think this was my first introduction to total fear. Let me tell you, real fear is paralyzing. Real fear has a taste and smell to it… and it’s bitter. I chalk up my survival in those situations to training. During those particularly trying times, fear consumes ninety-nine percent of your being. It’s that teeny-tiny one percent of your brain and body that defaults back to your training that keeps you from succumbing to the panic… and allows you to take the appropriate actions to survive. Every single one of the pilots in my squadron will admit to a time in this war when they were afraid. It’s the ability to control that emotion that counts toward staying alive.

In my occupational field, one thing that we discuss is “compartmentalization”, which is the act of putting away all your extraneous thoughts and emotions while you fly. That allows you to focus more on the task at hand. Before many flights, I went through an emotional rollercoaster. I had a lot of apprehension just prior to each flight. It wasn’t for questioning whether we were doing the right thing… because I knew that we were. I always took pause because I was afraid of my children growing up without their father. I was scared of my wife living a life without me in it. I wasn’t necessarily concerned with my physical safety in combat, but rather the consequences if I were hurt of killed. I remember a particular flight, when I was launching from Jalibah: On this particular day, we had received indications that the Iraqis had used chemical weapons on one of the U.S. Army units near Baghdad. I recall a very sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I walked to the aircraft. The thought of chemical weapons being used to cause massive casualties was mind numbing. That was one thing that I truly feared. I felt like I had a thousand pound weight on my shoulders as I walked to the aircraft. Thankfully, the report turned out to be false. But fear is the absolute motivator: fear of dying and fear of letting down your fellow Marine.

From my perspective of being an attack helicopter pilot, the war was not something that just took up part of the day… it was a 24/7 mindset. Unlike a jet squadron, whose pilots are only flying for a couple of hours each day, and get to return back to their creature comforts in Kuwait or on the aircraft carrier, a light/attack helicopter squadron is always on the move with the infantry. In order for us to keep up with their movement to the north, we were constantly repositioning our squadron to provide the best fire support available to them. Although jets played a key role in the outcome of the war by bombing strategic and tactical targets before our ground forces arrived, it was the Cobra that the Grunts wanted for close air support. When Marines are in contact on the ground and the enemy is close, a jet just can’t hit the target without fear of hitting friendlies… even with all the precision guided munitions that were touted in the news during the war. Close air support is our bread and butter… and that was our motivation and purpose throughout the war – to provide close in fire support to the ground combat element… whether that be killing the enemy at arms length… or doing it up close and personal.

It’s amazing what affect combat has on your senses. Your vision becomes that of an eagle. Your hearing is nearly bionic. Your sense of feel is keen. You can listen to the two radios and the intercom all at the same time and never miss a single word. Even your sense of smell is aroused. Weeks into the war, when we were on the verge of exhaustion, every time I climbed into the cockpit, it was like a jolt of lightening hit me… and the adrenaline rush lasted until I was climbing back out. I think the longest period I flew continuously was for just over fourteen and a half hours straight. On average, I think I was logging about nine and a half hours each time I flew. The fatigue definitely accumulated over time.

I’ve seen the fragility of life. In this war, I’ve seen some of my brother Marines die. I’ve taken lives of men who were either trying to kill me, or one of my fellow Marines. I’ve witnessed, in a cold-blooded manner, just how quickly a life can end. One second you’re alive, and then next, you’re dead. There’s no fanfare. There’s no drama. It’s like a light switch… on… then off. It makes you strengthen your convictions with God, and those that you love.

One of the key goals of my squadron was to bring everyone home alive. And unlike any other Cobra/Huey squadron in theater, we accomplished just that.

THE LANDSCAPE AND THE IRAQI PEOPLE I think from watching CNN at certain points in the war, most people think that Iraq is a vast desert. That’s primarily true for the southern third of the country, but not a correct assumption for the entire nation. The southern area that I flew in was a wide-open desert. No hills, mountains, or even real sand dunes to speak of. Flat as a pancake. About 20 miles north of Jalibah, as you near rivers, you began to see farm fields and livestock. Fields were intermingled with sandy areas. Reminded me of the outskirts of Yuma, Arizona, where my family and I lived for three years. Nearing Al Kut, the soil was much more rich, and water plentiful through irrigation ditches. The scenery reminded me of the Midwest… and in particular, the area in northwest Ohio where I grew up. North of Baghdad all the way up to Tikrit, the land was relatively flat, with some waterways cutting through. Near the rivers and streams were farms, and away from those areas was open desert. Between An Nasariyah and Al Kut, there is a large lake. Stuck out like a sore thumb because here you are in the middle of the open desert, and there’s a large body of water. There’s no towns or villages near it. One day as we were flying over the lake, I looked down and saw some beautiful flamingos flying. They were pink and black. In a world of dull colors with a tan desert and a hazy light blue sky, those birds are still extremely vivid to me.

Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, was a militant society that translated to a military presence nearly everywhere in the country. Almost all the small towns had a military barracks. Spread throughout all the vast deserts was bunkers of ammunition and fighting positions for the Iraqi armed forces. Small military airfields were sporadically located throughout the entire country. It was a martial state. It really caught my eye.

A good portion of my flying experiences in Iraq was at night. But most flights started out in the day, as I would transit up to the front lines in the daylight hours to be in position to fight at night. Likewise, at the end of a long night of fighting, we’d make our transit back to our base after first light. So most of my experiences with seeing the Iraqi people occurred either around dinnertime, or around the time that they were waking to start the day. The Iraqi people varied from locale to locale. In general though, when the fighting was nearby, they would ignore you flying over them. But once the fighting moved north of their location a day or so later, they’d be outside waving to you. Almost all houses and civilian cars had white flags on them to identify to coalition forces that they were not a threat.

The hardest of the Iraqi people were the Bedouins. Generally, the Bedouins tended to flocks of livestock, like goats and sheep. They all live in very large tents in the middle of the desert, often a hundred or more miles from even a paved road. They all had large stake-bed trucks, so that they could pickup and move from location to location as required. These gypsy-like people mostly lived in the southern barren desert regions in Iraq. Not overly friendly, most of the time they wouldn’t lift their eyes when you would fly over.

The next group of people in Iraq was the rural farmers and town folk. These were probably the friendliest people, at least from my perspective. As long as there wasn’t actual fighting going on near them, they were outside their houses waving every single time we’d fly over. Women, children and even the men would wave as we were on our way to rid them of Hussein’s regime. Some days, you felt like your arm was going to fall off from waving to all the children as you passed them.

The last group of people was the urbanites and Hussein loyalists. This group was mostly in Baghdad, and up in Tikrit, which was Hussein’s hometown. Never waving, they’d scurry into their houses or hide behind walls until you flew past. They made you nervous. Around those areas, you never knew where the next threat would come from. That’s probably a touch of paranoia on my part, but large crowds or congested areas where a lot of people lived, made us nervous. You’d avoid them because sooner or later, someone would be taking a shot at you.

That evokes a particular memory: we were shooting in support of one of the Marine units moving up the road toward Al Kut. As we were conducting armed reconnaissance just in front of friendlies, the FAC directed us to take a look at some vehicles just up the road from his position. Approaching the scene, a family had gotten out of their car and was waiting for the U.S. forces to push past them. Sitting in the middle of the family was the father, who was an Iraqi soldier in uniform, just waiting for his chance to surrender so that he could be with his family again full time. In my mind, that man had honor.

The impoverish conditions that most of the Iraqi people live is unfathomable to nearly all Americans. You have to see it to believe it. Most of us cannot comprehend living in a house whose walls are made out of mud, with a dirt floor, and a reed thatched roof. That’s just not in the rural areas, but in and around the major cities as well. Most children had no shoes on their feet. Many homes didn’t have roofs. My lasting impression was that the people of Iraq were stuck in the nineteenth century, except for the elite.

In Iraq, there are the “Haves” and the “Have Nots”. There is no middle class. As poor as the Have Nots were, which were the vast majority of the population, it was ludicrous to see how rich the Haves were. Whether they were Ba’ath Party officials, or members of Hussein’s family, the elite in Iraq lived like kings. I got to fly by a few of Hussein’s palaces in the country. They were huge. In my mind’s eye, they outsized mid-evil European castles. Large and ornate, their design was lavish to the point of absurd, considering how poor the rest of the country is. Most of the people didn’t have electricity… yet those privileged few got to live in houses and palaces that must have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build.

LIVING CONDITIONS I started the war out living on the boat. I didn’t realize just how good life was on a ship until I went ashore! Our main base in Jalibah was an abandoned Iraqi air force base. It didn’t look like it had been used since before the Gulf War. There were no buildings… just the runways and the taxiways. The sand at Jalibah was like talcum powder. And the slightest breeze would stir the sand up into the air. It was a miserable place to live. Over the course of the war, the creature comforts at Jalibah improved. After a period of time, we had shower tents and hot meals available. We lived in tents with the sand as the floor. During the day, the temperature reached between ninety and one hundred fifteen degrees Fahrenheit. Thankfully, it was relatively cool at night.

When we moved up to Salman Pak, it was like moving to Heaven. Near farmlands, there wasn’t much dust or sand in the air. Temperatures were about 20 degrees cooler than Jalibah. Although we slept on the ground there, it was worth giving up a cot just to have tolerable temperatures.

It’s funny to hear the stories from the jet squadrons that were stationed at Al Jabar Air Base in Kuwait, which served both Marine Corps squadrons and Air Force squadrons. There, they had a full time cafeteria, which served ice cream, and had pastries delivered daily from a bakery out in town, air-conditioned tents and ice machines. That wasn’t exactly “roughing it”. Now mind you, I didn’t get to live like a crowned prince like the guys stationed at Al Jabar… but I also didn’t have to live like a pauper, which were the infantry guys who were slugging it out on a daily basis.

MY FINAL TAKE-AWAYS I’m truly humbled by what I witnessed and participated in. This has been an incredible experience for me. This one-month period alone has changed my perspective on life more than any other event could have possibly done. I had a unique opportunity to observe heroes in action, to witness the horrors of death, to help in freeing an enslaved people, and to see the power of the United States in action. Each flight, I got to experience fear, anxiety, anxiousness, and joy. I got to form friendships that will last a lifetime. I got to realize the importance of my family. I got to tell each member of my family how much I love them in e-mail or in a letter. I got to get reacquainted with my Catholic faith.

Make no mistake about it – the individual Marine rifleman won this war. Pundits, armchair quarterbacks, and talking heads on television will plug their special interests for years to come… all in the name of getting a larger slice of the defense budget for their pet project. Air power activists will gloat over precision-guided munitions and tactical jets. Naval aviation will wallow over their role. Armor advocates will flaunt the role of the tank. Even attack helicopter enthusiasts will covet the role that the AH-1W played in the war. All the particular genres of warfare will find a voice in an attempt to convince the public, and hence the Congress, which appropriates the budget, that their particular piece of gear was the reason we won the war. Never overlook that it all boiled down to the Marine rifleman… the man who held the ground, killed the enemy, fed the children, and feared death at every turn. No piece of gear will ever replace him.

For almost fifteen years, I have trained to perfect my trade. This was the ultimate test. The pilots and Marines that I was surrounded by displayed incredible heroism, uncommon courage, and profound compassion to their fellow man, whether that man is American or Iraqi. The Marines that surrounded me are men of steel – from the flight line mechanic, to the administrative clerk, from the nugget pilot, to the seasoned aviator… and especially the Marine rifleman – all heroes. We won with honor and dignity.

I close with a quote from a letter that Major General James Mattis, the Commanding General of First Marine Division, sent to his Marines just prior to the war kicking off. To borrow his words, “While we will move swiftly and aggressively against those who resist, we will treat all others with decency, demonstrating chivalry and soldierly compassion for people who have endured a lifetime under Saddam’s oppression… ‘No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy’ than a U.S. Marine.”

God bless America.


Major Jamie Cox Operations Officer Marine Light/Attack Helicopter Squadron 269 Operation Iraqi Freedom, March - April 2003

* The official callsign of Marine Light/Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 269 is ‘Gunrunner’. However, during a majority of the war, HMLA-269 was assigned the callsign ‘Deadly’.