Thursday, November 25, 2010

Desert Storm - Holidays

By the time 1990 rolled around, I was certainly no stranger to being away from relatives on holidays. Note, I didn't write "loved ones" or "family." Those with whom I served were often like brothers or sisters to me; and, in many cases they were (and remain) closer than family to me. Those who have served understand what I'm talking about.

Still, there is a sense of loneliness when one is separated from familiar traditions, away from those with whom one grew up. This was especially so for me as I spent those holidays in Saudi Arabia.

I don't remember if it was Thanksgiving or Christmas, but I remember eating one holiday meal in the middle of a raging sand storm. We had goggles over our eyes and "dew rags" covering our noses and mouths as we made our way to where the mess folks were serving the turkey, ham and trimmings. I remember sitting in the large tent feeling rather glum as I ate my sandy food. It probably wasn't as bad as I remember, it being somewhat of a fleeting memory now.

One thing I do remember with great fondness is the camaraderie the twenty of us shared during our time leading up to the ground war. There were no secrets among us, as is often the case when people live together in close quarters spending just about every waking (and sleeping) moment together. We told stories about our misspent youths (some of those guys were wild men in their younger days), secrets we never told anyone else, our feelings (which is something men rarely talk about) and other things.

Our senior warrant officer pilot, who was dubbed "The Old Dog" by one of the crew chiefs, told us about some of his experiences as a CH-47 Chinook crew chief in Vietnam. They were personal, heart-felt stories about his own fears and triumphs during that time. He would often end the stories with something like, "I don't know why I'm telling you guys this, I've never told anyone about that." I think it was very good for him to get it out after so long.

I won't share any of his stories, as they are his, except for one. I remember one morning we were all discussing the great support we were getting from home. I've mentioned this a couple times in previous installments of this series. The Old Dog stopped us and related his story of returning home from Vietnam after his first tour. He told us how he landed at an Air Force base near Seattle, happy to be home and ready to be with family and friends. As he was going through the return processing, he was advised that he should change into civilian clothes before leaving the base to avoid confrontations with protesters.

He thought at the time it was their right to protest a war they found unjust, and he felt he was fighting for their right to do so. However, it was the more personal expressions of protest, the "Baby Killer" and "Murderer" signs that really hurt him. As I recall, he said he felt betrayed as the bus he was on left the base and people hurled insults, eggs and even a few rocks at the bus full of servicemen. I can't say I blame him for feeling that way.

He told us something like, "Yeah, everything is fine now. But, wait until the body bags start going home and people start getting hurt. All this support could dry up very quickly." I could sense the hurt in his voice as he related this to us. It was quite sobering. (You'll be glad to know there is a happy ending to this particular thread which I will relate in a later installment.)

To wrap things up, please remember our service men and women always - but especially during the holidays. My old unit, the 3rd ACR is in Iraq right now helping the people there establish their post-Saddam way of life. Check them out on Facebook: They're over there working hard doing things most of us wouldn't dream of doing.

This is part 8 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Blue Man Group

Jen and I recently visited Las Vegas for the PubCon Web Marketing Conference. The week before, the organizer of the conference sent out a tweet telling he had some tickets to Blue Man Group for the first people to respond. I responded quickly enough and got tickets to see Blue Man Group at the Venetian Hotel.

I thought it was way cool we won the tickets, and I was happy to be able to go to the show. When we showed up at the Will Call window to collect our tickets, I checked them out. Near the top was printed "PONCHO." "What the heck does 'poncho' mean?" I asked. "Oh, you're right up front." Yes, we were in the third row and right in the middle - great seats.

The show was energetic, engaging, funny and fun. There was lots of bass and percussion music going on, but it wasn't like techno dance music. Of course, the PVC pipe instruments were played quite a bit. It wasn't all music, though; there were some quite skits where the group pulled someone out of the audience to participate.

At one point towards the end of the show, the three blue men led the entire audience in unrolling and pushing about a ton of paper from the back of the theater to the front. That was fun and quite different.

If you have a chance, check out a Blue Man Group show. They have regular shows in New York, Boston, Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando and they tour around the country. Check out the web site (linked above) for a schedule. It's a fun, kid-friendly show (at the Venetian venue, they even brought out booster seats for kids).

Monday, November 01, 2010

Desert Storm - THAT Day

During our time in Saudi Arabia we would, from time to time, be tasked to fly back and forth along the Saudi/Kuwait border. Although these missions became somewhat routine, they were just a little nerve wracking.

The reason they were nerve wracking was because we were flying along the border, between two opposing armies lined up, arrayed in preparation for battle. We flew over the Saudi side of the border, closer to our guys than theirs. Even so, when the pre-mission briefings included the phrase "keep an eye out the window and yell out if you see a missile headed our way" it made me just a little nervous.

This particular day started off routinely enough. My fellow crew member and I went out with the crew chief and did our part of the pre-flight maintenance check. We pulled a fuel sample, checked the mission equipment, made sure everything that was supposed to be there was there and stuff that wasn't supposed to be there wasn't.

On this particular day, the crew chief didn't fly the mission with us, so I took the role of standing outside while the pilots started the engines. This was always interesting to me. One of the crew members would stand outside with a little fire extinguisher and watch to make sure nothing was blocking the engine intakes while the engines started and ran up. What was with that little fire extinguisher? That was the question. I guess if something really went bad we could put out the fire on one person. I often thought one of those gigantic extinguishers with wheels would be more appropriate to have handy if there ever was a real fire. Thankfully that never happened.

We started up, took off and flew to the Regimental Headquarters to get the mission briefing. Our mission was to fly back and forth along the border for four hours. We went out to the helipad, fired up the bird and took off to do the mission.

Two things went wrong right away. First, I forgot the chock blocks on the helipad. I was supposed to grab them and put them on the floor behind my seat when I got in when the engines were started up and we were ready to go. It wasn't a terrible mistake since we would return there when our mission was complete, but it wasn't good. I didn't pay attention to detail - and it was rather embarrassing to have the folks tasking us to do the mission call to tell me I forgot them. Thankfully I had a radio in the back so the pilots didn't hear about it when they called.

Second the local Stinger team decided to use us to test their equipment. A Stinger was a small, vehicle mounted or shoulder fired antiaircraft missile. There were a few Stinger teams assigned to the regiment to protect against any enemy aircraft which might happen by.

I'm sure they didn't think they were doing anything wrong when they turned on their tracking devices and lit up the cockpit warning panel. The Scounger was the Pilot on Command on that mission. He started yelling and cussing over the intercom and hollered at me to call back to the headquarters and tell the Stinger guys to cut it out. He rarely raised his voice under normal circumstances, so I could tell he was very angry about it.

Off we went to the border and started flying back and forth. Normally, on this type of mission, we would fly along a preplanned path in more or less a straight line, turn around and follow basically the same path back and turn around again. The pilots called this flying "idiot circles."

During this particular mission, about an hour into it and just a little bit before we came to the turn around point, the aircraft dumped over to the left and we started spiraling downward very rapidly. Now, sometimes the pilots got a little bored doing "idiot circles" and would do some fun maneuvers while turning around. Part of me thought that was why we were dropping and spinning, but part of me thought something else was up.

My fellow crew member, Tom, liked the more, shall we say, aerobatic maneuvers. While we were spinning and diving, I could hear him yelling at the top of his voice "YEAH! GET SOME!" He was yelling so loud I could hear him over all the noise in the aircraft - and that was pretty loud.

We leveled off and flew straight for just a few seconds and then we dumped over to the right and started diving and spinning again. This time the thoughts that something wasn't quite right started winning out over the thoughts that the pilots were merely bored. Those thoughts were confirmed when the copilot, "Digger," came over the intercom in a very calm and level voice: "Hey guys. In case you're wondering why we're doing this. We got a missile warning and we're trying to shake it."

The first thing through my mind after he said that was, "Hey, don't stop on my account!"

Looking back on it, what really gets me is Digger's calm and cool tone. This was, obviously, a very stressful situation and he sounded as cool and collected as if we were sitting around and talking about the weather.

The Scrounger, however, didn't take it so calmly. Once we got close to the ground, we started heading back to the Regimental Headquarters. He came over the intercom cussing and swearing again telling us we were headed home for the day. I can't say I blame him too much. By this time I pretty much had it that day myself.

When we got the the headquarters we went in to talk to the people they wondered and why we came home early. After we explained to them what happened they seemed to understand and let us be done for the day. We headed back to the airfield without further incident.

It was THAT kind of day.

This is part 7 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19