Submitted to Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience
August 3, 2004
It took four airplanes and 36 hours to get out here to the desert. Our final stop in the USA before flying overseas was in Baltimore. When we got there, we found that our plane had broken, so we spent the night. I decided to take my crew (eight young officers) to the Orioles - Red Sox game at Camden Yards. As luck would have it, Kurt Schilling was pitching for the Sox. The Orioles shelled him. Final score was 4 to 1, Birds. It ended up being Nomar's last game before a surprise trade to the Cubbies.
During the seventh inning stretch, I couldn't help looking in amazement, and maybe dismay, at the crowd of 45,000 who were completely oblivious to the fact that the nine of us were going to be flying a combat mission over a very hostile country in another three days. I actually got teary, as I always do, thinking of the kids on the ground that we would be supporting. Many Ramirez struck out looking on a 2-2 pitch, and those soldiers were taking mortar rounds and sporadic AK-47 fire in the desert mountains where it is 102 degrees at midnight. It is incomprehensible (look it up) that these two events can occur simultaneously on one planet. Maybe it was a good move by the Indians to trade Manny after all.
I stepped off of the plane at my desert base and was greeted by a primal heat blast. It was the kind of heat that makes you close your mouth because you are afraid it will suck every last molecule of water out of your body if you don't. I felt very aware that I was at the complete mercy of the elements. Standing at the bottom of the steps were about thirty soldiers with machine guns, spot lights behind them shining up at us. Maybe I was in the middle of a Spielberg movie. No, because I definitely felt that anthrax shot they gave me an hour later.
Guys, you know flying is cool, and I hope I get to teach you how in a couple of years. This is an entirely different experience though. Most people don't ever have to make a life and death decision. The biggies are where you go to college, who you marry, having kids, the career(s) you choose. Those pale in comparison to the ones you have to make in a split second flying in combat. What's more, those decisions can easily impact national policy and determine the course of history. When you are put in a position like this, your reference for all other decisions you ever make, no matter how insignificant, is different. I'll never see things the same as I did or as anyone else does that hasn't been there – don't think my way is better or more correct. Someday you'll understand this, but I've decided that I hope you never understand it the way I do. I'll write more later.
Both of you take care of your Mom, and don't ever argue with her. Cav, when Crew kicks you in the shin, smile and walk away. Be happy you have a spunky brother who will always take your side. When you get upset, remember those Marines and Soldiers near here that are dying so that you can limp back to the mound without having to worry about anything other than fooling the batter with that wicked change-up.
August 13, 2004
I was walking outside today and made a big mistake. I grabbed a hand rail when I walked down the stairs. I have some nasty red marks from where it burned me. That's how hot it is. You just can't believe it.
Trust me, I'm not complaining. I flew a mission yesterday. A squad of Marines was in the mountains way up above 10,000 feet, and they were attacked by some bad guys. These bad guys fired six big rockets at the Marines' position. I saw the explosions. Don't worry, they can't reach me with anything they have. Some of those Marines are only seven years older than you are, Cavan. All I could think about was you two hunkering down in the mountains with rockets landing all around. I have no fear for my own safety, but I'd be petrified if you were in my shoes – or worse yet, theirs.
Thinking about that stuff wasn't helping me or the Marines, so I had to box up that feeling and store it away for another time. Hope you guys learn how to do that because it can get you through the rough spots with a clear head. Trick is that you have to remember to find the box again later. Keep them stuffed away, and eventually you'll run out of storage space when you need it.
We helped get those guys out of their mess, and none of them got hurt. It felt great to help Americans in trouble. More than great. We did roughly the same thing three days ago, and after that one, I sent an e-mail to a Marine Major who is a friend of mine. Here's part of what he wrote back.
"Many, many thanks for your last. I passed your e-mail around, and for the last two days, I've received an overwhelming response from the Commanding General on down to Lance Corporals - "tell your Air Force friend I said to thank him for me." As you well know, we are a family, we're tight - very tight, we don't ask for much: honor, courage and commitment are truly what we live by - and when somebody gives us a hand, we consider it a pretty big honor. You've earned a place in our family as a result. I can't even describe what it means to us as a whole. Thanks brother, for all that you do, and for keeping our brothers on the pointy end of the spear out of harm's way. Please pass back to your crew and squadron as well, we thank you."
Maybe that sounds like dialogue from a mediocre movie you've seen, but it actually brought a tear to my eye. I told you in the last letter that certain experiences change you forever and cause you to see things differently. The message above might seem a little sappy for most people, but it meant a great deal to me.
Tell Mom I love her. Tell Mom you love her too.
Love you both,
August 17, 2004
Hope you are both ready for school to start. Sorry I can't see you walk up those steps. First day of Middle School and first day of Kindergarten. I've missed many of your firsts. Thanks for not getting mad at me for it. It's OK to be sad – I am too. Most people aren't cut out for my type of work, so those of us who are, I think, should feel obligated to act. Unfortunately, I have to sacrifice seeing many of your firsts to do so. I hope you understand that this is for you.
It is important to be a warrior. Some fight for civil rights, some for the poor, some for neglected children, some for the sick, and some fight for those who can't fight for themselves. This is something I want you two to think about even at your age. There are many things to fight for, but there aren't many warriors. I think you should be fighting to do the best you can at everything you do. Be the best son to your Mom, show the most hustle on your teams, be the kindest and even the most compassionate kids. When you grow up, being a warrior will be an instinct rather than an effort. There is no need to squander (look it up – don't ask Mom) your great talents and leadership abilities that are already evident. The World needs you to act, and it needs you to be a warrior.
By the way, there are always going to be people that are better or more skilled than you are at everything. I don't want you to measure yourself against them or anyone else. You are your own yardstick. Ask how hard you are fighting compared to how hard you could be. If you are honest with yourself, and you are up there near 100%, that is greatness. You will fail, but then you will not quit. That's an order.
I flew yesterday. Some of our soldiers got hurt badly, and we couldn't find the bad guys to stop them. It was a horrible feeling. I have no idea what happened after we left.
Everybody has a little routine that they go through before flying. It's just like Garciaparra with his batting glove before the next swing or any pro athlete before a game. There is a thing I do before each flight I wanted to tell you about. There are three songs that give me an uncontrollable electric shiver throughout my body. They are the National Anthem, Taps, and a hymn named "Eternal Father, Strong to Save." The hymn is very powerful for me – your Mom and I had it played during our wedding. I listen to it exactly three hours and five minutes before every takeoff. It helps me be a warrior. I also look at your pictures. That helps me even more.
Cavan, go take your brother upstairs and let him pick out a book to read to you. Don't help him when he gets stuck until he asks for it. Don't complain – you don't have the right. Remember the soldiers from yesterday.
August 29, 2004
I flew in a pretty amazing area of the world today. Have you ever heard of Mesopotamia? Probably not, but you will. This is where civilization began on Earth (the Sumarians)! Two great rivers of the world, the Tigris and the Euphrates flow together here then empty into the Persian Gulf. Mesopotamia was the area between the two rivers (in Greek, Mesopotamia means "between the rivers"). The Bible talks a lot about it. It says that the Euphrates River flowed from the Garden of Eden. You've heard of "the Promised Land?" It's right here. Heard of Babylon? Here, about 30 miles south of Baghdad. The city was built about 3,800 years ago by King Hammurabi. King Nebuchadnezzar (I can't say it either) built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon about 2,600 years ago. It is one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. This is where many great battles took place. The Romans fought here. One of the Egyptian Pharaohs fought here. Now I'm fighting here. Doesn't seem like a "great" battle to me, and I'll bet you the Egyptians and Babylonians didn't think fighting was great then either.
It is sad to see what history has done to this area. It was the beginning of everything we have now. It was beautiful, there were forests nearby, the people were proud. Now it is a disaster. Now it is called Iraq. Lots of people from other countries are going there and setting off bombs to try to scare the Iraqi people, and it is working. I wish they would stop, but they won't. Too bad Hammurabi isn't here now – he was amazing, and he could get his country under control once again.
It was nighttime when I was flying around thinking about these things, then every single light in my plane went out. It is a full moon tonight, but I still needed a flashlight to see in the cockpit. The first thing I thought after making sure the engines still worked was what you would've said, Cavan, had you been there. "Hey Dad. The lights went out." I started laughing. Then I got most of my lights back and came back to base.
Cavan, remember this: Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times. Crew, I think that you and Mark Twain would've been great friends. Here's something he said about boys that makes me think of you: "Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates."
September 11, 2004
Today was a very sad day. Three years ago today was the day that 3,030 Americans died at the hands of Middle Eastern Terrorists. It was something that I hope you never forget. One of them was a friend of mine named Bill who died in the Pentagon. I am so angry about that day that I can't even express it to you, nor would I if I could. That day is why I am here.
Some very young Airmen put together a service for our base that included several prayers, music, and pictures from that day. I know you have never seen me cry, but I was crying today, and so were the other 500 people. Half of the people there weren't even American. British, Australian, and Japanese troops who all sympathized with what our country went through also attended.
The worst picture was of a 5-year old boy that looked just like you, Crew. He was standing in a formation of fire fighters, engulfed by his father's old uniform, saluting at his Dad's memorial service. His Dad died trying to save people he didn't know. Of course those pictures remind me of you two, and I feel as though all of those kids who lost family in New York, D.C., and Pennsylvania are now my kids. I don't ever want them, or you, to get hurt again. I don't care what the news says, or what anyone else says, that is why we are all here.
OK, I know this hasn't been a very fun letter, so I'll talk about sports. Have you ever heard of Cricket? It is a pretty crazy game. I have become friends with an Australian pilot who has been trying to explain the rules to me, and now I want to play. The "pitchers" aren't throwing anywhere near as hard as in baseball, but they bounce the ball to you, so that must be tough. The most popular sport around here is soccer. The British are absolutely insane about it. I watched a match with the Brit soldiers at one in the morning. The match was between England and Poland. The Brits were very happy that I was interested (as was my Aussie cricket coach), because most cultures realize that most Americans aren't really interested in anything that goes on outside of the USA. They are right, and that is a very dangerous characteristic of ours. Just ask any of my Navy SEAL buddies or any pilot what happens when you fixate or quit looking at the "big picture." I'm not talking about sports anymore, am I?
Mom says you two have been behaving very well, and that makes me proud. She has a tough job taking care of you, the house, the bills, food, and everything else without me to share the load. You have no idea how much you are helping me by helping her. Keep it up, study hard, and eat the green stuff on your plate.