Friday, November 5, 2010

Memories of Fort Hood, in Unbroken Sunlight...

By Peter Rodman
November 5, 2009

Hearing today's tragic news about Fort Hood brought back memories--many of them pre-dawn or post-midnight, as we landed 747s on-base, to deploy 400 troops at a time to Iraq or Kuwait or Afghanistan, on MAC (Military Aircraft Command) charter flights, beginning in 2003.

These were unscheduled charter flights--whereby, under law, the military can (more or less) commandeer commercial aircraft, in order to move troops and supplies, worldwide.
It was volunteer work, but we did get paid for it. The hours were hugely unpredictable, but a tiny sacrifice, compared to the true sacrifice of our service men and women...which is humongous, on a daily basis.

The troops would sometimes sit there all night long, on school busses, waiting--either for us (to drive in from the dumpy, just off-base motel in Killeen, Texas, where we'd just spent the night) or more often, to accomodate some eastern European airbase's arrival curfew--so as to smoothly and safely effect their secure transfer, on other end of the trip.
At the designated time, they'd walk 50 yards or so, across the tarmac, and board our airplane--having sat in a packed school bus for as many as six hours overnight, without complaint. I was honored to receive (and still have) several coveted "base medals," which are rare indeed, from base-commanders at Fort Hood and elsewhere. They would tell me it was because I helped coordinate their passage, in some small way...but in truth, I still feel guilty that most of the rest of my crews (for the most part) didn't get 'em. Actually, I think it was just given to whomever they arbitrarily selected to hand out the one or two coins they had, and I tended to be the one greeting them, out on the ramp.

Fort Hood is in the middle of nowhere.
Few outposts in mainland America are farther from anything.
It takes almost ninety minutes by van, to just get from Austin out there, in completely flat and barron land, and the entrance itself is at least three or four miles long. The airstrips are nothing but flat concrete, for as far as the eye can see. The base shop (a little convenience-store type of thing) is the only thing of any interest whatsoever, and it is of no interest, whatsoever.

When we first started going, in 2003, the troops were young, and 'gung ho'.
Imagine 400 large rifles, each at their seat beside the uniformed soldiers--unstowed, on a 747! It was strange, to say the least.
When the base commander shook my hand, before we would close the airplane door, he would look me in the eye, and almost tear up: "Take good care of them," was all he said.
These kids had been drilled and drilled and drilled, and I don't mind telling you, they proudly liked to think of themselves as 'killing machines.'
One kid looked up at me once, and said, "You know that saying about about 'winning hearts and minds'? I have a saying, too..." With that, he motioned toward his weapon. "One in the heart...and two in the mind."

Many of these young men and women had hardly ever flown before; were shocked at how "good" the coach-style meals were; had no idea how to operate the movies; and in fact, were totally amazed, to see such "luxury," onboard an airplane. I got the clear impression they had not grown up as children of wealth.

Fully 70% of the troops onboard missions we did (which were to drop troops off at a European airbase--'staging area'--and retrieve another full load, coming home, in later years) were "minorities." The ones who weren't were largely farm kids, by their own description.
That is the volunteer army. (I always say to people, "Next time you root against the Williams sisters at Wimbledon, remember...they ARE the Americans!!!")

The vast majority of today's troops (that I saw, on many MAC missions) are tattooed; love hip-hop and rap music; and enjoy texting, and ultra-violent video games.
I would say a majority are either black, hispanic, asian, or a beautiful combination of various races, including white.
Many are of Arabic descent, too.
Keep in mind, "Maliks" are easily as common as "Franks," in today's American army.

By 2006, some of the same faces began showing up--only now they were seasoned, weary adults--not children, anymore...on their *third or fourth* tour, of Iraq or Afghanistan. Understandably, as the nationwide fervor for 9/11 revenge became less focused, the troops I flew seemed to express less of a 'patriotic' motive than they once had, when the war began--and spoke more of their service as a 'career move,' now--something to set up a secure future, for the families many of them had already started. A surprising number had decided to remain "career soldiers."

At Fort Hood, like Camp Mirimar, Fort Bragg, and others, there'd be nothing but horizon, at dawn or dusk...and the purity of that scene was often broken only by barbed wire, way in the distance. Lots of orange light shone off the cowlings of our huge jet engines, and filled the endless sky, as they either anxiously filed onboard (in the appropriately-named 'fatigues'), ready to go fight...or...wearily exited the aircraft, after making it all the way home.
To even see a tree there was rare, and quite beautiful.
The light plays very differently on planet earth, when there's not much else in the way...

It's hard to believe, I know...but the troops never quite knew where we were taking them--it was top secret, especially from them! ("Come on!" they'd whisper. "Where are we going?")
We were under strict instructions not to discuss or answer questions about our destination, until the onboard commander either announced it himself, or the Captain did so, halfway (or more) over the Atlantic Ocean.
To this day, I rarely discuss which cities these were, but they were (in some cases) quite unexpected (for me, anyway) locations in Europe, indeed.

Our planes were decorated by the crews with many flags and banners, thanking them for their service--unlike any plane you've ever seen. Occasionally, I would have to take down some George Bush 'speech' a crew member might hang on the airplane walls, defending his political actions--because this was not a political statement for any of us...just a patriotic one.

Even those few of us who (privately) thought Iraq was an idiotic decision, supported the troops enough to volunteer to transport them, and did nothing to dissuade their enthusiasm, ever.

It was a simple decision, to me. Our troops needed replenishment, and were stretched too thin. The fresher they were, the sooner we could (hopefully) end all this madness.
Many times, I would go off to cry, on my own, after watching an innocent young woman or man embark upon possibly their last life adventure. And most times, fewer people returned, than we had first brought overseas.

I will express one firm political opinion here, and that is that I found it disgraceful, that America was never allowed to even see their coffins coming home, for six full years.
I truly believe we must always see the cost of war, before we embrace any deployments at all.
Some of those coffins contained the bodies of people I was proud to serve, if only for a moment--and more importantly, were proud to serve me, in the most ultimate, meaningful way.
They gave their lives.
It HONORS them to look...and to remember.
That bond with those troops has never diminished, for me--although I no longer choose to fly the MAC charters. (I'm too old for those kinds of hours!)

MAC Charter Flight:
Another 400 soldiers embark
on a journey to war.
That's me at bottom right,
welcoming them onboard.

Today on CNN, I actually heard a reporter say this:
"Authorities cannot confirm whether the gunmen got their uniforms in one of the many 'army surplus supply' stores, located just off-base."
Oh, really? What kind of stupid country even HAS Army uniforms for sale, in stores, just outside its bases?!!?

We have a lot more work to do, in deciding when (and where) to fight.
But no matter how you feel about the war(s), it has to bring a lump to anybody's throat, that several hundred kids (soldiers) are about to deploy tomorrow, regardless of the fact that 31 of their group (who were also ready to deploy) were injured today, and a dozen killed.
Some no doubt lost their best friends, today.
That is what they will leave behind, as they board an empty 747 on that same tarmac, sometime in the next couple days.
Talk about 'heavy hearts' can only imagine.

I pray tonight for the victims, their families, and the larger 'family' of servicemen and women, worldwide. And I offer a special prayer to Fort Hood--and to our Arab-American soldier-patriots, who will endure (with their usual grace) the inevitable 'additional scrutiny' imposed upon them now, through no fault of their own.
God bless America...all of it.

MAC Charter (ferry)


This Article is Copyright 2009 by Peter Rodman. All Rights Reserved.
NOTE: I've decided to post this, from the heart--although I will entertain no personal questions regarding these trips. Any stuff that takes it where I don't want to go will just be deleted.
I hope you'll understand.

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