Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Healing Process

Everything I have posted on this has pretty much been related to my work. It is a huge part of my life and for the foreseeable future I cannot see me doing anything else. Tonight is going to be a bit different. December 9th and 10th for me are some of the toughest days I deal with in my year. I am going to post something that is very, very personal but I feel it is needed to help me put it behind. So here goes.

November 19, 1996 my best friend (Earl) dropped me off at Spokane international airport to leave for Air Force basic training. I spent several months in training learning how to maintain and repair the A-10A Thunderbolt II. Known to most people as the "Warthog". My first base I was stationed at was Pope Air force base in North Carolina. My squadron was the 75th Fighter Squadron, 23rd Fighter Wing. I was part of the famous "Flying Tigers" squadron.

I worked feverishly to be the best at my job and advanced fairly quickly. My squadron had a yearly rotation into Kuwait at a base called Ahmed Al-Jaber air base. I found out how much I appreciated the good ole U.S. of A. Needless to say I spent 3 months a year in the Saudi Arabian desert protecting the southern Iraq no fly zone that was sanctioned after the 1991 Gulf War. It was a lovely 20-23 hour flight around to almost exactly the other side of the world from my home in Washington State. I usually ended up working the swing shift to stay out of the 120 degree desert heat. I was really proud to be able to do my part for what I believed in.

Several rotations later and it is November 1999. My squadron flew out of Langley AFB on a C-141 to make our way to the Azores Islands off the coast of Portugal. Pretty much a typical boring flight for several hours landing in a cross wind on the island. We were there for a few days because of bad weather and when it came time to finally depart the island one of our A-10s had a maintenance issue and I and another Sgt stayed behind to repair the jet. The last thing my Lt. said to me was "when the plane is fixed find a way to Kuwait". What that meant was do what you have to do and find military transport into Kuwait and Al-Jaber AB. We were both kind of excited due to the fact we did not have to bother with so many other people and we were in a different country for part of the holiday season. We ended up fixing our aircraft two days later but were stuck with no flights out of the Azores until the 8th of December. Finally on the 8th we got a flight on a really comfy (by military standards) KC-10 Stratotanker. We flew into Sigonella NAS on the island of Sicily and stayed until the next day to hop a flight into Kuwait City. We arrived in Kuwait City as planned and called our Lt. to let him know the last leg was a 15 minute flight on a C-130 into Al-Jaber and would be there about 2200 hours (ten o'clock pm for the non-military types).

After a few hours in Kuwait City we finally began the loading process of lading into the C-130. I was in line with a few people and the weirdest feeling came over me and I stopped and let a few people ahead of me to wait for my friend. We loaded up on the plane and as usual the old Air Force motto "hurry up and wait" kicked in. We sat on the tarmac for quite a while before we took off. When we finally got airborne I was ready to get to the base and try and relax in the tent I knew I was assigned. A few minutes into the flight I was sitting in the very uncomfortable jump seats on the aircraft when I heard the hydraulics kick in and figured that it was the flaps going down on our approach. All of a sudden there was a jolt like I cannot describe with noises all around of screeching metal grinding noises. I was jarred so hard into my jump seat that it actually collapsed and the next thing I knew I was sitting directly on the floor of the airplane. There was a huge rush of air coming into the plane and several hoses that appeared to be hydraulic lines that had burst and were spraying about 2500 pounds of pressurized fluid all over the cargo hold of the plane. AS I tried to collect myself and get my bearings I looked over at my friend who was sitting almost opposite of me next to the right rear door of the aircraft. We shot each other the old O Shit look and I noticed at that time something in my lap. I grabbed the object and realized with shock that it was a schrader valve. (a vital piece of the landing gear) I held it up to my friend and at that moment noticed another Airman begin to slump over in his seat. He was about two places forward from my friend and next to a woman who noticed at the same time. The woman began to scream and several people moved to try and assist the Airman. So many things were happening all at once, and in a blur, but during about that same moment several steel pieces that had been strapped up higher on the aircraft gave way and began falling on our heads. People were getting hit by this shrapnel flying around the hold. Some people were trying to get the collapsed airman to the floor when on the opposite side of the plane a Captain collapsed, complaining that he could not feel his legs and he was having trouble breathing. Within moments another Airman was on his side screaming in pain that he could not move his legs. Absolute chaos was the order at that moment and people began yelling and screaming at all that was going on. Many people were doing all they could to help the 3 downed troops and all had to be given CPR. Once we were notified by the flight crew that we had struck the ground and were once again airborne many of us began to get upset that we had not returned to land and help the injured. Turns out we had to fly out over the Persian Gulf and dump the excess fuel and get rid of the chaff and flairs that we were carrying. 40 minutes later we were instructed to get prepared for a crash landing because it was discovered that our main landing gear had been destroyed and was laying 2800 feet shy of the runway at Al-Jaber. With the scene becoming more somber due to the reality setting in we all prepared for a harsh landing. We removed all the doors to the aircraft and strapped them down as well as pulling the escape hatches on the top and bottom of the aircraft. By this time I could hear the hydraulics screaming because all the fluid had been pumped out and the pilot was flying the plane on manual reversion. (very difficult) With all the doors open on the plane and a huge gash in the right side of the plane which I could see through we braced for a hard landing. As we approached I heard the engines slow and looked out to see us coming down to the runway. I was relieved to see foam and when we touched down it was actually the smoothest landing I had ever experienced. The pilot slammed the props into reverse and we came to a fast stop. At this point we evacuated the aircraft and made our way from the aircraft since we were afraid of fire due to the no gear landing. People began kissing the ground and hugging each other. Then all went silent as the 3 men were brought off the plane and loaded on to ambulances to go to the emergency room. The remaining ones were shuttled to the Airport hotel to figure out what to do next. (me included) When we got to the lobby we sat down and tried to fathom what the hell just happened to us. My buddy called to me to go get a drink and when I stood up my legs went out from under me with an extreme shooting pain going down the back of both my legs. My friend helped me up and got me to the medic that had arrived and put me on an ambulance to the hospital.

(part two soon)