Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Price of Flight

Coming home is relatively easy but leaving the war is more elusive.

Yesterday, US debt was downgraded, the Pro-Football Hall Of Fame inducted its newest members, and it was the single deadliest day in the Afghan war as a Chinook helicopter was shot down killing 30 US service members, mostly SEALs, and 8 Afghanis. As I am flooded with thoughts and feelings, I write this post with compulsion that I haven't felt in some time.

Helicopters revolutionized modern war and are integral to battlefield movement especially in counterinsurgency. But make no mistake they are dangerous to operate even in peactime. How much more so when there is an enemy seeking to shoot you down. I recently read that 10% of US casualties in the war are attributable to helicopter crashes. Over the course of twenty years on active duty, I have been around a few. In fact it seems that every one of my deployments has been plagued by a helicopter mishap. My battle group lost a helo transiting the Straits of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf during the first Gulf War. A few years later, during a training beach landing exercise prior to a Mediterranean deployment, a dozen Marines were killed after two helos collided. It was the middle of the night and my landing craft hit the beach less than a mile from the crash site. Last September there was the unforgettable day for us when 9 US service members were killed in Zabul Province including Denis Miranda, to whom we dedicated the FST building. It is common to find senior officers who avoid flying them whenever possible.

Boarding a Chinook.

I admit I view riding birds as a necessary evil that comes with the job. CH-46's, also known as Chinooks, such as the one shot down are workhorses in theater. They fly passengers around like Delta Airlines does here. This reliance on air transport comes because ground transport is so dangerous due to landmines. Even a sixty mile road trip from Kandahar to Qalat along a major highway was risky. So our FST arrived on a Dutch Army Chinook and, seven months later, departed on a US Chinook. We made the journeys safely but it says much about conditions in the country that ground convoys are avoided.

Reading the news, I felt a vague survivor's guilt of "it could have been me" mixed with deep sadness for the family members of those killed. I felt the rush of urgency when the victims of the crash last year arrived at the FST. I felt perplexed, but then again not really, that this should happen after the death of Bin Laden and in the midst of our supposed draw down from the surge. Finally as I put my sons to bed last night I felt grateful that they are still too young to be worried by the world's, or the war's, troubles.