My book "bulls-eye will be out soon
|Soon enough it came my time to start flying missions with pilots from the outbound unit. I met several of them, and flew with a couple before I started flying with my own B Company guys, and doing our own missions. They were good guys. I could tell they were happy to be going home. They were very accommodating, helpful, and professional. Outside the cock-pit they laughed and joked a lot. I didn’t know whether they were always this jovial, and the flying wasn’t as bad as it seemed here, or if they were just so glad to be going home. So I asked several of the guys in this particular company if they’d been shot at much while they were here. The ones I talked to had never seen a bad guy during their entire deployment. It was only the rare crew that experienced any gunfire at all. This was in contrast to what the captain had told us that night in Udahri, but I felt pretty good hearing this. But still, I had to factor in the ole Deeter luck, and sure enough, as soon as they left, the violence in Iraq would increase dramatically.
It was only a few days untill they gave us the mission completely and were gone; flight after flight, they departed over a period of a few days; their flights buzzing low over our hooches as they departed; well before daylight each morning; as a kind of farewell. This had become kind of a custom. The 1/131st would do the same thing in a year as we departed, but not with all of our helicopters, and sadly, not with all of our people.
Journal entry: 20 September
This day I flew the Y (Yankee) mission. We flew to several pads around Bagdad, and down south to Diwaenia. It was different. The first time I ever flew a helicopter while thinking about being shot. Around Bagdad, we saw buildings on fire, heard people calling for dust off for a soldier shot in the head, and our CMWS fired flares on two occasions. We went to “Echo” base, where just a few days ago they were attacked by one thousand Al Qaida terrorists. My first day flying missions was a real eye opener. But, I’m not too worried about the mission now. During the day the bad guys don’t shoot that often at our helicopters because they know we’ll kill them. And, at night, they shoot more often, but can’t hit their target very well. I believe our (helicopter pilots) greatest threats will be weather, towers, wires, and other helicopters.
I flew with guys from the Kentucky National Guard. Great bunch of guys. The pilot I flew with was a CW4 Keith Baker. Good guy. A real professional; and a good IP.
It’s a long tough day though, with a 4:45 am show time, and 5am mission briefing. Then we load all the equipment, and guns, ammo, water, MRE’s, etc.. into a trailer and drive to the helicopters, where we unload it all and load it on to the helicopter, do a preflight inspection, run up, commo check and then finally get started. By this time it’s 7am and we’re taking off. We get back at 5 or 6 pm and the whole process starts in reverse. It’s 7 or 8 pm when we get to the chow hall, and we eat quickly, take showers, and go to bed exhausted, because in a few hours we get up and do it all again. We don’t have enough pilots, or mechanics to have hardly any time off.
During the mission today, I coughed hard and felt something pop in my ribs. The pain is terrible. The rest of the day I could hardly move. Hopefully it will be better in the morning, but it feels like I have a broken rib. I still can hardly move, and taking a deep breath is excruciating.
Journal entry: 21 Sept 2006 1900
This morning I could barely get out of bed, and getting myself dressed was arduous. I never did tie my boots. I went to the doctor and was given a “rib block”. This was my first and last rib block. He said I've probably just torn the cartilage that holds the ribs; and that he could help with the pain by injecting a mixture of two pain meds in between the ribs. The doctor explained the risks involved and said it would “hurt a little”, but I was in so much pain, that I said I’d do anything to get some pain relief. I figured it couldn't be any worse than the pain I was already in. I was wrong. They came back into the room with a tray full of medical torture equipment, and when the doctor held up a needle, which, to me looked huge, and said to the medic, “this might not be long enough, so be ready to get me something longer”, I knew I’d made the wrong decision. It was too late to change my mind then, without looking like a wimp. He said I could lie down on the table, but I told him I couldn’t get onto the table because I was in too much pain, and it hurt so much to move. So I said, I’ll just stand here and lean over the table. He stuck his head outside the door, and asked for folks to come in to help hold me down. That was another clue that I had made a poor decision. He also asked if any of the young inexperienced medics would like to observe a rib block for training, and instantly we had an audience. He inserted the needle in between my ribs 6 or 8 times, starting out low and moving up one rib each time, and about half way through the procedure I said maybe I should lie down after all. With each insertion, I could feel a little pain at first, and the pressure of the needle, and then I’d feel it pop through something and go in deep. It didn’t “hurt a little”; it hurt like hell. But it did make me forget about the other pain.
After all this, the Dr. told me to take the bus to the air force side of the airfield, and go to the CSH and get some chest x-rays. He said he just wanted to be sure he didn't “puncture a lung”. I wondered how we would not already know, if he had punctured a lung. I'm no expert, but it seemed to me that if someone punctured one of my lungs, I'd be among the first to know. This morning every breath I took and each step I made, hurt so badly that I would moan. I was feeling really terrible. I thought about not going to the CSH for the x-rays, but there was something he'd said that prompted me to endure the pain of walking to the bus stop, and waiting for the rickety, filthy bus, which is always late. It was that part about puncturing a lung. Not just a lung, but one of mine.
I finally made my way to the hospital, and I was shocked by what I saw. This hospital is nothing more than a series of large tents connected together. Most of the floors are plywood; some are concrete. None looked clean. The rooms had no doors, and as I walked around looking for x-ray, I saw some pretty gruesome sights, as people with serious traumatic injuries lay suffering. GIs, women, children, the place was full of people mangled by IEDs and combat. I don't think any departments had a door with the possible exception of OR. Helicopters had just landed, and the place was total chaos. Back home I fly for a large hospital. It's big and impressive. You could probably eat off the floors. Maybe we take this all for granted. We're spoiled in America. I left. I felt guilty even being there for a silly x-ray. I don't know how our medical people work there day in and day out. They’re all heroes. I couldn't do it. It’s a sad place. And they say the CSH in Baghdad is much worse.
But when all was said and done, I did get 24 hours off. My rib still hurts like hell when I cough. But it is getting better. Tomorrow I’ll go back to work at planning missions. The next day I'll be flying again, finishing up my orientation rides. I can't lift much. But I'll ask the guys to carry my heavy items to the bird. Our doc also finally gave me a "Z pack" to kill whatever kind of respiratory infection I might have.
I tried to call Connie tonight, but was never able to get in touch with her. I did get to hear the twins laughing and playing though. And it was good talking to Richard. Tomorrow is their birthday, and I hope I can call and at least get them to say a few words. I wish I could be there.
Journal entry: 25eptember 2006
Had a long mission last night. Got back to Balad before midnight, but the bird was due a 40 hr inspection. We all stayed on the flight line till almost 2am. We saw a lot of tracer rounds in the air, but none of them were that close to us. (They can hear us, but usually they can’t see us). Our CMWS also fired almost all of our flares. (Who knows?) The guy I flew with made a beautiful, albeit, completely unnecessary dust landing. Under goggles, I believe it was an error in judgment.
This morning I slept till noon. I was on the schedule for an early mission tomorrow, but was bumped for a Major from Battalion who needs flight time. I’m good with that. I’ll get some more sleep tonight.
Our birds have been getting shot at pretty regularly. Two days ago we had a Black Hawk that took 14 rounds in the tail boom and tail rotor. And today an A company Black Hawk was shot and a round bounced off the right door gunner’s helmet. (Lucky guy) It actually entered and exited his helmet, and never touched his head.
Talked to Connie early this am. Good to hear her voice. Sort of recharges me. Sounds as though the boys are really doing well. They’re learning new words every day. I wish I was there to play with them.
Journal entry: 27 September
I flew the early mission today. Myself, Poland, Eddie Ray and a new guy were in one bird, and Lingwood, Hodges, Bomhard, and Smith in the other. A female Col. (our flight surgeon) also went along to observe. We flew in and around Bagdad most of the mission, and then up to Speicher. (A FOB about 60 miles north of here). The mission went well considering all that can (and often does) go wrong.
Shortly after we left Bagdad, one of our other helicopters came under fire there. They were able to land at Liberty Pad, and no one was hurt, but the bird had to be recovered and will have to be repaired.
Also today, one of our attack birds was shot down, (had to land) and one of the pilots was slightly injured. Two other birds went down for maintenance. At this rate, we won’t have any birds flyable in the near future.
And so it went; it seemed like before we knew it we were completely immersed in the war. We would no longer wonder what it was going to be like, how much flying we would do; what kind of missions we would have, or if it would be dangerous. It came like a storm. Suddenly, Ft. Hood seemed so far behind us, and Texas didn’t seem quite so bad.
And the op tempo was grueling. So many days we would complete a mission, conduct a post flight inspection of the helicopter, dismount all the guns and ammo and flight gear, commo equip, etc.., load it all into the trailers, drive back to the TOC and unload it again, put it all away, complete the paperwork, race to the chow hall before it closed, and while eating dinner I’d look at my watch and think; my god, I’ve got to be up in 4 or 5 hours, and I haven’t even showered yet. Often if I wanted to write or try to go wait in line to call home, I would have to trade sleep time to do it. We borrowed pilots from other units on Balad who were there in a non-flying role to round out our company. They were looking for flight time and some of them could fly with us once or twice a week. However, by virtue of the fact that they were there in a non-flying capacity, they usually weren’t current, and first had to be trained to mission standards, and then flew only as co-pilots. It still helped out a lot, but it meant the instructor pilots had to work even more, because they were always working somebody through readiness level progression, and getting them trained to mission standards before they could be trusted even as a co pilot.
Our battalion staff also flew quite a bit, and they were a big help. Some of them were pilots in command, and most of them had a lot of Black Hawk experience. Without these extra bodies to fill a seat once in a while, I don’t think we could have completed our mission. We certainly would have never had a day off. As it was, the folks who filled out the mission boards in our company tried to give everyone one day off a week. Sometimes this would work out and often it wouldn’t. When I got a day off it would usually be spent sleeping, dropping off and picking up laundry, cleaning my cubicle, and getting a hair cut.
Something I found interesting was when we got to Balad, we were not given the mission we had heard we were going to have. The air assault mission went to the GSAB, (General Support Aviation Battalion) and we were given the ring routes. (The bus route). Furthermore, it turned out that the air assault mission almost never was met with any resistance. I suppose with that size of an element, traveling with such an overwhelming force, no body was stupid enough to shoot at them. We on the other hand; flying around in flights of two lonely Black Hawks, with only two machine guns per bird, probably looked like much easier prey.
And along with this sudden frantic pace, we started getting shot at almost immediately. It was a daily occurrence now, and every evening at the chow hall the talk would be all about who was shot, shot at, or shot down that day. The folks in the States only hear about downed helicopters when there are lots of fatalities involved; but there were often helicopters shot down with the crew and passengers still intact, and pulled out (usually by other birds in their flight) while they still had their heads. Sometimes these birds were shot full of holes, and sustained major damage, and some times they just needed to land as soon as they could for safety. Sometimes we’d only get hit with one or two bullets and not even feel the need to shorten the mission. And of course sometimes the helicopter was lost and everyone one on it killed. But it all became pretty routine, this hectic pace, getting shot at, getting hit, getting home, and getting to the chow hall to find out if anyone didn’t.
And of course it was always interesting sitting at a table with the Apache pilots and listening to the accounts of their day. They would often regal us with their exploits. They’d tell of shooting their rockets, missiles, and .30 cal until they ran out of ammo. They loved this action. They truly are a different breed. I know this because I myself was an old attack helicopter pilot in another life. Back in those days we flew Cobra helicopters, and night vision goggles were the crude cut-a-way version that made me crossed eyed and gave us severe headaches. And we thought we were high-tech back then.
I remembered a fried of mine in the National Guard back home in Missouri telling me “you should join, Bob. It’s almost like a flying club. We’ll never deploy anywhere”.
I had thought then that I was done flying green helicopters; and now here I was flying Hawks in a desert thousands of miles from home. And the war was starting to heat up.
I finished my left seat / right seat rides on September 24, and was shot down on Sept 28. And that was only a precursor to the year of flying that lay in store for us.
Sept 28th we were returning to Baghdad from Ad Dewanyiah in the mid afternoon. Baghdad is a large sprawling city, and the people who control the airspace for us have divided it up into zones. Theses zones are numbered in the order in which each particular area was liberated. So, zone one and two may be bordered by zones 16, or 33, or what have you. The zones are not equal in size, nor are they uniform in their appearance. The zone numbers appear to be completely random when studying a map.
As we were about to enter the city from the east, happily following our planned route, we heard on the radio, “blue rain, blue rain, blue rain”, followed by a list of zone numbers. This means that something is going on in those zones, and we can’t fly through them. Usually it is our mortars falling, or Apache helicopters firing; it could even be something larger. At any rate we absolutely had to deviate around these zone closures which may last 5 minuets or all day. I was flying, and Mark Poland (who was a B Company’s IP) was navigating and running the radios. These zones closures were right along our intended route, so Mark had to read the map and vector me as we made our way around to the south of the city and followed up the river which would eventually take us to the Green Zone; which was our next stop. With the zone closures this was our only possible way to get into the green zone and our intended landing at Washington pad.
Mark was doing a great job. He had it nailed, and was taking us right into Washington heliport. We had around 5 nautical miles to go when we both suddenly heard machine gun fire. Although we were wearing helmets and CEPs (sort of like ear buds) in our ears, the machine gun fire was so loud that we both immediately thought our gunners were firing on someone. We both glanced over our shoulders, and at the same time realized it wasn’t our gunners firing at all. We were right on top of a complex attack. A machine gun emplacement; with additional small arms, and someone with an RPG at the ready, was hoping a pair of U S Army Black Hawk helicopters would come into their area. Unfortunately for us, we unknowingly granted their wish. And we know they had all these different weapons because they fired them all at us.
When we heard the machine gun, it took a split second to realize what was happening; for it to sink in; and I immediately put the aircraft in an abrupt left turn. As I did, I heard the unmistakable tink of a bullet passing though my bird and then another heavier “thunk“, as the aircraft’s tail waggled and I felt the thump in the pedals. The bullets make a certain ominous sound as they enter and as they pass through the helicopter; different sounds depending the density of whatever they are passing thru, but unmistakable none the less. I couldn’t tell how many rounds we were hit by, but I could definitely tell we’d had been hit. I knew that the one that made my tail shudder was much larger and heavier than the first one that hit us. In the turn, our left gunner saw four or five insurgents with rifles firing at us. The folks on our other ship saw the single large machine gun on a tripod also firing at us. As I made that hard left turn, something exploded just out the right side of the aircraft. We could hear it, feel it, smell it, and for a couple hours afterwards, even taste the burnt propellant from the rocket. One thing that stopped working was our FM radio. Our sister ship lost sight of us and being unable to call us on FM, began to worry. As they started back toward the fight to help us, they too were hit through the rotor blades. So as we’ve all been trained, I started making turns and varying my altitude, maintaining my airspeed. It worked. With 13 people on board the aircraft, it was not a time to stay and fight. I’m sure there were a couple hundred bullets in the air that day, and no body on our bird was killed. I was thankful.
We slipped out of gun range without taking anymore hits, and limped into Washington Heliport (WAHP) to check the damage. As soon as the gunfire had subsided, Mark and I looked at each other. I said, “I think we just got the shit shot out of us”. I’ll never forget the look on Mark’s face. He looked absolutely disgusted. He just looked at me and said “Yep”. He was so mad and disgusted it was all he could say. You see, this wasn’t Mark’s first rodeo. He had flown in a pretty hard charging unit in another time and place, and he had other combat experience. And it was his pride that was hurting. We had flown into a trap, and while I was just glad to be alive, Mark was disgusted with himself for not somehow spotting it and turning the tables on them. Getting our aircraft shot up was really eating at him. At WAHP, he sat quietly and stared. I could see he was almost enraged. His pride was badly bruised that day. Our Instructors all expect an awful lot out of themselves and hold themselves to a pretty high standard. I was just glad to still be above ground.
Inspections revealed that our aircraft had some pretty significant damage, but would be repaired and I flew her again in a little over a week. There was some wiring to be replaced, and probably some pretty extensive sheet metal work. It impressed me at how a bullet can go through section after section of an aircraft if it doesn’t hit something thick and heavy. And when you line up the path of a bullet just right, you can often see daylight right through the helicopter. I remember that I expected to see large patches where the holes were. There was one hole by a portion of the vertical stabilizer where reinforced metal is used for a step that we use while conducting pre-flight inspections. I was amazed at how much of that thick metal had been replaced by a large gaping hole. But when I saw the bird again later, it all looked brand-new. I never did know if they replaced the skin, or replaced that whole section of the tail. But I was glad it didn’t have big ugly patches all over it for me to look at for the rest of the year.
Our other ship was only hit through the blades. Replacing the blade took hardly any time at all. I believe it was flying again two days later. It was kind of funny; they actually wrapped duct tape around the holes and flew it back to Balad. Dave and Matt told me later that they picked up a little vibration at around 100 knots. When I was in the Army on active duty we always called duct tape “hundred mile an hour” tape. I had heard stories about Vietnam pilots covering holes in aircraft blades and skin in “hundred mile an hour” tape and flying all day. I now know where the name came from, and I fully believe these stories to be true.
The mission before this I had returned with a bullet hole in a rotor blade. I was two for two.
For my next mission, I would be flying with Bubba Houser, another Ft. Rucker IP. We would be flying trail for this mission. That morning, as we got ready to go, I had asked Bubba if he would fly in the right seat because I was more used to the left seat and liked it better. I also thought that he might like flying in the right for a change. Bubba, being an easy going guy, quickly agreed. Bubba and I had been following Doffis and Jeff, my roommate, around Baghdad all day, and were heading northeast out of Baghdad, when suddenly a bullet came through Bubba’s chin bubble and traveled under his seat. It finally hit something solid and made a sharp bang. We could all feel it in our feet. We scanned the buildings in front of us, looking for the sniper that shot us, but we couldn’t find him. This guy would get away. As badly as we wanted to kill him, we couldn’t spot him.
Bubba was flying when this particular bullet hit us, and asked me to take the controls while he checked things out. After looking at the bullet hole, he simply looked at me and said, “See if I ever trade seats with you again, asshole”.
Once again I had to call for maintenance to check for battle damage as I landed; this time at least it was back at Balad. When we shut down the aircraft there were several people there to assess the damage and determine what to do with the aircraft. For only getting hit with one round this time, it did a surprising amount of damage under Bubba’s seat. It actually sheared the head off a bolt that held two control rods together.
As people milled about, I noticed my roommate, Jeff Alston, was looking under the aircraft at the belly of my bird. When I asked him what he was looking for he said loud enough so that everybody could hear, “I’m looking for the damn bulls eye” followed by “Whadaya have a bulls eye painted on your helicopter, Deeter”? And then the next words out of his mouth, “We’re gonna have to start callin’ you “Bullseye Bob”. When he spoke those words all conversation stopped, and everybody looked at me. It was like that old E. F. Hutton commercial, where silence falls over the room. I could see it in their eyes. I knew instantly that this would stick to me like glue, and for the rest of our deployment, I would never shake it.
Within hours, every body was calling me Bullseye. That very evening, someone at the chow overheard me and a friend talking about the latest bullet hole, and asked me if I was the guy they were all calling bullseye. Within a couple of days even the Battalion commander was calling me bullseye. It was a nickname I would never be able to shed.
At first I didn’t care for the nickname. It was on the daily mission board, along with anything with my name on it, and it seemed people couldn’t wait to say it when they saw me. A week or so of this went by and late one night, as I was climbing into bed, I said over the wall lockers that separated us, “Jeff, you’re an ass.”
Came his reply back over the lockers, in a humorous tone; “Why Robert, whatever do you mean?”
I said, “you know what I’m talking about, butt head. You had to blurt out Bulls eye Bob on the flight line in front of everybody; and now I will never get rid of it”.
Gee Bob, you should be proud. It’ll be something to tell your grandchildren about. You actually have a “nom de guerre” of sorts.
“Nom de guerre?? Right Jeff. There’s Stormin Norman Schwartzkopf, Old blood and guts Patton, Black Jack Pershing, and Bulls Eye Bob. Some how, it’s not quite the same.”
///////////////another long silence. //////
Then I heard him laughing. Sort of snorting the way someone does when they’re trying not to be heard laughing. I guess I began to see the humor in it. I couldn’t help but laugh. We both had a long hard laugh.
A couple of things stayed with me from these first couple of weeks of combat flying. The first was that it’s better to constantly vary your altitude and heading by small increments, than to wait for the bullets to start flying and have to make large control inputs. Because if you suddenly start making big jinks and jags, you have to think about your proximity to structures and other aircraft before you start. And if you’ve been flying along straight and level for a while, their first burst of fire might find it’s mark.
The second realization came to me as I chided Bubba about how he close he was to getting “the boys” shot off. It occurred to me that every time I flew in Iraq, I would always be only one lucky shot away from going home in a bag. The same bags we so often picked up at outlying CSHs, (Combat Surgical Hospitals) and delivered to BIAP for further processing. We called these hero missions.