Witch 54 Flight

by Marcelyn Atwood

Witch 54 taxies over to the side of the hammerhead and we slide in behind her. Brakes set, yawns stifled, we run our pre-takeoff checklists. The co-pilot has the flight manual on his lap, recalculating the take off roll. The winds are dead, the night is pitch black, and the fog is thick in the California agricultural valley. My two-ship of tankers is the first of five aircraft to take to the wind to feed the Blackbird on its National Security mission. SR-71, Blackbird, Habu, and Sled are all names for her. The nickname Sled, and the way she darts up to take gas, reminds me of a bobsled running the slalom. I've done countless of these high priority missions with critical information as the target. Do we have to hear it every time to make us believe? For me, the pre-flight pep talk from the operations group colonel never ceases to make me push hard into my seat.

A voice in my head says, “Pray.”

Even the talk that night couldn’t stop me thinking, “The fog is too thick. We don't have takeoff visibility.” Errant cows could be blanketed in the fog and we'd feel them slam into the gear before we'd see them. Then there was the rendezvous point. It was dead center of a line of thunderstorms moving up from Mexico to Texas. An altitude change or delayed timing would not make a difference. That storm was plowing down on the Gulf and she wouldn't stop until she hit Canada.

The cockpit is silent. New takeoff rotation numbers are posted. We're going to use all 13,000 feet of runway tonight; we are that pregnant. Cleared for takeoff. Lead, Witch 54, takes the runway as the colonel, in his suburban next to us, flicks the mic and says, "Good hunting."

I hit the stop clock; exactly two minutes between takeoffs. A voice in my head says, "Pray." Without hesitation I lay my gloved hands on the inertial navigation system on my right and the comm panel on my left. "Please God, take care of this jet, this mission and these crews." Witch 54 waddles onto the runway. 

I key the mic after loosing sight of lead just seconds after her throttle advance, "Fifteen seconds." The fog swirling from the jet wash bangs on the windshield as we take the runway. The pilot applies the brakes too hard, slamming me into my harness creating bruise number six for the week. "Forty-five seconds." Last minute switches are flipped. The radar is on with tilt full up straining to locate lead in the air. "One minute, twenty." The pilot calls for roll call. The Boom checks in ready to roll, the co-pilot roger's up. I key the mic, "Let’s go." 

Witch 55 rumbles down the runway like a hippopotamus doing the Argentine Tango—executing sharp jerks as our weight fights the thrust. The co-pilot is straining to see the Christmas lights spaced like missing teeth on the right side of the runway that indicate we are still on it. The pilot stares at the mist with both hands on the yoke. My eyes are glued to the instrument panel in front of the pilots.

I announce, "Speed, 105 knots." The commanding officer (CO) sees the 5,000 feet marker whip by. "Speed, 125." We need 150 knots.

The CO yells, “8,000 feet.” The needle bounces on the airspeed indicator, hovering just under 150. The CO screams, “10,000 feet.” The pilot pulls hard, rotating us up through the cotton candy dream into the pitch-black night. We break ground as the hash marks at the end of the runway blur into a solid line.

We climb slowly through the cold air and the old gal strains, making creaky noises like grandma’s rocking chair on an old porch. We run checklists and I'm searching for lead on my radarscope. The sweep sees nothing. I'm greeted with a faded black scope as the neon sweep goes round, leaving a trail of green dust in its wake. Lead should be within 15 miles but there is no bullet shaped blip showing her position. We climb through 10,000 feet and break through the fog. Another checklist runs automatically.

Passing 18,000 feet, we report into air traffic control. They respond, "Witch 55, your party is ahead 25 miles, 20 degrees right. Cleared to join." I slam the scope up and extend the range to 50 miles.

The CO gets on the common frequency, "Hey 55, slow down."

Witch 55 comes back, "Bout time you all joined in."

I locate the blip, "Pilot, Nav. Continue left turn to heading 120." 


"Pilot, Nav. Range is 34 miles and closing in five minutes." 

Wojo is the lead navigator. She reported to the 343rd Air Refueling Squadron three weeks after I did. We were the first female officer crewmembers. The radio cracks, "Witch 55 flight, Oakland Center, cleared as requested." I missed the flight change request from lead, but I check the routing and see Wojo is cutting off a corner to make up time. That's the beauty of night flying, less air traffic means we can go direct rather than abide by the air corridor game. 

The power blinks three times. I hold my breath.

We close to 45 degrees and one mile from lead, “Two’s in.” Now it's flight following her tail on my radar, like stalking a girl in a bar. I take glances at the target azimuth I've set up every 30 seconds. Every fifth minute I spend 20 seconds checking waypoints and logging time, distance, speed, and heading to calculate a dead reckoning position. It only takes a couple of blinks to degrade 100 percent attention on the radar to make the reckoning really dead. I lean away from the seat, undoing my lap belt and unhooking three of the five harnesses to relieve the swaddling feeling. 

The flight to the Gulf is calm. Lead is steady; the two aircraft commander pilots are skilled. The Boom is sleeping sitting up, a common talent among us. Two hours later we are over Texas. No lights are visible on the deck; it's sparse open range. The pilot has a lock on lead, staring out the window, head turned as if listening with his good ear to the kiddies in the back seat. I flip the radar to 200 miles. Instantly I begin to sweat. The solid white line of storms has no breaks. It crawls from the top of the radar down my spine in a mad dash to beat us to the notional may pole where we'll dance with the SR-71. 

I key the mic, "Crew, Nav. It doesn't look good at the rendezvous point. Strap in." The CO checks off for a head call. My midnight snack, peanut butter and jelly on white bread, sits on the floor untouched in its flimsy white cardboard box. 

We begin the race around the air track waiting for the rendezvous time. Our chariot is bouncing 10 feet up and 15 feet down as if losing a wheel. The violence of the shaking increases and the radar backscatter noise is getting so thick I begin to loose the Witch 54 blip a half a mile away. The main frequency is silent because Lead has switched to secure comm with the Blackbird, who is descending in the blind with no radar and no visual, just the insides of bed sheets shrink-wrapped around their space suited eyes. Lead is trying to stay on course. I’m breathing deeply while repeating my mantra, "I'm not getting sick." I check my stopwatch. The final turn in front of the Blackbird is in two minutes. "Pilot, Nav. Stand by for the turn, heading 330. Lead should be turning in 5, 4, 3…Nav. I've lost them."

The lightening hits on the pilot's side, just in front of the window. All my instruments go dead. The static electricity reaches a finger up my back as it gallops down the inside of the aircraft to the boomer. My ears mute all sounds except the Pilot yelling for emergency checklists. I pray, "Please give me power to the instruments, please." I check my scope, nothing. I check the rendezvous time; the Blackbird is always on time. But we’ve flown an additional 10 seconds in the wrong direction. Since we were 500 feet above lead, and the wingspan is 50 feet, I key the mic, "Pilot, Nav, Turn NOW. Heading 330 on the whiskey compass, give me an approximate 35 degree bank until I call it." I am banking on lead not being near us. My heart pounds loudly during the two minutes it takes to turn a tanker 180 degrees. I know this pilot; he's like the school nerd when it comes to asking the girl to dance. I know we are out of position and hope I can make up the space to account for his actions when the girl says no. The power blinks three times. I hold my breath.

The power comes on, steady. "Standby, to reduce turn angle. Ready, ready, now, give me 30 degrees."  I search the radar for any sign of lead. We hit a massive updraft, the jet lifts up, kite-like for a minute in no gravity. I can't reach my stopwatch to re-hack the time. Mental note: subtract 2 seconds or was it longer? My mantra comes out as a whisper, “I'm not going to get sick.” Lead is gone and I have no idea where she is. They didn't call the turn. "Crew, who heard the turn?" 

The Boom interrupts me, "Crew, Boom. I got her, Sled approaching, Boom coming down." Then the Boom announces, "Contact." Lights on the overhead blink on and the CO reaches up to start the pumps.

The Boom interphone cracks as the Sled driver says, "Who ordered this whipped mocha meeting place?" We weren't supposed to be the first to offload gas. No time to check damage.

The CO yells airspeed as the pilot steadies us on 225 knots. I note the lightening strike in the log as I identify lead on the scope. "Crew, Boom, this is dicey, struggling to keep the Sled in the envelope." 

The pilot says, "Call a breakaway if you need to." 

The CO keys the mic, "Nav, tell lead where we are."

I pull the Boom mic close to my mouth, "Witch 54, 55. We are 27 41.5N, 94 34.13W. Heading 330, airspeed 227, altitude 25,450 feet." 

Guys, when I tell you good hunting I don’t mean for you to come back with a chunk of your tail missing.

"Roger, pulling up and back to cross over onto the right wing," the pilot announces to the Sled driver. We are starting a slow decent back to 25,000. I know Wojo is orchestrating an air show maneuver as if we were two bi-wing aircraft doing barnstorming. The turbulence is letting up slightly. I'm still talking myself out of throwing up. Lead slides into 95 degrees, 1/2 mile and 500 feet above us off our right wing.

The Sled drinks all we've got and before disconnect asks where lead is I say, "55 is bouncing on the right wing, you should see her when you move 15 degrees right." 

We hold our airspeed as I advise the pilot we are running out of air refueling space. The CO calls center, requesting an extension. The Sled is latched onto Witch 54’s tit. I am breathing easier but refuse to let my mind wander to what had to be God’s grace in keeping us from blowing up in mid-air. We run our emergency checklists and separate from Witch 55. We fly home at 39,000 feet to conserve fuel. We gave too much to the Sled and now we have to limp home. It is dead quiet going home. I’m lost in my own thoughts. As we near the base, I radio into the Command Post, "Marlin Control, Witch 54." I hear the mic key as belly laughs in the background die down. Every hair on my back, still tingling from the electricity, lifts as I narrow my eyes in disgust. It was the call sign and the female voice that set them off.

I report the lighting strike. That is enough to quiet them down and they call the operations group commander, waking him up at 0430. He meets us on the runway, "Guys, when I tell you good hunting I don't mean for you to come back with a chunk of your tail missing. The SR lost rivets and has a bent pitot tube. I'd say you took the brunt of it when you both entered the same thunder cloud." The sun is up before our debrief is over. We troop over to the hospital for a check up by the flight surgeon. Only a ringing in my ears bothers me. Cleared by the doc, I drag myself to my truck and sit there, tears welling as I murmur, but for my prayer on the hammerhead. I make it home before I puke.

Weight and Balance

by Alicia Dietz

You used to wake up to sounds
of mortars exploding 10km from your dust-filled tent.

Or the rev of rotors
starting to turn
and the slow grumble of the chopper engine.


You have awakened to the melody of revile,
the soothing rhythm of soldiers calling cadence;

Sometimes waking is something you willingly do.

to the crackling of snow
and ice shifting in your two-man igloo.


on most days,
you wake up only to hear

the soft sound of your alarm.


On others,
to the imagined echoes

of those memories.


And sometimes
waking is something you willingly do.

So you can accomplish a new mission,

a mission struggling to find purpose;

cause –
craving the balance
on which you used to rely.


You used to wake up
knowing a century of men and women

depended on your actions,
and trust in them.


you can barely find a dozen.


So sometimes
waking is something you reluctantly do.

For in the depths of REM,
you are there with them.


And it is real.

Sometimes waking is something you reluctantly do.

For a moment.


With Michael
in your office,
shaking his hand.
Commending him for volunteering,
for stepping up to join his fellow brothers.

For going,
even with a pregnant wife.
For being a model for others –
especially to his daughter
who he would hold only once.
But who may forever feel
her father’s presence.


It is when you wake

that you feel his presence
in his absence.


It is in the house of your subconscious

that you sit with Sara
talking about leadership,

and risk.
Where you take her on a test flight

to see the beauty of ‘The High One’

over 150 miles away
but who begs you to touch it;
it is so close.


That majestic mountain is what dreaming feels like –

being 150 miles away.
No, 1,500 miles away.
If only.

Being an immeasurable distance away

but begging to reach out your hand

and touch.
If even for a moment.


It is when you wake

that you feel her presence
in her absence.


You wear a bracelet to remember.  

No, you wear a bracelet for others.

Not to remember,
but to realize.


And so you make it your new mission

to find a way to communicate.
To serve your penance for surviving.

To make work,

a community,

To make peace.


It is when you wake

that you carry the weight;
you search for the balance.

The Eyes

by Glenn Miscikowski

Accepting the invitation to go deer hunting in northern Wisconsin with Mr. B and his sons on their farm was a no brainer; the first deer hunt after leaving Nam six months earlier. Arriving at 3:00 PM, Mr. B opened the car door and hugged me, “Glad you made it.”

The trips became an annual ritual. Each one renewed friendships as we talked about past experiences and new challenges, sitting by the fireplace with a Budweiser. The bellowing laughs commenced after anecdotes of the latest blunders, old girl friends or a new car. Everyone shared one crazy event with the group, no exceptions.

The talks left me disconnected because an essential element was missing. Nothing changed between us, but everything had changed around me. Did they feel the void as well?  

Did they feel the void as well?

The fourteen-point buck roaming the woods became the topic of conversation at breakfast. Deer stands were selected based on buck sightings over the last week. Mr. B placed salt blocks and bushels of apples at several sites. I located a comfortable deer stand for the first day of the hunt as the deer follow their normal patterns, not spooked. My deer stand provides stealth, visibility, and comfort. With a bit of luck, a buck may cross my path. Mr. B walked, pushing the deer through the area; arthritis affected him while sitting.   

The temperature on opening day dipped below freezing coupled with a mesmeric gentle falling snow. The large snowflakes blocked visibility to a degree. I cuddled up to a couple of large toppled maple tree stumps. My back and head rested comfortably on them. The comfortable surroundings and previous lack of sleep produced the sedative. I was out like a light.

I sprang up hearing my name. Mr. B stood not ten yards from me, “Glenn, Glenn.”

“I’m here.”  

“Did you see him?”

“See who?”  

“I’ve been trailing the big buck for the last three hours. The swamp swallowed his tracks. I got a glimpse of him; he’s magnificent.” He knew I’d dozed off. I looked like a snowman. He looked at me then proceeded to backtrack, trying to pick up the tracks.   

I brushed the snow off my jacket and pants, becoming vigilant of my surroundings. The snow dropped a beautiful white carpet quieting the woods. A couple of grey squirrels chased each other through the trees. They showed off their agility. Slivers of sun flashed through the woods, ricocheting off the snow, causing momentary blindness.     

The squirrels stopped chasing. I heard the audible muffled clump, clump. An animal moved stealthily through the woods towards me. My body became rigid. Breathing became difficult to control. The ambushes in Nam triggered an identical response. My hands squeezed hard on the stock. The inside of the gloves felt damp. Come-on, clear your head and get back to the world. What the hell is wrong with you?  

God almighty, the buck walked right out in the open not twenty yards from me. This magnificent creature sported an enormous rack. He stood broadside, daring me to pull the trigger. The black eyes remained fixed on me. I raised my weapon and depressed the safety. My finger applied pressure to the trigger with the scope cross hairs on the beast. This buck was mine.

The trigger wouldn’t depress. There must be something wrong with the gun. What the hell is wrong with me? Shoot him. Shoot him. I took two deep breaths and tried to relax as I looked through the scope.      

The buck remained motionless for ten seconds. Then it snorted at me, dipped its head, and returned in the direction of the swamp. Two minutes passed.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

I heard Mr. B yelling. The magnificent creature never had a chance.  

The black eyes stared at me from the white carpet. I wanted to look away but wouldn’t. The innocence in those eyes haunted me. One of God’s creatures deserved a better fate. My eyes watered looking at the beast. Mr. B cocked his head, giving me an odd stare. I shouldn’t care what others think. I earned the right to express my feelings. In Nam emotion demonstrated a sign of weakness, even when one of my men went down. For me to show emotion outwardly had become rare, but for this creature.   

The trigger wouldn’t depress...What the hell is wrong with me? Shoot him.

This buck earned my respect; he deserved to roam the woods managing a harem of does. The local bar celebration became loud and joyous continuing into the wee hours of the morning. Mr. B gave willing hunters detailed explanations of how he bagged the beast. The stories changed as the bottles stacked up. He became the county hero for a season.

Mr. B looked disappointed after telling him my decision to head home a day early. My child being sick had become the excuse. I knew after today’s hunt something was wrong with me.  

Mr. B hugged me, “Take care of yourself.”

The drive home became a personal reflection. Two friends part knowing one will not return. Mr. B witnessed my change in demeanor. I wished we talked about what happened. No one, not even my wife, initiated a conversation about the past.

The creature’s eyes staring at me transported me back to another time, another world. Sgt. N smiled at me as he crossed the stream climbing up the hill onto a wide trail. He was the third soldier in his column. I heard the haunting blast. The chilling reminder that shit happens. Sgt. N stepped on a 155 or an anti-tank mine.

I still remember screaming, running to the disaster, “Why Lord, Why?”

Descending the conical hole, Sgt. N’s eyes were vacant, staring out into the nothingness. I closed the eyelids of my fallen comrade. The medic and I put half a soldier in a poncho. After carrying and gently setting him in the chopper I never cried. Concentrating on Sgt. N’s eyes and not the mutilation of his body had kept my sanity in check. If I’d let my emotions surface there was no telling the outcome.   

If I pull the mask off my face, will I still be who I think I am?

My reoccurring dreams continued to haunt me; seeing Sgt. N’s eyes staring at me. The hollow stare rivets my psyche. Why him and not me on the chopper? Strange, I would die for my men but never cried for a fallen soldier. My eyes watered for the beast. The enemy never received my dignity. Seeing bodies after a firefight or baking in the sun on a trail, they became an inanimate doll. A doll never possesses a soul. I didn’t hate the enemy. Survival became the only objective for my men and myself; bring my men home. If the Vietnamese invaded our space with weapons, we retaliated.  

Not pulling the trigger on the beast went against all of my past experiences. The beast lived for another two minutes. In the scheme of life, my action made no difference. Somehow, those two minutes meant a world of satisfaction to me.

I’m trying to understand the mask I wear. If I pull the mask off my face, will I still be who I think I am? I feel a numbness and coolness to life. Deep emotion eludes me. I couldn’t cry holding my son for the first time returning from Nam, but for the beast I cried.    

The suffering and death are in the past. I’m trying to get to a better place. I hope this is the first step in feeling life.    


by Robert Waldruff

The sweet rhythms of bliss,
that's the ticket, none of this
deserves consideration. 
Just listen to the blues.

Lay back dude, everything’s cool.
Look to the stars for motivation— 
ain't going to worry for nobody. 

They appeared without warning, 
no jazz in their lives. Get away
people, I'm listening to my life;
don't you feel the jibe?

We mean no harm mister,
but can you see the world
beyond the beauty of sounds?

Not sure what you mean,
you saying the symphony
sings a selfish note.

No, just wishing the angels
of grace will send us some

The Ride

by Alicia Dietz

It was clear blue and 22.

You couldn’t describe it any other way.

A decade of flying forced you to become a novice meteorologist,

to pay attention to moon cycles,

sunrise, and sunset.

To EENT and cloud ceilings.

That a small differential between temperature and dew point

caused fog.

That winds at altitude

affect your burn rate.


And know that you are part of a community.

Even now,

four years later,

and probably forty after that,

you note the position of the moon

and know that it will be 15 degrees lower in an hour.

And the underside faces of leaves.

Drive past a flag,

or even –

ironically, a windsock,

and determine which direction you would have landed.


But you’re on four wheels now,

not three.

The only thing overtop you is a worn-out canvas –

a bikini top –

that covers only the front seats.


And this top flaps in the wind.


Affected by the wind.

Not active.

Not affecting the wind.

Not working in unison with three others to produce lift.

These wheels,

they stay on the ground.


Leaves and twigs,

remnants of rain water and splashes of mud

are your passengers in the back.

Even the maple’s occasional propeller seeds come along for the ride –

and you chuckle at the irony.


You can only fit two people in the back –

the back of that beauty

of your ’95 red

Jeep Wrangler.

Not the 11 that you could in that mammoth –

the back of that beauty

of your ’88 OD green



Now, you can pick up two friends

and go where your hearts desire.

Spend all day along the river

or in a museum.

Then you idly chat over drinks at a restaurant patio

and drop them back off

at home again.


Like those before

that you flew along the river

or overtop a museum.

That you,            

not so idly,

chatted with over the intercom

and dropped back off

at home again.


Yet too,

unlike those before.

Those who you dropped off

with their rucks fully loaded,

with their radios and medical kits,

rations and munitions.

That you dropped off

with their maps

and bibles


Unlike those before.

Those who you dropped off

never to pick up again.


It’s been hard for you.

Hard to find two people,

even two,

to fill the void where those 11 sat before.

Maybe because you weren’t even trying.

Maybe because it was easier –

easier to close the door,

zip up the sides,

chock the wheels,

and let the battery die over the winter.


But when the seasons changed,

when the earth tilted to enjoy the company of the sun,

you knew it was time to fly again.

So you brushed off that bikini top,

and unzipped the sides.

You welcomed the company of the leaves and the twigs

And those little propeller seeds.

And you went for a ride.


The breeze brushed up against your face

and you put your hand out,

cupping it up and down

forming that airfoil that would fly.

The same airfoil you formed

in the backseat at the age of five

without a care.

Not a single one.

Now you formed it as a way to let those cares

spread their wings.

To fly a little farther away.


Up ahead you see another Jeep,

And as you pass, he gives you a wave.

You wave back

and smile.

And sink in the warmth and comfort

and let it wrap around you.

And know that you are part of a community.

A community

different from the one before.


But one that will wave

and welcome you.

As long as you pull out of the driveway

and go for a ride.

Tough Command

by Marcelyn Atwood

I picked up the phone. My secretary said a Colonel from the Air Staff was parked on line 2.  My shoulders sagged, what did the Recce guys from HQ want so early on a Monday morning? 

“One of my Majors just left my office telling me his active duty Major wife is having an affair with one of your Squadron Commanders, call sign Sparky.” 

“Is this an official complaint?”

My eyes were glued 10 feet in front of me.

“What kind of a fucked up question is that?  Yes, OSI is already involved.  Go after Sparky, this is fraternization and adultery!”

“I’m assuming you have proof?” The phone went dead as he slammed down the receiver.

I called my husband, a former Marine Corps military judge. I wanted my guy’s gut check to make sure the next steps were right.  I hung up, my head in my hand staring at my boots. Leaning back in my chair, I dialed the General’s secretary. 

“I need 10 minutes with the boss for a time sensitive issue.”

“He’s working paper and is on a telecon in 30.  You’ve got 10 in 15.”

My eyes were glued 10 feet in front of me.

“On my way.”  I walked swiftly down the hall arriving on the hack.  Ignoring the soft chair and dodging boxes of stuff he still hadn’t unpacked I reported in at his desk. He glanced up from flung papers, surprised as I leaned in.

“Sir, I just got a call from an Air Staff Colonel.  Sparky, one of my Recce Squadron Commanders is accused of having an affair with an Air Staff Major.  OSI may be involved on their end.  I’m starting a command investigation.” 

Stunned, the General, an Academy Grad ring knocker, paused.  “Are you sure?”

“Yes, no option and I’m leaving him in command until we get proof.”

Returning to my desk, I called the base JAG and requested an investigator from the additional duty list.  A Colonel from the medical group arrived in my office at the end of the day.  Closing the door, I stood eye-to-eye, unblinkingly stating this investigation is on an Academy grad, true blue recce guy, and squadron commander.  Sparky is accused of dalliance with a mid-grade officer at the Pentagon, whose husband is also Major on the Air Staff.  I handed him the directive letter with a two-week deadline, my inked signature still damp.  Already feeling like a long week, I stared at my stack of paper as daylight left the room.

Friday night my husband, the Vice President of the base Spouses Club, hosted Mrs. Sparky and her squadron wives at my house.  I raced home to help him prepare the drink table and finger food for the gals.  Then returning to the office, since the “husbands” weren’t allowed to partake, I worked late into the night. Climbing into bed, I sank under the covers.

“Honey, I had a strange question from Sparky tonight, you know he was at the gathering for 20 minutes talking to the gals about the next deployment rotation.  Sparky pulled me aside as the gals were cackling and asked how you were doing.”  

Squeezing my eyes tight and letting my chest fall, “Really? What did you tell him?” 

“Better than most.”

Monday came too soon and my Tuesday schedule said an early morning out and back airline flight to DC.  After the General’s Monday staff meeting at 1000, I asked if he could hang back with me.  Squaring off to face him straddling the corner of the conference table I told him I decided to tell Sparky someone in his squadron was under investigation. 


“Sir, Commanders need to know.  He’s one of 15 other Lieutenant Colonels in that squadron.  If I tell him, maybe he’ll see the path to tell his side so we can get this under control.”

At 1500, Sparky was in my office.  “I’ve started a command investigation on a Lieutenant Colonel in your squadron.  I don’t think it will go anywhere, but we are following procedure just to be sure.”

“Ma’am, Who?”

“Can’t say, it is just a preliminary step.”

“When can I expect the report on my guy, Ma’am?”

“Middle of next week.”   

I watched Sparky leave my office as he came in, upbeat and positive.  I paused my head on the back of my executive chair and turned to the stack of performance reports awaiting my red pen.

Tuesday came early.  Yawning, I squirmed in my airline seat seeking comfort despite my blue ill-fitting Class As and the rest that had eluded me last night. I hated the early morning goes but this was worth it to get to DC, to stand by my guys for the Air Force Association Recce Crew of the Year Award and get back to base all in one day.  The old guy two rows up kept turning around and staring.  Yep, geezer, this is a girl with eagles on the shoulders and wings above a full rack, of ribbons.

I’d only just taken command of the largest flying operations group in the Air Force two months earlier.  Still grasping the lack of resource issues and the 24/7 global mission this Award Luncheon was another chance to show unity with them and to pretend I knew it all.

Sitting at the table with other senior leaders I dashed through the small talk wishing the Recce Crew would take the stage and get their award so I could escape. My cell buzzed in my lap.  I gathered my napkin around my plate and sidestepped to the door of the banquet hall. 

“Colonel Atwood.”

“Ma’am, relaying radio call from Bravo.”  The Vice Wing Commander keyed his radio.

“Marcy, Sparky hanged himself this morning. I’m on site with OSI who is starting the line of duty misconduct/death investigation.” I buckled into the wall, head down, my breath shallow.

“What? Well, the command investigation is now over!” I whispered.

“Sparky left early dressed for his usual morning PT run.  A note in the car said “I hope you are happy.”  He apparently walked across the street to the new construction house and hung himself from the rafter in the garage.  Crisis response is working.  Your husband is here holding Mrs. Sparky and the base Colonel Chaplain together.”  

“Thanks, Bravo, I’m declaring a safety stand down for Sparky’s squadron.  No RC-135 flying.  Call off the schedule.  Command Post, who’s still up?”

“Ma’am, the last morning-go lands in about 30 minutes.  Afternoon launches are running pre-flights.”

“Right, cancel all flying, the 1st ACCS E-4s, the trainers, and the RC-135 flights.  Tell them I directed a safety stand down for entire Ops Group.  When’s the next higher HHQ sortie?”

“Ma’am, on Friday.”

“Good, I’ll make that call on Thursday.”

 “Command Post, Bravo, I concur.  Bravo out.”

I left the hotel walking slowly to the Washington Zoo Metro three hours before my flight home.  My eyes were glued 10 feet in front of me.  Staying on the Metro past the airport, I wandered into Old Town Alexandria Chico’s.  I quietly asked the oldest clerk for help picking an outfit. One hour later, dressed in purple with my crumpled dress uniform in the Chico’s bag, I anonymously boarded the Midwest flight to Omaha. Walking out of the gate area with effort, one foot, then the next, my husband grabbed my hand and held on tight the entire silent ride to the base.

Tossing and turning that night, one thought replaced sleep.  I failed. I told Sparky yesterday that someone was under investigation.  The last straw throwing Sparky overboard had my name on it.  

The General refused to do the eulogy.  A bomber guy, who didn’t belong to the Recce Frat, had only taken command three weeks earlier. Mrs. Sparky insisted on an open casket, his neck unusually long above his flight suit.  She positioned the casket in the base church entrance forcing all of us to walk by him.  I approached the door, seeing the casket and hurried down the outside of the building to the servant entrance.  I could not face him.       

The church was packed.  I sat hyperventilating, desperate for air to calm my nerves, waiting for my turn in the program.  I gripped the podium.  I scanned across the rows and up to the balcony, making eye contact with as many as I could with the open casket below my feet.  My last eye lock with my husband directly in front of me, gave me the push to begin.  He had drafted the eulogy, which I refined by writing Recce inside baseball references as best I could.  Using my French horn embouchure, I plastered the corners of my mouth up and performed a reading, a celebration of life. With every end of a paragraph, the nagging guilt whispered, you did this.   

We all walked slowly outside to the open parade ground.  My husband held my hand, even against my pull to let go in compliance with proper uniform wear.  Scattered in groups, the Wing mass fell silent as the RC-135 flew a wing walking slow flight 1500 feet above us to the west, a nod to Sparky, one of ours.


by John H. Price III

Toward the end of Military Police Advanced Individual Training, in January 1971, my class was notified that we would participate in a week-long field exercise to practice all of the techniques we had learned over the past several weeks. We packed our field gear, drew M-14’s with blank ammo and boarded buses for a week in the woods at Fort Gordon, GA.

Two companies of trainees, about 160 men total, exited the buses and formed up by platoon in the training area parking lot.  The first sergeant called out four names, including mine, told us to grab our gear and meet with one of the cadre standing alongside a nearby jeep. My first thought was that we were in some sort of trouble, but I was wrong. We had been selected to be the “aggressors” for the training exercise. Our job was to make our fellow MPs as miserable as possible for the next week.  Rather than sleeping in tents like the rest of the MPs, we were based in a plywood mock-up of a helicopter fuselage. One corner of the helo was piled high with C-rations, water cans, 7.62mm blank ammo, smoke grenades and hand grenade simulators. This was shaping up to be the most fun I had in the Army, and I was excited to get started.

I was instantly blinded and deafened by the blast and there was a question as to whether I would be able to complete the exercise.

Our DI was an expert on guerilla tactics and outlined the operations we would mount against the superior numbers of MP’s we would harass. One thing we did frequently was to rig booby-trapped road blocks, which quickly became my specialty.  I concealed smoke grenades and hand grenade simulators under tree branches, rocks and blown-down timber we used to construct the road blocks.  At first it was easy to “blow up” the MPs who had to clear the debris to enable their convoys to continue down the road.  Later, they became more careful as they dismantled our road blocks, so I had to become increasingly sophisticated in placing the smoke and explosives. One trick I employed was to use a decoy grenade which was relatively easy to find, creating the false sense of security in the MPs who thought they had disarmed the roadblock. Then, the second or even the third grenade would detonate as they hastily removed the remainder of the debris. Of the dozens of road blocks we constructed and I booby-trapped, not one was successfully disarmed.  I had mixed emotions about that, because if I could do this as effectively as I had, how would these guys ever survive a real booby trap in Nam?

The bitch about a road block is that there is the possibility of ambush each time you roll up on one, so you have to be quick in clearing it, but at the same time, you must be methodical in case it’s booby trapped. From concealed positions on high ground, we usually just observed the MP’s dismantling the road blocks, but on a couple of occasions, we did mount ambushes. I learned a hard lesson during the first ambush.  Our M-14’s had rock-and-roll selector switches for full auto fire.  With the blank adaptor in place, there was adequate gas pressure to cycle the action of the M-14 reliably in semi-auto mode, but there was a tendency for it to occasionally fail to eject a spent round in full auto mode, meaning you had to cycle the action by hand to eject the spent round and chamber a live round.  During the first ambush, we were spread out about five meters apart across the top of a hill, with me on point, furthest from our DI.  SOP for an ambush was to each fire a couple of magazines into the stalled convoy and beat feet before they dismounted from the deuce and a half trucks and returned fire.  I had a jam, was clearing my weapon, and did not hear the command to retreat.  When I looked up, I was all alone and taking heavy fire from the convoy. I sprinted toward our jeep as the DI was putting it into gear, and jumped in. He opened up on me immediately, telling me that I had endangered the other aggressors and that in combat, he would probably have left me behind to save the rest of the team. I was very embarrassed for having been called out, but realized the DI was right. I would never make that mistake again. Situational awareness keeps you alive.

We alternated between daylight and nocturnal operations to keep the MPs off balance.  Some days we slept in our helo hotel for most of the day and harassed the MP’s at night, ambushing their patrols and conducting brief raids on the main force to wake everyone up and keep them awake the rest of the night.

One full moon night, we were concealed in a dense stand of scrub pine at a crossroads waiting to ambush a patrol. The aggressor next to me attempted to lob a hand grenade simulator into the middle of the patrol, but hit a branch in the tree directly above me.  I heard the simulator strike a couple more branches on the way down and then it bounced off my steel pot and exploded about two inches from my right ear.  I was instantly blinded and deafened by the blast and there was a question as to whether I would be able to complete the exercise. I was scared, not knowing how badly I had been hurt, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to finish this exercise, I was enjoying it too much. My vision slowly returned over the next hour, although my hearing never fully recovered. Had it been a real grenade, my head would have been blown completely off. Another lesson learned. I had a few unkind words for the fellow who made the errant throw, but that was nothing compared to the ass chewing the DI gave him, pointing out that he had not only “killed” me, but took himself out as well with his bullshit grenade toss.

Our final night in the woods was the best. The DI had planned an assault on the MP command post.  One of our aggressors, a former track man from Notre Dame, was to low crawl toward the CP while the rest of us conducted a diversionary attack designed to lure the security forces guarding the CP in our direction. The track man would enter the CP, seize the unit colors and use his speed to escape before being captured. The plan worked perfectly, although the MPs were adamant they had shot our man before he cleared the perimeter.  Our DI over-ruled them and said that the aggressors had won the final exercise. We were all proud as hell to have our little band of four guerillas beat out over 150 MPs.

While riding back to our barracks the next day I had a chance to hear from one of my platoon buddies about how much our small group of aggressors had been able to disrupt the much larger force. Their inability to disarm the booby traps I set was very frustrating and our nightly “visits” had everyone sleep deprived and short-tempered by the end of the week. The clear lesson was that a highly motivated small force could negatively influence a much larger element. This is the cornerstone of guerilla warfare and we all had a chance to see it first-hand.

My week as an aggressor taught me a lot more than I would have learned had I been one of the poor saps riding around in the convoys we harassed. I never found out who selected me, but I sure was grateful for the experience.