How a helicopter pilot carries lessons, regrets from Persian Gulf War
WASHINGTON — When Army Maj. Fred Wellman led his men out of Iraq in 2004, the executive officer of the 6th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, searched intently along the side of the desert highway leading south to Kuwait.
Sure enough, sand-covered carcasses of Iraqi vehicles from the Persian Gulf War were still strewn along the highway’s edges.
For Wellman, it was like traveling through time. He had been a first lieutenant in the Gulf War in 1991, leading a platoon of helicopter scouts into battle for the first time along this very road.
He could still taste the thrill of that fight — flying in low enough for the Iraqis to fire on him and his men, his unarmed scout helicopter teasing the enemy fighters from their hiding places under the bridges and overpasses so U.S. Apaches could swoop in and take them out.
Now, 12 years later, Wellman’s wars were colliding. He was struck by memories of a time he thought he had put behind him — the tragedies he’d survived and the scorched earth he’d traversed since his initiation to war. How different he was from the young, fearless pilot he’d once been.
Like the generals he fought under, Wellman’s journey through one war would shape him for the next one, making him a stronger, harder and smarter seasoned leader. But it would also be his burden to bear.
They say there are old pilots and bold pilots. Wellman has been both.
This year marks a quarter century since the U.S. sent 600,000 troops to the Middle East to end Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait. The massive war effort was America’s first major military engagement since Vietnam. It also set in motion 25 years of upheaval and violence that has engulfed the region.
Wellman watched the lessons of Vietnam guide the generals in Operation Desert Storm, only to be redefined a decade later when U.S. troops were once again called to fight in Iraq.
He questions those lessons and the decisions that sent men to the wars he helped fight. But his faith in the men he fought alongside has never wavered.
Twenty five years later, veterans of the first Gulf War fear its memory is fading.
The Defense Department has no plans to commemorate the end of the war on its 25th anniversary, leaving it up to individual Army units to decide whether to mark the occasion.
Wellman has joined fellow vets working to create a permanent monument on the National Mall to the men and women who lost their lives in Desert Storm. The war was brief and the toll relatively small — fewer than 300 American troops were killed.
For Wellman, preserving their memory is personal. He lost two men in Desert Storm.
The legacy of Vietnam
War marks its territory on those who fight it — not always visible at first but darkening over time.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, many of the top U.S. military leaders were products of the Vietnam War and were bent on applying its lessons. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell, U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and 24th Infantry Division commander Gen. Barry McCaffrey cut their teeth on that earlier conflict.
“The generals and admirals of Desert Storm were the lieutenants and ensigns of Vietnam,” McCaffrey wrote in a 2003 article in American Legion magazine. “They were determined to avoid the painful and humiliating disasters that engulfed our forces in Southeast Asia.”
Under what became known as the Powell Doctrine, a decision to go to war had to ensure that there was an attainable objective, that all peaceful means had been exhausted and that there was strong international support and a clear exit strategy. It also demanded that if the U.S. was going to wage war, it was going to do so with overwhelming might. The fighting doctrine guided the Gulf War generals, ending combat just weeks after it began, having achieved the goal of removing Iraqi forces from what was seen as the unjust invasion of Kuwait.
Gulf War vets returned as heroes.
But Hussein remained in power. Many argued that left the job undone, launching a conflict that meant men like Wellman who were indoctrinated in the Gulf War would go back into Iraq a decade later.
“It’s the height of mythology to think Desert Storm was one and done,” he said. “We didn’t finish it.”
The call to the Middle East
The first time Wellman saw the OH-58C Kiowa helicopter, someone told him the reason the single-pilot craft had two seats: “One was for the pilot, the other, for his balls.”
“Oh, I want to fly that,” Wellman remembers thinking.
It was 1987 and he was a young officer right out of West Point during peacetime, when war was just a thing that the generals were writing about and studying for doctrine.
Three years later, Wellman was posted to Hunter Airfield in Savannah, Ga., as a young leader in charge of a scout platoon in an Apache battalion of the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized). He was 23, had three crews — a pilot and an aerial observer on each — and loved his work.
When Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the mechanized division with all its heavy hardware was taken by surprise that it would be among the first to deploy.
That day, Wellman donned his flight suit and went with his fiancee to the Savannah courthouse during his lunch break to get married. Then he went back to work, preparing to ship a battalion of helicopters to the Middle East.
Within weeks, his platoon in Company A, 1st Battalion, 24th Aviation Regiment was pitching tents in the Saudi Arabian desert and devising ways to keep the sand caked down so their rotors wouldn’t kick up a blinding dust storm every time the helicopters flew.
Being scouts required a sense of daring. Their helicopters — unlike the Apaches they flew with — were unarmed, and their job was to fly in ahead of the attack helicopters to locate and size up the enemy. Wellman knew his men were up for the task; they were pilots with strong personalities and aerial observers who balanced them well.
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Hal Reichle was quick to laugh, quick to anger and full of life. He was also unusually generous — always doing for others and looking out for the team. When the unit created a protocol for rescuing a downed helicopter, Reichle designed straps for the scouts’ vests so they could fasten onto the winglets of the scout helicopter during a rescue. Then he attached them onto vests for each man in the platoon.
Spc. Mike Daniels and Spc. Chris Anderson were aviation observers for Reichle and Wellman respectively — the quiet foils who kept their mercurial pilots grounded.
The unflappable Chief Warrant Officer 2 Dennis Midgley, a pilot with the patience and demeanor of a professor, led the third crew. A former explosives ordnance tech who’d taken the officer’s track in a second career as a helicopter flight instructor, Midgley was older than the other men. The smiling teacher kept his sanity in the desert by listening again and again to a cassette — Wellman’s, in fact — by pianist George Winston. Midgley’s observer was Spc. Dave Corlette, a funny guy with a big, boisterous voice.
They were young, well-trained and eager for the fight.
The dark desert night
For six months, they trained like crazy — locating the enemy and setting up a piece of sky where Apaches could fly in and safely line up for attack while the scouts pulled back and ran security along their edges.
They also trained for night missions, the scouts navigating in the pitch-black desert, orienting themselves by the infrared Apache cockpit lights that they could only see when they flew alongside.
If the scouts got lost, they were to quickly head back to base.
The OH-58s had rudimentary navigating systems. On a dark night, the only way the scouts could determine the distance above the undulating desert floor was the bouncing needle on the radar altimeter. It was all too easy for the ground to come up at them in a rush of blackness.
By mid-February, U.S. forces were preparing for a ground assault, and the Apaches were tasked with conducting armed reconnaissance of the route.
Wellman assigned two scout choppers — his own and Midgley’s — for the Feb. 20 mission. But as they prepared, Reichle and Daniels urged him to reconsider the lineup. The two had much more night flying experience than his team.
Let them fly instead, they urged. Wellman said OK.
The teams flew out at 8 p.m., stopping at a post just before the border to top off on fuel. The men were nervous. It was their first foray into Iraq, and it was a wet night with almost no illumination, making for hazardous flying conditions.
At the fuel post, the two pilots consulted about whether to fly the mission. Reichle looked to Midgley for guidance. “It’s your call,” Reichle said.
Midgley weighed the options. The scouts and the Apaches used different kinds of night vision — the scouts using light enhancement goggles and the Apaches using thermal detection. Midgley believed the scouts could be beneficial to the Apaches.
If Reichle was game, they were on, Midgley said.
It was the last conversation they would have.
Shortly after crossing the border, the mission hit even worse weather. Midgley could hear Reichle’s call on the radio saying he’d lost visual contact with his Apache team and was trying to re-establish it.
But the storm was unrelenting, and it was all Midgley could do to keep his helicopter from hitting the ground.
“You navigate,” Midgley shouted to Corlette, sitting next to him. “Keep your eye on other aircraft, and I am going to fly.”
Minutes later, the commander called across, asking Reichle for his status. He was met with radio silence. Midgley also tried. Again, nothing.
By then, Midgley knew.
In the dark, rain and fog, while searching for the Apaches, Reichle and Daniels had hit a bad piece of terrain. Before they knew it, the ground had crept up on them.
It was a sleepless night. Lt. Col. Tom Stewart, the battalion commander, spent much of it in contact with the surveillance aircraft trying to find the missing crew.
It wasn’t until the weather cleared the next morning that a search party located the downed helicopter.
Reichle and Daniels were dead.
Their big fights
Their first big fight came seven days later, and the irony didn’t escape Wellman and his men.
They’d been training hard for months and when the time finally came, two of their crew hadn’t lived to see it.
Wellman was wracked with guilt trying to understand how he made a decision that sent his men to their deaths. But they had a job to do and he took his cues from Stewart, who was also devastated by his first combat loss.
Stewart organized a memorial service for Reichle and Daniels. But coming at the height of preparations for the ground war, he was careful to heed the warning of his boss — a Vietnam veteran — who cautioned him to be “very strong” and keep morale high.
The service was emotional but brief — a short respite to remember their fallen brothers followed by Stewart telling the men they had more missions to conduct. “Let’s get on with it,” he told them.
The aviators patched up their grief and got ready to fight.
They knew that the Iraqis had not killed their buddies. But the Iraqis were the reason they were there, so they were going to take their anger to the enemy. The loss hardened their hearts.
The battle came five days after the service on Feb. 27, with the scouts flying in ahead of their Apaches just like in training, teasing out the enemy. As Wellman dodged down low along the highway where the Iraqi fighters were hiding, he thought of nothing but the battle.
The battalion pummeled the enemy fighters on the fourth day of the ground war, and the adrenaline of war soared.
After that first encounter, the battalion got busy. On March 1, while flying in support of an infantry unit, Wellman was called in to investigate a downed U.S. Black Hawk that ground soldiers had spotted after days of searching. It was sitting on top of an Iraqi truck, where it had crashed.
Wellman and Anderson flew in low. They could see dead American crewmembers — one slouched against the bird. He’d apparently survived long enough to climb out before he died.
As they hovered, a soldier climbed onto the truck and held up an empty helmet, shaking his head. Soldiers were missing.
Later, the Army would learn that three survivors had been taken prisoner. Among them: Maj. Rhonda Cornum, a flight surgeon and one of only two women captured during Desert Storm.
For Wellman and Anderson, the harsh face of war was haunting. It was a scene they wouldn’t soon forget.
The next day the scouts would wage the last fight of the war — a fierce assault on the Iraqi Republican Guard Armored Division, which had become bottlenecked along the Rumaylah Causeway as it retreated north.
The scouts escorted the Apaches, whose Hellfire missiles sent Iraqi trucks flying into the air and bursting into pummels of smoke and flames. Men fled on foot, their trucks left idling. There was so much smoke that the Apaches only hit one of every three or four trucks.
The fight would go down as one of the more controversial of the war — whether the U.S. used too much force on retreating troops. It was called “one of the most devastating and one-sided battles of the war.”
But to Wellman and his men, these were the enemy.
“I was just sent to blow up bad guys,” he said.
Within a few days, the war was over.
“Next thing you know, boom you are home. ‘Hey honey, I’m back,’ ” Wellman said. “Of course we are all war heroes. We won the big war without hardly anyone getting killed.”
But he said it didn’t feel like victory.
Wellman said goodbye to his men just four weeks earlier, fought his battles, stared into the faces of dead men — friend and foe alike — and now was home for dinner.
As the country rejoiced, he tucked away his grief.
“You didn’t talk about it,” he said.
Back to war
The years after the war were a blur for Wellman.
He made captain and graduated from Ranger School. He moved to Fort Campbell, Ky., in 1993, joined the 101st Aviation Regiment and looked to start a family.
Jenn Wellman was seven months pregnant in September 1994 when she was killed in a car accident outside the base. Wellman was on the airfield when he learned the news. He took a week off to bury his wife in New York, then, still in a daze, went back to work.
The unit was on call. Hussein had again amassed troops on the Kuwaiti border, and Wellman’s battalion was preparing to redeploy to Kuwait. When Hussein backed down, Wellman’s unit went on a field exercise and Wellman immersed himself in his work.
But his anger flared. His fuse was short, and he was clashing with a new commander. It quickly became clear that he needed a change.
Wellman called Stewart, his former battalion commander, who was aviation branch chief in charge of assignments.
“How about Hawaii?” Stewart asked.
It was a chance for a new start. He moved to Hawaii in April 1995 and became commander of a Cobra-equipped attack helicopter company, the 1st Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment. He had good men and good commanders, and he was able to build a new life for himself.
He was in the greeting card aisle of the post exchange when he met Crystal Tillman in August 1995, a beautiful mother of two small children.
They sensed an instant connection. But she ended their first telephone conversation abruptly after hearing about Jenn and how she died.
Wellman assumed that his tragedy had spooked her. It was not that simple. Crystal called back to explain: Two years earlier, when she expecting her youngest child, Crystal was in a serious car accident. She was seven months’ pregnant, and she and her son nearly died. The coincidence was astounding.
She wasn’t ready for something serious, she told him. He found ways to bump into her. Finally, she relented and went out on a date.
They married four months later — one year and one month after Jenn’s death — and had two children together before the family of six moved back to the mainland in 1998 after Wellman was assigned to Fort McPherson, Ga.
In May 2000, Wellman ended his military career.
He joined the Reserve, worked in consulting and got involved in local politics. He was running for mayor in Peachtree City, Ga., when New York’s twin towers came down Sept. 11, 2001.
Wellman’s Reserve unit was mobilized almost immediately, and he was thrust back into his military world, this time as a major.
Tired of straddling civilian and military life, he came home one day and told Crystal he wanted to go back on active duty.
She told him to do it.
In the spring of 2002, Wellman signed up again. The country was at war and he wanted to be a part of it.
The 101st Airborne Division was looking for majors, so Wellman learned how to fly Black Hawks.
In August 2002, he returned to Fort Campbell as the operations officer for the 6th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, 101st Aviation Brigade.
The attack brigade’s one Black Hawk battalion was a support and transport unit. Its job was to shuttle visitors and VIPs around the area of operations. It had a state-of-the-art mission-control helicopter, and the unit served as the brigade’s rescue unit. The battalion also had an infantry unit attached to it, the 101st Airborne Division Pathfinders.
As they trained for war, it was up to Wellman to devise the battalion’s standard operating procedures, including rescue missions.
Wellman could finally see the mark left on him from his first war.
Until now, company commanders always sat in the co-pilot’s seat during rescues, where they would command the mission and co-pilot the helicopter.
To protect his aviators, Wellman made the controversial decision to move the mission commander out of the co-pilot seat to a jump seat behind the pilots.
The move enraged his battalion’s company commanders, who did not want to relinquish dual control.
But Wellman was adamant: A co-pilot of a Black Hawk with 18 people on board who is trying to fly using night-vision goggles while reading a map and talking to Apaches, division and possibly a downed pilot would not be focused on flying.
“I felt very strongly after Desert Storm,” Wellman said. “I kind of felt that one of the reasons Hal and Mike had trouble was they were trying to run a mission at the same time as they flew their aircraft under night-vision goggles” in bad weather conditions, he said.
He got so much pushback, he had to take one of his company commanders out of rescue rotation before they even deployed.
“When I went back to Iraq, I was willing to be an asshole to make sure these guys survived that war,” he said.
Over the next year, Wellman became the battalion executive officer. He ushered his guys through the invasion and a brief stint in Baghdad before setting up camp at Q-West base in southeast Ninevah province.
There, Wellman and his team of aviators became the de facto provincial government after Hussein’s infrastructure was dismantled. Villagers turned to the only authorities they could find — the Americans.
Wellman clashed with fellow officers who said they had no business running civil affairs. “Look around you,” Wellman told them. “There is no government. We are it.”
By the time he left Iraq in 2004, the aviation unit had built more than 30 schools and a number of health clinics. Wellman said he developed relationships with Iraqis trying to serve their communities.
Over the next decade, Wellman would watch everything he helped build in Iraq be destroyed, and everyone who tried to help become a target.
Wellman was home at the end of 2004 when his interpreter, Bassam Yousef Sabry, was kidnapped and killed by al-Qaida forces. The first doctor he met at Q-West lost his legs during an al-Qaida assassination attempt in 2006, Wellman said. They finished the job in 2011, when an al-Qaida bomb killed the doctor and his children in the clinic that Wellman and his men built.
“Probably everything I built is gone at this point,” Wellman said.
The war within
Wellman helped arrange for Sabry’s widow and children to get to the United States. But the interpreter’s killing set something loose in him.
All the grief and anger that had been bubbling since Reichle and Daniels died and the loss of his first wife and unborn child began to surface.
He became obsessed with Iraq, spending his time buried in news reports, and he grew alienated from his family. He never really came back from Iraq, Crystal would say, and the disconnect was only worsening.
He yelled at the kids, who stopped wanting to spend time with him, and fought with Crystal, something he’d never done. She didn’t recognize her husband.
Things had not improved when Wellman deployed to Iraq again in 2005, as a public affairs officer, where he stayed out of harm’s way. After that deployment, Crystal finally laid down the gauntlet.
Either he sought counseling or she was leaving, she told him. Her bags were packed.
It was like “watching your child hurting and knowing you can’t fix it,” she said. “It’s the worst feeling in the world.”
Wellman was getting his masters of public administration at Harvard University in Boston on a midcareer fellowship. He sought counseling there, away from the prying eyes of the Army, which was not all that open to the mental health toll of war on its officers. He wasn’t diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and has not pursued a veteran’s disability rating.
It took time for him to find the right fit, but he settled on a therapist who told him: “You are going to Harvard. You are going back to Iraq. You have four kids — some teenagers. Key people in your life keep getting killed. If it was me, I don’t think I’d get out of bed in the morning.”
She told him he had too much stress, and when he was stressed, he made poor decisions out of anger. Find an outlet, she said. Go hiking or biking or running.
In 2007, for the first time since the loss of his men, Wellman could see how angry he’d become. He began acknowledging his darkest thoughts — of suicide — and began to respond less with anger and more with a realization that he had to pause sometimes.
He learned he could share those thoughts with Crystal and she would be there for him.
“We got to a place where I’d trust her enough that I could say: ‘Weird thought — putting a gun to my head. Do you do that?’ ” And she would answer, “ ‘That’s not normal.’ ”
In 2008, Wellman deployed again. He and Crystal agreed that this would be the last time. He returned and spent another year in service before retiring from the Army in 2010.
Later that year, Wellman founded his own public relations firm, ScoutComms, building on his defense contacts. He landed the Home Depot Foundation, which was looking for someone to help promote their charity work on housing for veterans.
ScoutComms began focusing exclusively on veterans’ issues as an advocacy and public relations firm.
The work changed his life.
That, coupled with joining Team Red, White & Blue, which brings veterans together through social and physical activities, helped Wellman realize how to carry the burdens of his wars.
He surrounded himself with like-minded people who understand what he has been through. They helped each other and healed together. He goes to parties with young veterans and marvels over their abilities to talk about their therapists over cocktails, and he knows that he’s found a place for his wars.
“I likened it to waking up,” said Wellman, now 50. “Once I woke up, I realized I was in a bad place and I just started being myself — a pretty happy-go-lucky guy, and spending more time with my kids and my wife.”
His wars still creep up on him.
On the anniversary, or when Feb. 20 rolls around and he’s once again consumed by the death of his men. Wellman gets agitated; he talks faster than normal; he snaps and bristles. And soon, he begins to spiral.
But Crystal, 45, knows the signs, and she’s ready to steer him back.
Much like one war’s lessons change the way men fight in the next one, so do its burdens. Wellman carried his wounds like a crucible, building on loss to keep his men safe and learning how to save himself.
Joining the National Desert Storm War Memorial Association board of directors — and offering to do its public relations — means confronting how that war still haunts him. But he says it is something he had to do.
He’s currently doing battle with Pentagon officials over why the government has no plans to commemorate the 25th anniversary.
“You wonder why Gulf War vets feel forgotten?” he said. “They are.”
Men often say they fight for the guy to their right and the guy to their left. Wellman will tell you: A warrior’s bond also means he owes it to them to remember.
When the stress gets to be too much, Crystal will look over at her husband and tell him it’s time for “a tune up.”
Wellman now knows to listen.
He will make an appointment with his therapist, talk things out and get back to his life — and to fighting for others like him who still struggle.