Servicemembers weigh in on Chinook tragedy in Iraq
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Soldiers and airmen say the downing of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter by a suspected surface-to-air missile Sunday is an understandable part of war, one that won’t change too many of their attitudes about flying in Iraq.
“You take a chance when you’re driving and you also do flying,” said Army Staff Sgt. Bill Orr of the South Carolina National Guard’s 251st Rear Area Operations Center. “There’s less of a chance of being killed flying than driving.”
“I’ll still fly,” said the 251st’s Maj. John Baird, without hesitation.
Baird spent seven months with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment at Al Asad airfield, where many of the soldiers killed in the crash were from. The soldiers were on their way to rest and recuperation outside Iraq when the incident occurred.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Andrew Mollo of the 101st Expeditionary Rescue Squadron took part in the recovery of the aircraft.
“You can’t let it change you or you shouldn’t be here,” he said. “I’m saddened … but it’s part of our business and mission.”
“I think it makes people more apprehensive, but they’ll still leave [on an aircraft] for R&R and leave,” said Army Staff Sgt. Paul Jacques of the Rhode Island National Guard’s 119th Military Police Company.
Spc. Matt Harwood’s last helicopter flight occurred after he was hit in the eye by fragments from a roadside explosive device two weeks ago.
Harwood, of the Arkansas National Guard’s 1123rd Transportation Company, said he now has concerns about flying.
“I wasn’t scared then; I just enjoyed the view with one eye,” he said. “Now it makes me nervous about going home.”
The shootdown “lets me know they’ve got the stuff to do that,” he said. “Before that, all I thought was they had [rocket-propelled grenades].”
Many say they think Iraqi resistance has changed in recent weeks.
“I think it’s stronger because of Ramadan,” said Orr, referring to the Arab world’s holiest month of the year. “It’s the radicals going at it.”
Jacques disagreed with the idea that resistance has increased.
“I don’t think it’s picking up, but they’re getting smarter,” he said. “They’re putting a little more thought into it. Their tactics are progressing steadily.”
“I think it’s getting stronger,” said Baird, “but it’s their last hurrah.”
Jacques agreed that the increase in action signals desperation.
“At the same time, we’re wearing them down,” he said. “We’re apprehending people almost daily and picking up weapons caches almost daily. It’s a slow, tedious process, just like they said in the beginning.”
No word on changes to flight ops
Military officials are tight-lipped on whether or not there will be any changes to helicopter flight operations in Iraq after someone shot down a CH-47 Chinook on Sunday near Fallujah.
A spokesperson at Baghdad’s Coalition Press Information Center said they would not discuss “the movement, or lack of movement, of aircraft” operating in Iraq.
Army aviation officials said that though the loss of an aircraft isn’t unexpected in Iraq, it shouldn’t lead to any drastic changes in procedures.
“We’re always looking at equipment and operating methods to mitigate risks,” said Lt. Col. James Larsen, executive officer for the Hanau, Germany-based 1st Armored Division’s 4th Aviation Brigade.
“We knew the risk coming in,” he said. “We’ve got a mission to accomplish and we’re going to accomplish it.”
The unit flies three types of helicopters out of Baghdad International Airport: the OH-58 Kiowa, AH-64 Apache and UH-60 Black Hawk.
— From staff reports