U.K.-based airmen retain unique memories of Iraq during war’s initial days
The war in Iraq is a different experience for every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine.
Be it a tense walk through a Baghdad slum, a stint inside the wire at Balad or a mission thousands of feet above the fighting, each military man and woman takes home different impressions of the war.
For Capts. James “Deuce” Cooper and David “Flik” Armitage, weapons officers for the F15-E Strike Eagles of the 48th Fighter Wing’s 492nd Fighter Squadron, the beginning of the war meant endless sorties to take out Saddam Hussein’s army while dodging anti-aircraft fire.
For Chief Master Sgt. Robert Henson, of the 48th Security Forces Squadron, last month’s passing of the five-year mark in the war brought memories of parachuting into northern Iraq and setting up runways to usher in an Army brigade.
Three flesh-and-blood cogs in a military machine that has fought a war going into its sixth year. Their comrades have their own stories to tell. More than 4,000 servicemembers, including the 48th’s Airman 1st Class Jason Nathan, never made it home to share those stories.
As the buildup to the war progressed in early 2003, Henson was stationed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, with the 786th Security Forces Squadron, part of a specialized Air Force group that had everything needed to drop in and prep an airfield for incoming ground troops.
“You jump in with about 1,000 people, you fight the enemy, then you bring in following forces,” Henson said of his mission with the 86th Contingency Response Group five years ago.
Along with 19 other airmen, Henson was assigned to parachute into northern Iraq and secure Bashur Airfield with about 1,000 soldiers from the Italy- based 173rd Airborne Brigade, essentially opening up the northern front of the invasion.
Henson and his fellow airmen needed to secure the runway for the stream of C-17s that would bring the other 3,500 173rd soldiers and a million pounds of cargo.
It wasn’t just Air Force police making the drop, he said. There were fuel guys, airfield managers and transport specialists required to secure the 8,000-foot runway.
“Everybody that’s needed to open an airfield parachuted in with us,” he said.
It was the first conventional Air Force unit to conduct such a jump, Henson said. Most of the time specialized units would handle such a task.
While Henson said he was excited to be on a mission he trained for so many times, the March 26 flight from Italy’s Aviano Air Base had everyone nervous and saddled with gear.
“Four and a half hours with all your gear really sucks,” he said. “My ruck alone weighed 88 pounds.”
He remembers the silence that filled the C-17’s hull as the men flew toward their drop point.
“But when the red light went on we knew we were jumping into combat,” Henson said. “I’ll never forget it.”
And there is another reason to remember the jump: It was Henson’s first combat jump since donating a kidney to his mother.
With only essential food, water and ammo, Henson readied himself as the aircraft quickly dropped from 20,000 feet to 800 feet for the jump.
Airmen and soldiers hit the ground and were met by a super-saturated landing zone, with rainwater and mud 3 to 4 feet deep at points, he said.
But soon airmen went to work preparing the landing strip as soldiers secured the perimeter. The troops met little resistance, he said.
Within 24 hours, C-17s were touching down and unloading their human cargo, Henson said. For the next two weeks, from dusk to dawn, the C-17s touched down and took off again.
With the brigade on the ground, the men next secured the airfield at Kirkuk.
These days, sitting at RAF Lakenheath and nearing retirement, Henson wears a combat star on his jump wings patch.
“When you train for something for so many years and you get to do it, it’s awesome,” he said.
Now in its sixth year, the war hasn’t gone quite the way Henson thought it would.
“Being part of the combat team that went in, I thought it’d be over in a year,” he said. “I’m surprised it’s going on this long. It’s quite a shock.”
While Henson and his men established the northern front, Cooper and Armitage arrived at al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar at the end of February 2003.
They’d be “wizzos,” also known as weapons systems officers, for the F-15Es of the 335th Fighter Squadron, under the command of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing.
At the war’s onset, both men said all they remember is flying. Constant flying.
“The first two weeks of the war, we flew every day, probably eight- to 10-hour missions,” Armitage said. “I don’t think I had a day off.”
As their jets landed, another jet would immediately take off, Cooper said, recalling a seemingly infinite line of aircraft ready to go airborne.
“It was 24/7, as many sorties as we could produce,” he said.
At that point, both men recall the 379th consisting of 48 F-15Es, six F-14s, 12-F117s, about a dozen Australian fighters, a squadron of British Tornado jets and 12 F-16s.
“It was one of the bigger air forces on the planet at the time,” Armitage said.
Once ground forces reached Baghdad, the missions slowed down a bit, the men said.
“The first month was the adrenaline rush,” Armitage said. “The 10 hours didn’t impact you that much. I would equate it to being like robots. You were running on adrenaline.”
The wing dropped more than 3,000 laser-guided bombs during those initial salvos.
Armitage’s and Cooper’s jets were loaded with nine of those 500-pound bombs, and every jet came back empty, they said.
At that point, the wizzos had to find and hit targets such as Iraqi tanks while being shot at themselves.
As U.S. troop lines advanced, Armitage recalled, he tried to calculate which side of the line he’d land on if he had to eject.
“The scariest thing was flying into Baghdad knowing people are shooting and trying to kill you,” he said.
Both men said they’re not sure if they are surprised by the war’s length.
“Everyone hoped to do the job right in hope of ending it quickly,” Cooper said.
Even from a vantage point high in the sky, the broad view of the Iraq war can be hard to grasp.
“I don’t think about where my slice of the pie goes into the game,” Cooper said.
“You’re just trying to fly one mission at a time and get back alive,” Armitage said. “You can’t fathom [the rest of the war]. You just sit there living each day.”