Fliers Share Enduring Freedom Experiences at Andrews Open House
By Sgt. 1st Class Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 17, 2002 Joint Chiefs Chairman Air Force Gen. Richard Myers called this year's Armed Forces Day "a bit special" because America's freedoms came under attack since last year's observance of the annual event.
"We should always remember those who defend that freedom," Myers told the crowd at the Joint Service Open House to commemorate Armed Forces Day at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.
To that end, the Defense Department made troops who have served in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan available to the public and the media to share their experiences.
"See for yourself the unmatched excellence of your armed forces," Myers said to the audience.
Air Force Capt. Jeff Graham, an EC-130 pilot, didn't lose his sense of humor during his three-month stint in Afghanistan.
Graham is a member of 355th Wing, 41st Electronic Combat Squadron from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base Tucson, Ariz. He explained that his unit's mission is to go into an area before conventional ground and air forces and render the enemy's communications useless.
"We're jammers," he said.
He told of one particularly humorous incident he remembers. "We were flying over Afghanistan one evening and people were pretty tense, because we knew we had an important mission and it's an intense situation," he said.
Crewmembers were keeping a close watch out the windows looking for enemy artillery when something caught the eye of a young enlisted airman who was looking out the right side of the aircraft.
"I was flying in the right seat, and he says, 'Look at that huge fire on the right side of the airplane,'" Graham said, barely suppressing his laughter as several of his unit mates chuckled nearby remembering the incident. "I looked out there and said, 'That's the moon, Dude.'"
Apparently the crewmember had been spooked by a bright red ball he took to be flame but was really the moon rising over the mountains.
Graham and other members of his unit were out of the country on a training mission Sept. 11, but it didn't take long for word to reach them. "My shock was the same as most Americans," he said. "I was like, 'Can that really happen?'"
Within 24 hours they were headed home to prepare for the mission ahead. "It was really eerie, because all the planes had been grounded," Graham said. "We came in through Canada and flew direct to Tucson, and the radios were really quiet."
Air Force Lt. Col. Bill Reaves, the squadron's operations officer, said he knew right away that his unit would likely be part of the American response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Our aircraft is an LDHD - low-density, high-demand -- asset," Reaves explained. "There's not a lot of us. Usually if there's something going on somewhere, we're going to be a part of it. We pretty much knew."
Still, Graham was humble about his role in Operation Enduring Freedom. "I was glad I could play a little role in what was going on to defend the United States," he said. "I definitely wanted to be home, back with my loved ones, but it was something that had to be done. We were all proud to be there, and we were all ready to pitch in and do our part."
Navy F-14 Tomcat pilot Lt. John Saccomando was aboard the USS Carl Vinson in the second month of a six-month deployment on Sept. 11. The aircraft carrier was airing CNN live, so the crew knew immediately what had happened.
He said personal communications from the ship were immediately suspended, but they could still receive incoming e-mail messages.
"We were receiving worried-sounding e-mails from our families, but we couldn't respond, and we couldn't ask them any questions," Saccomando said. "We were worried about everybody back here, and all they could think about was worrying about us."
The Carl Vinson was almost immediately reassigned to an area off the coast of Pakistan, and Saccomando took part in the first bombing raids in Afghanistan Oct. 7.
He described the surreal experiences he had approaching the Afghan capital of Kabul. Saccomando said he and others in his unit stood on the deck of the Carl Vinson watching Tomahawk missiles launching from the smaller ships around the carrier before they took off for Kabul themselves.
But F-14s travel a lot faster than Tomahawk missiles, so Saccomando and his squadron mates later took off, fueled three times en route, and were about 10 minutes out with Kabul in sight when the missiles began hitting their targets.
"We'd look down and see the explosions everywhere," he said. "And as soon as those explosions started, that's when the surface fire started coming up."
He said the enemy forces there were firing large surface- to-air missiles, smaller hand-held rockets, and large- caliber anti-aircraft artillery. "We stayed really, really high to try and stay out of their envelopes," Saccomando said.
He would go on to fly 40 more missions before returning to the United States in mid-December. He said the outpouring of support he received from his wife and family was unbelievable the entire time he was away from home. Even though he couldn't respond, his wife kept his inbox full. It was several weeks after Sept. 11 before the unit was allowed to send personal e-mails.
And when he got home, his wife had put a bumper sticker on her car that read, "I love jet noise."