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Face of Defense: Aviator Nears 3,000 Combat Flight Hours

By Army Sgt. Travis Zielinski
Special to American Forces Press Service

CAMP TAJI, Iraq, Feb. 9, 2010 – Ask Army Chief Warrant Officer Anthony Potter what it takes to reach more than 2,000 combat flight hours and he'll tell you it requires the support of a loving family and fellow soldiers.

Before being a senior in high school, the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter instructor pilot from Company C, 3rd Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry, said he always knew that he wanted to fly; that he wanted to be a pilot.

So when it came time to choose a college, he made it abundantly clear aviation would be in his future.

After graduating from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University with a degree in aeronautical science, a prospective employer told the Waldorf, Md., native, that he lacked the maintenance experience required for the job. The comment later became the push which led Potter to the military.

Enlisting in the Army as an aircraft engine mechanic, Potter felt flying rather than fixing helicopters would be a better fit for him, so he decided to turn in a flight packet for warrant officer school.

"My maintenance platoon leader helped me put a packet together. I guess he saw the potential maybe," said Potter. "In 2000, I got picked up for warrant on the first look; it was just the luck of the draw."

Four deployments and 52 combat zone months later, Potter enjoys the notoriety of having logged 2,000 flight hours in support of various operations in the Global War on Terrorism. To date, he actually has a total of 2,700 hours.

He sees the 2,000 hours as a symbol of not only the work he has done in Iraq, but the work done to protect his son from harm. Potter said it also symbolizes the special dates missed, to include anniversaries, birthdays and holidays, as well as his son growing up.

"I have not been home for Thanksgiving once in the last six years. I saw my son take his first steps via webcam: the potty training - I didn't have any part of that," said Potter. "It is just the little things like that that I have missed and I will never get back."

The support his wife has shown him over the years, though, has kept Potter at a point where he can focus on his mission at hand and not have to worry about affairs back home.

"I could not deal with issues out here and deal with issues back home; my wife shelters everything that is happening back home from me," said Potter. "She handles everything. She has basically been a single mom for the last four years - I have the best wife in the world."

Having been away from home for the majority of his five-year-old son's life, Potter takes every opportunity to talk with him and hopes to never take those moments for granted.

"I call my wife every night; she tells me what is going on and how my son is doing and I talk to my son as much as I can so he gets to know me," said Potter.

Potter's first and second deployments were spent working as a medevac pilot, dealing with routine calls for patient transfers to urgent assistance of casualties resulting from a combat engagement.

"In the first nine months of being a deployed medevac pilot, my crew had done 189 urgent calls and transferred over 400 patients," said Potter. "I brought back seven dead soldiers, and that sticks with me ... I can still see all of them."

One of the most horrific memories of his time as a medevac pilot was the aircraft washes, which had to be done on a frequent basis because of all the blood remaining inside the aircraft from their patients, said Potter.

"The year was set at a fast pace because of the short number of crews and the amount of calls - it basically became a year without sleep," said Potter.

Despite the hard memories, Potter still has solid reasons to enjoy flying in a combat zone as compared to flying in the United States.

"I actually like flying in Iraq better, other than the part of being shot at," he said. "To me, it is easier to fly out here; the flying is more tactical versus the technical flying in the states."

Now filling the role of an instructor pilot in an assault helicopter battalion on this deployment, Potter's duties include making sure the aviators within his company maintain their abilities to pilot a Black Hawk to the highest standards.

"My job is easy to help train these guys; they are better pilots than I was when I was at their level," said Potter. "My job is to make sure they take care of the mission, but they are the ones actually doing the mission."

Potter said the ability to help mentor younger pilots while being deployed, hopefully making them better and safer, may also allow him to move to different positions where he can spend more time with his family.

"I feel guilty about being gone for so long. I just want my son with me all the time when I am home," said Potter. "My wife tells me I spoil our son, but I can't help it because I am gone so much."

Gone or not, Potter still has high hopes for his son, as do most fathers: "I can't wait until my son is old enough to reach the pedals so I can teach him how to fly."

(Army Sgt. Travis Zielinski is assigned to the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division.)

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