(The Ron Thurman Show, KSLR-AM, San Antonio, Texas, Interview with a Military Official Who Piloted Over the Iraqi No-Fly Zone.)
Q: Debate is expected to begin in the House and Senate this week on a congressional resolution which, would give President Bush authority to use military action if necessary against Iraq and Saddam Hussein. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made the point yesterday on how this is needed because the United States cannot trust Saddam as he has lied over and over. He also brought up how Saddam is defiant to international law and international rule when it comes to the no-fly zone.
Now a little history here. The southern no-fly zone in Iraq was established I believe in 1992, expanded it in 1996. The northern no-fly zone came into being in 1997. It is very obvious that Iraq has not figured out what the term no-fly zone means as they continue to attack allied aircraft.
Example. Since September 16th Iraq, has tried to shoot down 67 aircraft with 14 attempts coming this past weekend.
What is it like for our pilots that are part of these missions? What are they thinking? What do they think of the people like congressman McDermott who's actually in Iraq saying that Saddam can be trusted and our President can't?
Joining us, we have to use his code name, it's Star Baby. Hi, Star Baby, how are you?
Military Official: Hello. All right.
Q: Twenty-eight years in the business I've never had to interview anybody named Star Baby. [Laughter]
Military Official: Well, every squadron has a mongo or psycho or a killer. There's really only one Star Baby so it has its advantages.
Q: Okay. I've got to ask you this, though. How did you come up with the name?
Military Official: I knew you were going to ask that. It was aboard Wild Weasel Squadron in Saudi Arabia right after the Gulf War, and I showed up for my first assignment, a first lieutenant looking like a 17 year old in his dad's flight suit, and one of the pilots from the other squadron just tagged me with it. Naturally I hated it, and so it stuck.
Q: Do you have it on your plane?
Military Official: When it's painted on the aircraft it depends on what kind of lettering they use, but the last time I had one on, yeah, it said Star Baby on the side with the rest of the name.
Q: I think that's awesome.
We have an awful lot of military that listen to our show. I've got some people that are actually trainers, pilot trainers down at Randolph Air Force Base. Have you ever been stationed there by the way?
Military Official: No, I've no more than passed through.
Q: We have a lot of military personnel who I'm sure are anxious and I promised all of them that I would not ask anything that would in any way, shape or form could be used against our country, so I promise you that.
I'm more interested, Star Baby, give us a sense of what a mission is like. You're told to do something. What are the feelings you go through prior to a mission?
Military Official: There's a great deal of preparation prior to a mission. Basically we go through a brief and we review the intel, the area we're going to operate, the time we're going to operate on, and as much information as we can about what the Iraqis have been doing lately.
You brief the mission, take off, you refuel, and you go into the no-fly zone.
Now there have been times in the past when that was very much routine because there was an awful lot of boredom. Recently, in the past couple of years, it has gotten a lot hotter so you go in with the realization that you need to be on your toes because odds are that, any tour you give odds are good you're going to be shot at or somebody else in your flight or in the flight a couple of miles over is going to get shot at. And that the enemy is always going to have the initiative. They get to take the first shot.
Q: Do you get -- I don't know if you know my background, but I also do play-by-plays for college football on TBS. I talk to players on Saturdays who are standing there three hours before the kickoff and they always tell me about the adrenalin that's pumping in their bodies right before the game and they're getting psyched up.
Do you do that? Are you allowed to have your body go through that? Or do you have to try and temper that at all times and remain calm because of the danger that you're involved in?
Military Official: Routinely for a no-fly zone mission I really don't have the adrenalin running until something kicks off.
Now for a straight combat mission where I know I'm going to go out and we're going to drop bombs, like for example over Yugoslavia, I would be nervous right up to the point where we crossed a hostile border. Reviewing what I'm going to do, the plan, the target, everything. Particularly if the guy's a mission commander he's got a whole bunch of other jets to worry about. But personally, once I cross the border I just don't give it any thought.
Q: Do you ever give your own mortality a thought?
Military Official: Yeah, absolutely. Because really you'd have to be an idiot not to. But part of the key is that that doesn't really prevent you from doing what you need to do. The idea is that you train and you plan to avoid that. You think of what might go wrong, how am I going to handle it. That even goes up to what do I carry on my person if I have to walk home.
Q: No kidding. What do you carry?
Military Official: There's always the standard survival kit. A lot of guys, and I'm one of them included, I have a personal survival kit in addition. I carry extra knives because it's a great tool, I've got a leatherman on my boot, I carry a water filter and some extra water bags and some vitamin pills. Actually generally two water filters. When they let me get away with it, extra ammunition.
Q: No kidding. You've got to have permission for that?
Military Official: Yeah.
Q: Okay. Tell them I said it was all right. [Laughter] Star Baby, I want you prepared, my friend.
Now let's get back to Iraq, the no-fly zone. You said obviously it had become routine. What is it like? Do you know -- When do you get the idea that you're being shot at during these missions? Is it on your radar? I'm not a pilot, so give us a sense of what that's like.
Q: It depends on what they're doing.
If they're firing large anti-aircraft artillery, we refer to it as AAA. So if they're firing large calibers the first warning you might get of that is when you get a puff of black smoke somewhere nearby where you can see it. There's no radar guidance with most of that stuff. It just explodes. It's like if you watched a 2nd World War movie and you see the black puffs, the flack coming up. That's what it's like.
You might see a muzzle flash. There's plenty of times I've seen muzzle flashes and never seen a round because it's smaller caliber stuff.
If it's a missile shot you might see the missile come off the rail. Your radar warning gear might tell you that you're being locked up.
One time I was engaged in the northern no-fly zone and the missile warning went off and Bat was in the front seat, and we put the nose down and ran away bravely and I never actually saw the missiles come off the rail. Two of them came off the rail and we didn't see them because they were behind us and high. They were launched in our blind spot. Until they went high and detonated well behind us.
So eyeballs are always a good sensor and you have the radar warning gear to help you out.
Q: I remember talking to a pilot one time, he said when something like this happens your training, it's like flipping a switch. All of a sudden you're locked in to what you trained for and you don't panic, and it seems like you're almost like at peace. I've got to do X, Y and Z to get out of this situation. Is that what it's like for you?
Military Official: Largely that's the case. In the engagement I was talking about if you played the tape back you'd find that I made the defensive call on the radio, and my voice was absolutely the same way it is every other day. Now I'm not guaranteeing that's always the case but it was then. It was purely a training issue. I'd thought that out.
Q: Do your personal feelings ever come into play when you're up there and you're being shot at by the Iraqis? I don't think I'm breaching any confidence here, but sometimes you want to go I wish they'd just let us go down there and take care of these people? Do you get mad?
Military Official: I wouldn't say I get mad. There is an annoyance factor. But it's important to realize when you're dealing with an adversary that the guys on the other end are human beings too. If you get to the point where you dehumanize the enemy you're really going down the wrong trail as a fighter and as an American.
So do I get mad? No, I don't get mad. Most of my flying has been doing defense suppression. Wild Weasels, we go out and hunt down enemy surface-to-air missile sites, radar-directed guns, and try and kill them before they're a threat to friendly aircraft.
The fact is when you look on both sides of the conflict, each of us have a job to do. It's just my job to be better at mine than he is at his. So I don't get angry is somebody shoots at me. In most cases there's nothing you can do about it anyway so it's fairly pointless. That's at the individual level.
If you look at the big picture, yeah. I may be annoyed at Saddam, for example, for getting his own people into the situation. When he orders a shot, when a shot's taken he doesn't pay any price. It's some guy down at the far end of the line that pays the ultimate price for that one.
But personally I do try to maintain the point that if, I want to make it as dangerous as possible a proposition to shoot at me or anybody in my flight or anybody in my package.
Military Official: Sorry about that.
Q: Don't worry about it. Our government at work. [Laughter]
Military Official: Pentagon wiring.
Q: Pentagon wiring, okay. We'll cut you slack on that.
Am I allowed to ask you have family?
Military Official: Sure, you're allowed to ask.
Q: You're not going answer it though, right?
Military Official: No, I am. I have a wife and two kids.
Q: Let me ask you this. How does your wife deal with you going on these missions over the no-fly zone knowing now the intensity that's behind them and when you hear the reports of, since September 16th, 67 aircraft have been shot at, 14 coming this past weekend. How does she deal with it?
Military Official: She's known this, and I've been doing this for awhile, and she's been aware. It's actually a lot rougher on her than it is on me. She's distant. She's not there with me. She might get the e-mail once a day kind of thing, the occasional phone call, but she just deals with it because she's always dealt with it. She knew -- I can't say she knew what she was getting when she got into this 14 years ago, but she's learned to adapt. She's very bright. She worries, but she knows that there's very little she can do about it at that point and she knows that my plan is to come home.
Q: How about your kids? What do you tell your kids before you go on one of these missions?
Military Official: Well, I'm not sure that Devon, the younger one, will ever forgive me for Allied Force because I was away for a long time. But my eldest, I guess was four at the time. We just told him, for example, again, for Allied Force over Yugoslavia, that I was going away and I was in Italy. He picked up everything else he needed to know from the news. I talked to him one day and he says hey, dad, are you guys winning the war against the Serbs?
Military Official: I was like wow. I knew you were pretty bright, but that's pretty good for a four or five year old.
So the kids pick up quite a bit.
Q: And now that this no-fly zone has become incredibly dangerous, do you think there is going to come a time that we are -- Are we getting close to that time when you will be deployed over there and the rest of the men and women that serve our country so well, that are going to be deployed over there and we will go to war? And are we prepared to do that considering what's going on in Afghanistan?
Military Official: I'm not in a fighter squadron right at the moment, but from a fighter squadron standpoint you never know when you're going to go. Because there's always some degree of you wonder what's going on, what the timeline is, but most of the times I've gone some place where it looked like it was going to get hot, it was fast. You know, you get a call and 24 hours later you're in another country on the ramp unloading your bags from the cargo pod.
As to what we're capable of doing, Afghanistan isn't really a major theater war. It really stresses logistics because it is so distant and the basing structure is so limited. But there's still a substantial amount of leftover capability that we don't use in Afghanistan and we're certainly not using now.
So from a combat forces standpoint, sure. There's plenty of capability to go around, a lot of very well trained folks. But you've got to remember, of course, that amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics. And when you're talking a big warfight it's all about logistics.
Q: Uh huh. And I want to give you one opportunity here because we are very, very proud of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld down here. I think he has done a spectacular job. I think the President has been outstanding in building our military up over eight years, and I can say this, this isn't you so I take full credit for this, eight years of having our military looked down upon, and I'm very proud of the job you do and the hundreds of thousands of others that do serve our country and allow me to do my job. We do appreciate it. On a side note, Star Baby, I'll tell you that right now.
But what's it like having a Commander-in-Chief that you can trust?
Military Official: I've been doing this for awhile and it's not like that hasn't happened before. However, it's certainly different with the change of Administrations and it's a lot more comforting because it's a different view from the top. I think when you talk about the military as a whole there's a degree of respect that goes both ways and it's more comforting to have that than when you're not sure that there is a degree of respect going either way. How's that for that question?
Q: No, that's what -- I agree. The greatest teams I've ever covered, the players have respect for their coaches and the coach has respect for their players. It's been a slam dunk. You look at every major league team, I don't care what sport it is, on the college or professional level, that's the way it is, and I have a sense that's probably the way it is with the military. Fair statement?
Military Official: That's a reasonable statement when you talk about the military as a whole. I think if you looked at historic example of where we got some danger, you might take a look at the MacNamara years in Vietnam.
Q: Well Star Baby, I appreciate your spending some time with us and giving some insight. It is an incredible situation and I think the people in this country don't understand that our pilots and our men and women overseas right now, even though it's a no-fly zone, we're not technically at war with Iraq, there's still a great deal of danger and we need to keep you and all of your friends in the service in our prayers. We appreciate you stopping by and spending a few minutes with us today.
Military Official: Sure. You're welcome.
Q: Be careful. God bless you and your family, my friend.
Military Official: Thank you,
Q: Bye bye.
Military Official: Bye.