Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Family Black Sheep Flies a MEDEVAC Blackhawk

Brooklyn-born Amira Talifi, (not her real name) is a helicopter pilot I served with in the Army National Guard. She is one of seven children, the only one who is not a doctor, a lawyer or in finance.  She flies a MEDEVAC Blackhawk helicopter. Her parents wonder where they went wrong.
            When her parents came to America they were determined their children would work hard, go to college and then law school, medical school or into business.  Asian families that come to American, whether from Beirut, Baghdad, Bangkok or Beijing, are known for pushing their children toward professional success.  Amira followed the family program until age 20 in 2008 when she enlisted in the New York Army National Guard as a Chemical Specialist.  She chose that field because the armory she trained in was near her home in Brooklyn and the career field paid a $20,000 bonus.
            During her first two years in the Guard, she continued to attend college, though she switched her major from Philosophy to Industrial Organizational Psychology.  “I thought it made sense of the Army and how they do things,” she said.  While she switched her major, she continued with a minor in French.  But it was her ability to speak Arabic, which she spoke at home, that proved much more useful when she deployed to Iraq with a Military Police unit from Queens, New York.
            In 2010, Amira and her Military Police unit deployed to Iraq. They were attached to the 82nd Airborne Division.           
“When we first got Iraq we were under 82nd for about three months, then with 3rd Infantry Division,” she said.  The leadership of 3rd ID “approached my commander about getting females to come with them on their civil-military engagements. Iraqi females would come in and needed to be searched.”
“Whether we were the primary searchers or just supervising the Iraqi police women searching, they needed women,” Amira said.  “Then my commander said, ‘I have an Arabic girl for you.’ So I ended up going on every single one of those missions.”
Amira speaks fluent Arabic.  “The Iraqi dialect took a while for me to pick up, but once I did, I was good to go,” she said. I think I was pretty useful. I like being actively engaged.”
The desire to be actively engaged led Amira to switch from security to aviation when she returned from deployment in April 2011.  “I like being an expert,” she said.  “That’s what attracted me to being a pilot.”
            The switch from security to aviation became complicated. “New York had no slots for aviation,” she said. “People were on like a three to five-year waitlist. In New York, you go to the board. You do everything that you have to do, then you wait for your flight seat to come up, and then they give you two weeks notice, or a week’s notice, and you pack your bags and head down to Fort Rucker (in Alabama) for flight school.”
            She went to Pennsylvania and was accepted for the warrant officer flight program, even before she was officially a Pennsylvania National Guardsman.  “My full-time job was for the New York National Guard, and I didn’t want to leave that until I had my flight seat. So, Pennsylvania was nice enough to let me sit for the board, even though I was not a Pennsylvania National Guardsman. That’s not something that they normally do,” Amira said. “When they sent me to flight school, so I switched to Pennsylvania and haven’t looked back since.”
            The plan at the time was to become an NYPD officer after Flight School.  But after flight school, the plan changed. Amira moved to Pennsylvania to get in her required flight hours without the 100-mile drive each way from NYC. 
            “After being in flight school and, just thinking like long-term, what I want my life to look like, I don’t think I would be happy as a cop.” She said, “It’s not really my personality type. I realized I would like to make a career flying. Not necessarily helicopters. I like flying Blackhawks and doing Army missions, but airplanes interest me also, and I like the lifestyle of a commercial pilot. It’s nowhere near as fun as flying a helicopter. It’s just like, I mean helicopters are super exciting. But I don’t know if I want that excitement all my life.”
            She likes the intermittent schedule of the National Guard—one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer, maybe a few weeks of school here or there.  “It’s an escape from the real world,” she said. “You go away and it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m a soldier again’.
The reason I’m not active duty is because I like having a separate life and having my civilian life, my own apartment and all that.”
            In the Army the biggest step for an enlisted soldier is to be promoted to sergeant. Suddenly you are in charge.  And the senior leaders, if they are good, do their best to move you from the culture of “the guys” to the unit leadership. An even more jarring transition is to become an officer.  Your drinking buddies become the soldiers who salute you. Amira had that transition when her training overlapped with her former military police unit.  They were training at the base Amira was assigned as a pilot.  Her current unit was packing to leave while her former unit was arriving.  She was now an officer,  meeting up with people she served with in the enlisted ranks.
            I went over to their barracks and saw all my friends,” she said. “The people that I had been there in the dirt with. I showed them my uniform. They’re like, ‘Holy shit, Amira, you really did it. You’re really a pilot.’”
Amira was clear that the move up to the warrant officer ranks put her at the bottom of a different hierarchy.  “I may be a Warrant Officer instead of Specialist now, but I’m just a junior pilot,” she said. “I graduated flight school and the learning has just begun, but I know that being a pilot is not like you just graduate and bam you’re a pilot. It’s a lifetime of learning, but that’s what I signed up for.”
Five Years Later
I interviewed Amira several years ago shortly after she left flight school and was anticipating her first flights as Blackhawk pilot. In the years since we spoke, she has moved to central Pennsylvania and is one of the pilots in the MEDEVAC company that is part of the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade. 
Flight crews train on different schedules than the other soldiers in an aviation unit, so I only spoke infrequently to Amira in the years since she became a Blackhawk pilot.  About three years ago, she went to school and became a fixed wing pilot. She got a job with a regional airline.  She is a pilot in the Army and a pilot in civilian life. 
Her choice is not unusual. Although an airliner is vastly different than a combat helicopter, a lot of the skills are the same. Many men and women who fly in the military have aviation jobs in civilian life. In fact, one of the Army air traffic controllers who guide pilots in the 28th is a regional airline pilot in civilian life.  
Amira also has a quirky presence on Facebook unlike any other Army pilot I have followed.  Her page is jokes and comments about life in general and life as a pilot in particular.
Her sunny face on Facebook and her radiant smile on the flight line cover serious thinking and choices on her part. She started college as a philosophy major.  Though she switched to a business major, she speaks with passion and insight about classical and contemporary philosophers and about all the choices that add up to a direction in life. Amira is a Muslim woman in the U.S. Army, a combat veteran of Iraq, and a MEDEVAC pilot who could be called to serve in a war at any moment. 
While I was still serving with the 28th I wanted to write about Amira for an Army publication, but she gently refused. It would have been fun for me to write about her, but she lives in a culture that profoundly hates the media. Soldiers, from Generals to enlistees are mostly suspicious of the all media, even their own media.  So even if I wrote about Amira for an Army publication the soldiers she served with would be negative about her simply consenting to an interview. 
Amira is just over five feet tall with long black hair nearly to her waist that she ties up under her helmet to fly. She often flashes a bright smile, has a wicked sense of humor and is both an airline pilot and a MEDEVAC Blackhawk helicopter pilot, wearing a uniform for both jobs.  Did I mention she is funny?
Some of the funniest things she says are about dealing with men, both in an out of the Army.  Recently she posted this on Facebook:
How to get men to stop talking to you:

“You look exotic, where are you from?” 
“Oh I’m from the islands” 
“Which one?” 

            I never flew in her aircraft as a civilian or in the Army. MEDEVAC helicopters don’t carry passengers. But I would be happy to fly with Amira at the controls of any aircraft.  And it is interesting to see through social media how she navigates life in 21st Century America.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Book About A Martyr, Written by a Sellout

Two views of Flossenburg where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was murdered.

Eric Metaxas is a noted author and one of the most loathsome sellouts of the Trump era, rivaling Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham.

Why?  Because he knows just how evil Nazis are and despite that Metaxus is a drooling supporter of Donald Trump.

Seven years ago, Metaxas published a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a martyr to the Nazis. The biography makes clear Bonhoeffer was murdered by the racist Nazi regime.  Bonhoeffer was hung by the neck with piano wire by the Gestapo during the last month of the war.

Metaxas wrote a biography of martyr to the Nazis and then backed a Birther for President.  Not only a Birther, but a candidate who made a white supremacist his campaign manager.  And like Germans who saw more danger in communists than in Hitler, Metaxas backed a pussy-grabbing racist who has no need for forgiveness for President because he believed Hillary Clinton would be the ruin of America.

On June 20, 1939, Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran Pastor, left a safe haven in the United States for Germany. In just over two months, World War II would begin. Almost six years later Bonhoeffer would be murdered by the Nazis just before their final defeat in 1945. This summer, I visited seven Concentration Camps and Holocaust memorials, camps like Flossenburg where Bonhoeffer was murdered.

Bonhoeffer was safe and welcomed in the U.S.  Why did he return to Nazi Germany? He said:

I have made the mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make this choice in security.

After Charlottesville, Metaxas remains a supporter of Trump and therefore the "fine people" chanting "Jews will not replace us." He also brought a speaker to New York who believes the same Sharia-Law-in-Tennessee conspiracy theory believed by the Nazi and white supremacist marchers in Tennessee in October. Metaxas has even posted meme linking the shooter in Las Vegas with the shooter of Representative Steve Scalise.

On October 3 at the Union League in New York City, Metaxas had a $400 per person dinner to launch a new book he wrote about Martin Luther. Luther began the Reformation, but near the end of his life he had anti-Semitic rages.  Does Metaxas excuse Luther’s hatred Jews? I don’t know because I won’t touch the book.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

First Sergeant Santamaria

Like a black ash volcanic field, he seethes, he spouts, he sprays sulfurous jets.
Young soldiers scurry when he strides in their direction.
Officers smirk, but at a distance and out of sight, of the old
First Sergeant who could, who might, who will erupt at any moment.

"Fuckin' Liberals," he brays. "Faggots!"
Everyone in the Orderly Room turns to look.
No one is his target. Sulfur hangs in the air. He is quiet again.
"Mother of God" is his family name and the reaction his presence elicits.

A young sergeant lurks outside his door.
"What are you lookin' at?" Santamaria growls at the sergeant waiting for his signature.
"Could you sign this Top?" she says. She shrinks as she hands him the paper.
"What's this?" he booms. "Trying to get a discharge so mean old sergeants won't hurt your feelings?'

"My tent is ripped," she croaked.
"You allowed your Shelter, Combat, Individual to be ripped and damaged," he said
Rising to his full height and towering over the recently promoted NCO.
He barked, "Was it a party?" Top turned his head and continued.

"Sergeant First Class Schmidt, were you invited to the tent-wrecking party?"
"No Top," came a voice from an adjoining office. The smirk was audible.
"Give me that," said First Sergeant Santamaria, grabbing the paper.
"Invite Schmidt to the party next time, he's sad now."

"Yes Top," said the young sergeant backing out of the office and the
Orderly Room. 'Mother of God,' she thought as
She left for the supply room to get her tent repaired.
In Heaven, Mary sighed.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Eight Years Ago: Remote Refueling Site Drama

Army All-Terrain Refueling Truck HEMMT

Eight years ago, I was deployed in southern Iraq with an Army Combat Aviation Brigade. Among the nearly 2,000 soldiers were about 100 fuelers, the men and women who refueled helicopters. Some were stationed at our main base at Camp Adder, others were dispersed to bases all across the southern half of Iraq, from Camp Garry Owen on the Iran-Iraq border to Al-Kut to Basrah to Camp Normandy near Baghdad.

These remote detachments refueled helicopters at all times in all weather. Hours and hours of boredom could be broken up by a half-dozen Chinooks, Apaches or Blackhawks suddenly filling the fueling rigs. 

At Camp Normandy in the summer, one of the fueler sergeants made a pet out of a cat. Pets are against about a dozen regulations, but he managed to keep his new friend well hidden.  He named it Fluffy.  

One day in November 2009 he walked into the morning briefing visibly upset and announced, "We lost one of our own last night." The dozen soldiers in the room started whipping their heads around looking to see who was not at morning meeting.  Then someone yelled, "Who?"

The big sergeant said, "Fluffy! Somebody ran her over in the night.  She was stuck to a HEMMT tire this morning when I found her."

Several soldiers threw Gatorade bottles, a few threw helmets and chased the bereaved sergeant out of the tent.  

Refueling a MEDEVAC Blackhawk helicopter in Iraq, 2009

Monday, November 20, 2017

SPQR and America

Senatus Populusque Romanus
The Senate and People of Rome

Some of the soldiers I served with in Iraq talked about getting an SPQR tattoo.  "The Senate and People of Rome" was the motto of the Army of the greatest and longest lived empire in the ancient world. Although it's demise can be dated around 472 A.D. it arguably continued through the Roman Church and the empire in Constantinople through the present day.  The Roman form of government had a revival in the high regard our Founding Fathers had for Rome and its government.  The founders of America were sophisticated, multi-lingual men who thought Paris the center of civilization. They were men of the Enlightenment who thought theocracy and fundamentalism just as misguided as we think it is today.

I thought about the tattoo as I started yet another book by Hannah Arendt, a collection of her essays titled Between Past and Future. The introductory essay begins by saying the title is a description of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings.

Janus, the god of beginnings looking forward and back

Janus is the god of the daybreak, of the first day of every month and the first month of the year: JANU-ary.  The doors of the temple of Janus (the "Gates of Janus") were closed in times of peace and open in times of war.

The essay reminded me that the early leaders of Rome, as well as emperors as late as Vespasian,  closed the doors of the temple of Janus with a great celebration marking victory.  The gates were, of course, opened when the Roman army marched to war.

The soldiers in Iraq who thought of getting the SPQR tattoo saw the American Army in Iraq and Afghanistan as a revival of the Roman Army, making us the modern legions of that Army.  With armies, ships, aircraft and space vehicles circling the globe, America is a more global army than Rome could ever have dreamed of.

The soldiers did not know, nor did I at the time, that the SPQR tattoo was not for native Roman soldiers, but for mercenaries, slaves and gladiators.  Tattoos were not for citizens and were considered something for the low classes. 

The Roman government brought the idea of justice for all citizens of an empire into practice for the first time in human history.  That government relied on both law and tradition to continue and thrive for most of a millennia.  It thrived with men like Marcus Aurelius, for me the best of all the emperors, and survived horrors like Nero.

America has not closed the Gates of Janus since August 1945 with the defeat of Imperial Japan shortly after defeating Nazi Germany. With the Cold War beginning in 1947 followed by the Gulf War and the War on Terror, we may never close The Gates of Janus again.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Cold War Hero Who Served After 1991

Armand Lattes, Professor Emeritus of the University Paul Sabatier, Toulouse

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the world faced a plethora of problems. In retrospect, the world did not handle the demise very well. Russia and the other former Soviet states were broke and in collapse and armed with uncountable Weapons of Mass Destruction.  

In the 1940s and 50s, before the Soviets had nuclear weapons, their counter weapon to American and European nukes was nerve gas and other chemical weapons.  The Soviets manufactured thousands and thousands of tons of chemical weapons and stored them for the Doomsday attack.

In 1992 these undropped bombs and unfired shells were rusting and leaking in storage across the former empire that had no money.  If these chemicals leaked into waterways and into the air, illness and death would spread through and out of the former Soviet Union. 

The answer to the problem was a massive, long-term decontamination program.  One of the chemists who volunteered for this dangerous work was Professor Armand Lattes of the Univeristy Paul Sabatier in Toulouse. Every September from 1992 until I met him in 2006, Lattes flew to secret sites in the former Soviet Union and worked with international volunteers to neutralize this terrible stockpile of weapons.  Lattes continued his unheralded work for several years after we met until his  retirement.  

I kept in touch with Armand in the years since and still hope to visit him and his wife Isabelle at their home in Toulouse. I almost made it to Toulouse on my trip around Europe last summer, but never got to that part of France.  

When we hear of the latest terrorist attack on the news, we know that dozens more attacks were foiled by law enforcement working secretly to disrupt the terrorists.  Armand and the men and women he worked with saved countless lives and the world itself from the disaster of chemical weapons leaking into the air and water or being stolen and used by terrorists.  

Armand did his part to keep the weapons of the Cold War from killing after the demise of the Soviet Union.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Why is Veteran's Day Today? Who is a Veteran?

Almost 20 years ago when I had been a bearded civilian for more than a decade and was still almost ten years away from re-enlisting, I worked for a company with offices on five continents.  I went overseas every month for the three years I worked there.  In 1999, I was talking to one of my co-workers about my upcoming to several countries in Europe in mid-November.

I told her I would be in Paris, then Belgium, then I would have a meeting in Dusseldorf on the 11th before flying on to Singapore.  She said, "You can't meet on the 11th, it's a holiday."

"Not in Germany," I said.

Armistice Day, as it is know in Europe, is celebrated by all those on the winning side in World War I, it is a regular work day in Germany.

She didn't know that Veteran's Day is when the Armistice that ended World War I was signed in Versailles.  At 11 minutes after the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year, the war officially ended in 1918.  So the observed holiday can be moved, as it was this year, to give government and other workers a day off, but the actual holiday is the 11th of November.

Until 2009, I did not consider myself a veteran.  I had served during the Vietnam War, but not in the war. I served in the Cold War on the East-West border, but that war stayed cold until it ended.  It wasn't until I deployed to Iraq in 2009 that I became an actual veteran.

Murrie Hubbard, the only other person from my 1971 Stoneham High School class to enlist during the Vietnam War, went straight to Vietnam and was a civilian again by 1973.  He was a veteran. I tested missiles in Utah, I was not a veteran.  Four decades later we both are veterans.

Family Black Sheep Flies a MEDEVAC Blackhawk

Brooklyn-born Amira Talifi, (not her real name) is a helicopter pilot I served with in the Army National Guard. She is one of seven ch...