Friday, September 18, 2009

Who Fights This War?

Until September 11, 2001, Michelle Delta made family her first priority. On that terrible Tuesday Delta was a 35-year-old single woman living in her own house in Bridgeville, Delaware. In the months that followed, she decided to give up her shop supervisor job and put America at the top of her priority list and, with no military experience at all, joined the Army National Guard in May of 2002.

In August she went to basic training. “I was very naive,” Delta said. “Soldiers were heroes. I am not sure what I really expected, but when I got to basic training I was in a holding area with more than 20 girls between 18 and 21 years old. On the other floors of our training area were hundreds of young men the same age. They were kids.”

All through basic Delta helped to take care of and watch over the ‘kids.’ In basic Delta received extra responsibility because of her age and rank—her college degree allowed her to join as a Pvt. 1st Class. All of her drill sergeants were younger than her. It was not easy for her to go from living half her life as an independent adult, to getting yelled at “…by a cocky little punk younger than me,” she joked.

But she has the kind of personality that galvanizes with hardship. Her father died when she was eighteen leaving two younger siblings with her step-mother. When her step-mother passed in 1994, Delta became legal guardian of the two. “You do what you have to do,” she says. Delta’s life changed from that point. “The kids had problems. You lose your father and mother at an early age and it is tough to move on.” Deltas’ sister was shot five times in 1996 and managed to survive. By the time Delta left for basic, the children were in their early twenties and on their own.

Delta trained to be a CH-47 Chinook aircraft mechanic, came home and landed a job as an Army technician for the National Guard. She went from almost 36 years of civilian life to working in uniform full time.

In 2005, Delta went to school to be a flight engineer. She was a sergeant and finding that the military is not always an easy place for a woman. “Yes we are all soldiers but we are not always treated equally” she said. “You have to choose your battles wisely”.

In 2008 her unit got the alert order for deployment and in January of 2009 moved to Fort Sill, Okla., for pre-deployment training. In one of the quirks that lead to jokes that never stop, Staff Sgt. Michelle Delta is a flight engineer in Delta Company. “The Delta jokes are just part of the deal,” she says with a weak smile.

In April, her unit arrived in Iraq with the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade and was station at Contingency Operating Base Adder, Iraq. “We were supposed to be going to Balad, but were redirected when we arrived in Kuwait,” she said.

Once the birds and support equipment arrived in, all of the flight operations had to be set up, then the night missions started. “Sometimes we fly five nights in a row and get to be airfield boss on the sixth night. Other times the sandstorms move in and we don’t get off the ground but it gives us a chance to work on our aircraft. We usually work long days and it’s tough on everyone.”

Since starting the deployment Delta and her fellow Chinook crew members have prepared the ships for missions, the door gunners mount and arm the three machine guns on each bird and make sure the pilots’ weapons are ready for use. The cockpit crew does the pre-flight inspection. Delta says “We are all a team and each of us has our section of responsibility”.

Their day is just beginning when, for most of the other soldiers, the day is winding down. The aircrews sit together the whole length of two or three tables with eight soldiers on each side at the dining facility. They laugh, joke and speculate about where they might be going and whether they will be flying. Weather and last-minute changes cancel some missions.

After dinner, they return to the large company headquarters building near the airstrip and wait for the mission. If the mission goes, Delta and her crew will usually fly hundreds of miles in heavy body armor peering through night-vision devices manning their weapons. They will move cargo or passengers to many different locations through-out the night.

If the mission is scrubbed they go back to the flight line in the dark, dismount the guns, and tie the bird down for the night. “If the mission is scrubbed and we leave early, it gives us a chance to go back and do laundry,” Delta said. “When we fly, we get back late, do all the post-flight work, daily inspections, and grab a few hours sleep before we are back again.”

Delta loves what she is doing but has not decided on whether she will stay in the National Guard as a career or not. “I am 43 now. I will be 56 when I get out, if I stay for 20 (years),” she said. “That’s a long time and this can be a physically demanding job. But I am going back to my technician job for now. I’ll see what the future holds when I get back.”

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