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A Nightmare's Prayer: A Marine Harrier Pilot's War in Afghanistanby Michael Franzak
There are certain events in life one never forgets. The morning of October 7, 2002, was one of those times. I was deploying for combat. I was stepping inside the ring.
During my seventeen years of military service as a navy enlisted man and later as a Marine officer, I had deployed overseas five other times. I had served on the USS Ranger in the Persian Gulf in the early 1980s as a young sailor, loading bombs and missiles on jets. After earning my commission and wings, I flew Harrier jets across the Pacific Ocean, island hopping from California to Hawaii, to Wake, to Guam, to Japan and back the other way—twice. I had also spent months at sea, flying Harriers from small deck carriers supporting operations in Somalia, Kuwait, Australia, and other locales.
Those deployments and the men I had served under helped shape me for what I was now going to undertake. But some things can’t be taught. This deployment was different. Secrets buried deep floated upward, echoing the promise I once made. No one knew the promise except me, but that was enough. The product of a transgression in a dark past, the promise was an attempt to escape guilt.
It happened in flight school, shortly before my winging in 1990. A moment of indiscretion and everything changed. I hardly knew the woman but she bore my son some nine months later and named him so. Though her aim was that of greater intentions, I had no such notions. But I loved the boy. I tried very hard to be a good father, writing letters and making telephone calls and visits as the years passed, but the reality I learned was that I was a father in name only. I was hardly there. Visits once, perhaps twice a year could not forge the bond a boy needs from his father.
As time wore on I swore to never fail any future child of mine, to always be there—physically there. Now, as I prepared to leave, the promise and guilt returned. I was a father again, happily married with an eleven-month-old son, but I was leaving him. Though the reasons appeared valid, I questioned my motives. Was I going because my country needed me or was I going for selfish reasons?
I turned and looked at the jets glistening in the morning sun. As the Arizona dawn breathed light into a new day, my thoughts swirled in the guilt before finally deciding to settle on a moonless night some ten years earlier.
My relationship with the Harrier was different from that of most pilots. It was love-hate. I loved the airplane for the thrill she gave, but I hated her for the friends she took. My bond with her had been forged in blood on August 16, 1992, in Kuwait, just south of Iraq. It was my first deployment as a pilot. I and nine other pilots formed the Harrier contingent of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) aboard the USS Tarawa. As our ship entered the Persian Gulf, the detachment of AV-8B Harriers was granted a two-week training hiatus in Kuwait. It was a place for us to hone our “night attack” skills. Then, on one hot August night, three of us landed and waited for the fourth. But he never returned. We waited and joked that he must have had a total electrical failure and landed at some obscure airfield—that he would have the last laugh. As the minutes turned to hours the impending doom became palpable, but no one spoke of it. Then reality struck. News arrived that a fireball had been spotted in the desert just south of the Iraqi border. The words froze each of us in that second, time stopped, and silence consumed us. Then we separated like remnants of a meteor bursting in the sky, each fragment on its own disparate vector, no one saying a word, each within his own gravity and guilt. I opened the door and stepped back into the unforgiving night, unsure of my destination. Hot, humid blackness devoured me, the tarmac sticky and warm against my soles. I shuffled forward toward the jets. I found her at the end of the row—the girl I had just flown. I didn’t cry. I just talked to her. Rip was gone. His flesh and bones, torn to pieces no bigger than his hand, lay strewn across miles of desert he neither knew nor loved. I wondered how it happened. The investigation in the following days only raised more questions. But the thoughts that haunted me that night were of the wife who would give birth again in three weeks and a three-year-old son who would never again see his father.
That was ten years earlier. Now it was 2002 and I was deploying again. I was also wondering if we’d all return. I turned my gaze away from the flight line and toward the shouts and yells that surrounded me, mostly kids playing.
It was strange to see so many civilians in the hangar, especially women and children. Once or twice a year they filled the hangar, usually at the squadron Christmas party, air show, or change of command. But the women and children were strangers here. That was clear to the Marines who slaved in its confines, the mechanics who kept the troublesome Harriers aloft, who spent more hours inside the hangar than they spent at home. The floors had been mopped clean of JP-5 jet fuel and hydraulic fluid, leaving the hangar pretending to be something it wasn’t. Tables filled with cookies, coffees, and Cokes replaced the jets, forklifts, and cranes. On the walls banners hung: “Good Luck Nightmares,” “We love you Gunny Rod,” “Semper Fi Nightmares.” There was even the ubiquitous “Let’s Roll.”
Kathleen Dixon, the wife of my boss, Lieutenant Colonel Jim “Grouper” Dixon, pulled a Kleenex from her purse, knelt down, and wiped it against the face of her youngest son. The boy seemed annoyed by the gesture as he tried to pull away from his mother’s strong grasp. “Hey, Kathleen, how are you?” I asked. Kathleen had been the focal point for the squadron wives over the last three months. She dealt with the countless complaints and meaningless gossip that can cripple a unit before or during a deployment. As the emotional storm swirled around her, she appeared calm and not the least bit frazzled by tugging currents. While the commanders reaped the accolades, their spouses never received enough recognition for their mystical and often unseen labor.
“Shit, Zak, you know how I am. But thanks for asking.” Kathleen’s candor was always refreshing given the number of pretentious spouses who attempted to wear their husband’s rank on their collar.
“Kathleen, it’s going to be OK. Grouper didn’t leave anything to chance. He rode us like dogs over the last few months.”
“You don’t have to tell me, Zak. I live with the man.”
Kathleen’s banter had a way of reducing the stress. She understood that. She had to. The crashes and funerals endured over the years created a callous layer—a shield—but it did not deter her purpose. Kathleen’s role was as critical as that of her husband, the two of them holding the squadron together, although at different ends. Grouper with the Marines in Bagram, Afghanistan, and Kathleen with the families in Yuma, Arizona.
The pilots suited up and climbed into their jets. I wanted to be in that first wave, but Grouper had directed me to remain behind and secure the hangar after everyone left. I would be the last Nightmare to leave. I was in charge of locking the doors and turning out the lights.
I pulled the small digital camera from my flight suit and began taking pictures. I felt uneasy, like an intruder, as I captured the sobbing eyes and tearful hugs of families saying good-bye. But I had promised myself two things regarding this deployment: take pictures and keep a journal.
As a young boy, I had listened to the stories of my grandfather. He had fought on Iwo Jima as a navy Seabee during World War II. His stories enthralled me with adventure as he described driving a bulldozer while enemy Japanese shot at him. But memories fade with time. Facts become distorted and the lines between reality and fiction blur. I wanted a way to preserve the present without relying on aging memory. Starting the journal would be easy. Maintaining it, harder.
The Harriers cranked up on cue. Within a few minutes, the radio in the squadron ready room crackled. The lead tanker aircraft was “up.” The mission was a “go.” Captain Toby Moore and I were the designated backups. I’d jump into the ground spare if anyone went down in the chocks while Toby would fly the airborne spare to the first refueling point. If the primary jets’ aerial refueling systems checked out airborne, Toby would return to Yuma, shut down, and jump into the C-130 with me and twenty other Marines designated as trail maintenance crew.
The Harriers taxied out single file as families waved frantically. I watched my wife, Katie, tighten her arms around our son, Caleb. Her eyes narrowed as the jets roared down the runway. A tear came to her eye. I looked away and toward the Harriers. The jets circled around to the south and passed over the airfield in a tight wedge formation. The friends and families of the Nightmares waved as the Harriers rocketed overhead. But I knew the pilots didn’t see anyone below. They stared intently to their left or right, maintaining a position so that wingtips didn’t touch, while the thunderous roar of the Pegasus motors drowned out both the cheers and cries below. The noise faded as the jets climbed eastward, shrinking to dots in the dark blue, then vanishing.
Family members held each other in tearful hugs. The only ones not crying were children, who either played or stared vacantly upward as if searching unseen ground while those taller looked down upon them and thought silently—Daddy is going away for a long time. He’s going to war.
“Well, babe, there they go. Do you want to hang out until I have to leave in the C-130?”
“No, Mike. I think I’ll head home. Caleb’s tired. It’s been a long morning. You have things you need to do and we’ve already said good-bye.” She was aiding me. I knew it, but my body froze and my eyes welled. Any previous excitement about untold futures faded. A helpless feeling overcame me. For the first time, I didn’t want to go. I stared at Katie. I didn’t know what to say or do. An uncomfortable silence hung there. Seeing my paralysis, she stepped forward. I gripped my arms around her and the boy, who was still wearing his yellow earplugs. Their touch brought me back to the moment and the crux of it all. Why should others risk their lives and not me?
I released them, Katie saying nothing but nodding slowly, a cautious smile on her lips. I kissed her and then Caleb. She wheeled around and I watched as her five-foot-one-inch, ninety-five-pound frame drifted away. Caleb, looking over her shoulder, stared back at me. He didn’t smile or cry. He just looked at me as a one-year-old does—his head bouncing to the rhythm of his mother’s steps, their bodies sliding off toward a distant door in the hangar corner. I choked back all sounds as if under the direction of some long-forgotten drill sergeant. Unconsciously my hand rose as if ignoring the script and waved good-bye to Caleb, who could see me, and Katie, who could not. Then the hangar door opened and closed and they were gone.
© 2010 Michael Franzak
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