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Soldiers of the Skies
Soldiers of the Skies opens on August 2, 1990 the day that Iraq invaded Kuwait and follows Matt Brown, an air force pilot in the famed "Rocketeers" of the 336th Fighter Squadron. The story follows Matt and his fellow soldiers for 10 years through the Gulf War, Middle Eastern War and Libyan War.
Soldiers of the Skies opens on August 2, 1990 the day that Iraq invaded Kuwait and follows Matt Brown, an air force pilot in the famed “Rocketeers” of the 336th Fighter Squadron. The story follows Matt and his fellow soldiers for 10 years through the Gulf War, Middle Eastern War and Libyan War. The book stays true to history until 1992 when Yassir Arafat is assassinated by militant extremists known as the Jihad. They use his assassination as a unifying point to electrify an insurgency into Bosnia/Herzegovina and later seize control of Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria and invade Israel initiating the Middle Eastern War, the extremists now going by the name ‘The Brotherhood of Islam’, wage a ruthless war. The Middle Eastern War forces President Clinton who has become a victim of circumstance to withdraw from the 1996 election; moralist Bill Bennett gets elected President by the smallest margin in history. The war ends when allied forces defeat The Brotherhood of Islam with a series of nuclear attacks on Tehran, Damascus and an attack on the dam in Baghdad that floods the city. International tension shifts to Korea where the 336th squadron attacks Pyongyang following a Korean missile test over Japan. The novel concludes at the end of the Libyan War that is started when a terrorist attack strikes U.S. cargo
The sun rose slowly as I looked across the hardened runway. I was standing in my dark green flight suit. I saw my reflection in a puddle of water on the runway by my feet. My brown hair was glistening with sweat soak. I felt tired and exhausted. It was August 2, 1990, and I had graduated from fighter weapons school just hours ago. I just finished two hours in the flight simulator. “You can never too be prepared,” they always told us. I was heading over to our barracks where our new assignments were posted. I graduated near the head of the class and was able to pick my Squadron—the 336th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the Rocketeers. I would be an Eagle driver in a few hours, as soon as I caught a transport to North Carolina. I was anxious, nervous, and excited all at the same time. The walk was a short one. I walked through the door, and the barracks were mostly deserted. I walked up to the bulletin board and found my name. There was a transport leaving for Denver in two hours.
After a short flight, I checked into a hotel, as most of us did to have one day not on an airbase. I hung my clothes and collapsed on the bed to catch up with my sleep. The phone rang, inferring with my nap, stealing the much-needed sleep that I hadn’t been getting for the better part of two weeks. I reached out from my slumber, clumsily knocking the phone off the hook. As I fumbled for the phone, I wondered who was calling me.
“Hello?” I said through a throaty, sleepy voice
“This is Major Makato Sakamoto, Executive Officer of the 336th Tactical Fighter Squadron. I am calling to inform you of a change of orders. Report at 0600 tomorrow morning to Peterson Air Force Base for reassignment.”
“Information will be provided as needed, Lieutenant.”
The phone went dead. I sat up in bed and hung the phone on the receiver. Two seconds later, my phone rang again. What is going on? I wondered. My confusion was growing.
“Brown, this is Grant, one of the other FWS grads that has been assigned to the 336th”
“I’m heading down to the bar. Are you up for a drink?”
“Always,” I answered. “I’ll meet you down there.”
I jumped up from my bed, took a quick look in the bathroom mirror, and headed down to the elevator. As I was standing there wondering what was going on, a blond man just over six feet tall walked up to me.
“Are you in the Air Force?” he asked.
His face was familiar. I vaguely remembered him from fighter weapons school. I answered with a question, “Yeah, weren’t you at Pope?”
“Yeah.” He extended his hand. “Art Fairgate.”
We shook hands as the elevator door opened to the hotel lobby. People were hurrying across the lobby as they went about their business. Fairgate and I walked into the bar. I recognized Grant right off. He was over six feet tall with brown hair atop a thin frame. We made our way over to his table.
He stood as we arrived and offered his hand. “Robert Lee Grant.”
I shook his hand and introduced myself, “Matt Brown, glad to meet you.”
Grant had a thick southern accent. He seemed like a stereotypical southerner from a Tennessee Williams play.
“I need some pussy bad,” announced Fairgate.
We both looked at him with “You are an idiot” expressions but said nothing. As I sat, I looked across the bar. There was a TV on the far side of the bar. I saw a news story, tanks, and soldiers in a desert somewhere.
I pointed and asked, “What’s going on?”
“Iraq invaded Kuwait. Who knows? Maybe World War III is starting.”
“Or maybe,” I interjected, “more like a war in the Third World.”
“Idiot,” said Grant as he smiled and started to tell us his story. “I am a legacy… my family has been in every one of our country’s wars, and, well, except for that flirtation with the confederacy, always the right side. Only bad thing is we never make it. My dad in Vietnam, grandfather in the Marianas, great grandfather bayoneted by a German in a trench.”
We remained silent before I said, “Me, too. I’m a legacy. The only difference is that the Browns survive.”
The two of us looked at Fairgate. “I’m just trying to figure myself out.”
Grant shook his head, as did I. Before long, the waitress made her way up to our table. She was breathtakingly beautiful, just over five feet tall. She was wearing a t-shirt that reads “Whateva?” that made me smile. She had almond skin and the most beautiful brown eyes.
Fairgate spoke first. “You ever date a pilot, baby?”
She looked back with more contempt than willingness to help. “Do you want a drink, or are you just going to sit here and act stupid?”
I interrupted, “Forgive him. He’s just out of prison. I’ll take a Jack Daniels straight up, make it a double.”
Grant added, “Make it two, darling’.”
Fairgate said, “Wine… maybe a red.”
The waitress looked down her nose at Grant and then left. I looked at Fairgate with a smirk of disbelief. “You are such an asshole. ‘You ever date a pilot, baby?’ Are you serious? Women respect confidence, not being an asshole… and one more thing, what kind of man orders wine in a bar?”
Grant added, “A major bitch, that’s who.”
“Fuck you guys. I am who I am.”
We sat in the bar most of the night. I eventually tried to ask the waitress out, but I was about as successful as Fairgate. I learned that Fairgate, who was from Utah, was someone that was trying to correct some great shortcoming that he thought he had. Grant was from Tennessee, but he struck me as someone who was a lot like me—not a difficult task for anyone with a little alcohol and ambition.
The next morning came early, and we were programmed to rise early. I got up and headed out to the flight line. They put us on a C-130 headed for God-knows-where. I slept most of the flight just like everyone else. I felt a tugging on my arm, and I looked over and saw Grant.
“Where are we?” he asked..
I shrugged. “I know as much as you do,” I said through a yawn.
The sun was rising, and we felt the plane starting to descend toward Earth. Wherever we were, the sun was rising. The plane touched down and taxied to a stop, and the huge bay door descended toward the ground. I grabbed my duffle bag and headed out with Fairgate and Grant. Off in the distance, I saw the skyline of a town. It looked Middle Eastern. No one spoke. I walked up to a Master Sergeant, who looked like a grizzled veteran.
“Where is the 336th Squadron HQ?”
“Fuck off, bald pecker. Get a map”
“What’s your name, Sergeant?”
“O’Rourke. Now go and fuck yourself. I have mud hens to make combat-ready and no time to hold your dick.”
The Sergeant walked off with a smirk on his face. I was sure respect for Second Lieutenants was something that needed to be earned from a Master Sergeant. An Airman Second Class walked up. He was slim and looked even younger than us. I figured it was safe to ask him questions. “Where is the 336th Squadron HQ?”
“Are you Brown, Grant, and Fairgate?”
We all nodded in near unison.
“Welcome to King Fahd Air Base in Lovely Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The Iraqis invaded Kuwait yesterday, and we’re here to make sure they don’t go any further.”
“To protect the oil fields?” asked Fairgate.
“Don’t ask me,” said the Airman. “I’ve only been here four hours. By the way, I am Airman Johannes.”
I heard Grant and Fairgate talking. I was not listening, and was trying to comprehend my situation. In the past two days, I had gone from fighter weapons school training to a hotel in Denver to a base in Saudi Arabia. I was expecting North Carolina and being two hours from home, but this is where I ended up, with a shooting war maybe only hours away. We arrived at a metallic box with windows, and the Airman walked us inside. He told us to sit and wait until we were called. We passed meaningless small talk back and forth. After forty-five minutes or so, an Asian man in his mid-thirties walked out. I noticed the bronze maple leafs on his shoulder and jump to attention, presenting my orders in front of me as I robotically spouted out, “Lieutenant Matthew Brown, reporting for duty.”
As I spoke, Grant and Fairgate did the same, presenting their orders as well. He took our orders and began to speak. “At ease. I am Major Sakamoto, this Squadron’s second-in-command. I will be taking you in to Colonel Johnson in just a second. Don’t ask questions just yet, for it won’t go well for you. My only other advice is to watch the duty roster and learn. We can teach you a lot. You are here because you are the best. You are Rocketeer. Follow me”
Major Sakamoto guided us into Colonel Johnson’s office, which was still in the process of being set up. There were volumes of computer printouts and folders on the Colonel’s disorganized desk. He was wearing the same olive drab flight suit that the Major was wearing. I noticed immediately that I could feel Colonel Johnson’s presence. He could take charge of a room just by being in it. We were all standing at attention as he inspected us and motioned down as he took the orders from Sakamoto. He was balding, with a stocky frame and a face that looked like he hadn’t smiled in twenty years. To call him cantankerous would be an understatement.
“Sit down,” he barked before he continued as we sit. “Here is the deal. I have eighteen years in as a combat pilot, and anytime I want it, I get my star and move to the Pentagon. Don’t think even for a second I want that—what I do want is what I have, and that is to command the best Squadron in the most powerful Air Force ever. Some people might say that I am a prima donna. To them, I say ‘Fuck you.’” I smiled as the Colonel continued to speak. “I flew first in Vietnam. A lot like you three, I arrived and was at war, the difference being there was an actual war and not this nonsense. Here is the bottom line… we are preparing right now for a defensive operation, nothing aggressive. When that changes, you will know, but until then, I expect you all to be ready for whatever and know where you are. I don’t need some bald pecker Second Lieutenant starting a war by flying over Iran. Do you have any questions?”
Fairgate spoke, “Yes, sir.”
The Colonel turned to Sakamoto, “Did you fart, Mak?”
Sakamoto answered in a laugh, “No, Kelly, I didn’t. I believe one of the new guys has a question.”
Grant and I chuckled, too, and Johnson turned to Sakamoto “Mr. Inquisitive can go down to flight line and help O’Rourke set up, and these two laughing idiots can go over to the perimeter and help the jarheads install some sandbags for a couple of hours.”
“Yes, sir,” said Sakamoto as he led us out of the Colonel’s office.
I thought, What just happened? I knew that the Colonel was trying to instill discipline in us. As we moved outdoors, Sakamoto stopped us and said, “You,” pointing to Fairgate, “go back to the flight line and ask for Sergeant O’Rourke and tell his cranky Irish ass that Johnson wants you to help him. He’s going to love you. First, go over to the Squadron barracks,” he instructed, pointing to a tent directly across from us. “We don’t have BOQ yet, just tents for now. Go store your gear.” He then points to Grant and me and says, “You two store your gear and go over to Marine HQ, where the Marine Flag is,” he said, pointing. “Tell Captain Marsh that you have three hours of sandbagging to do.”
I thought the Marines had it in for us. They rarely got a couple of Air Force Lieutenants to abuse. We stacked sandbags in the ungodly heat for three hours. When we were done, I was ready to pass out. I learned my lesson—to keep my mouth shut and my emotions in check. Our day-to-day life was routine. We flew for four hours a day and went through the same drills we had in fighter weapons school. The repetition taught us how to react, so if this thing ever did become a shooting war, our chance of screwing up was reduced. When I first heard the January 16 deadline that the UN gave the Iraqis, I thought, It will never get to this, but we were on a countdown to war. As the day got closer and closer, the tension was only growing. I was assigned a regular Weapon Systems Officer, a “wizzo,” as we say. Captain Doug Winslow was also known as “Ferret,” though I wasn’t sure why. I asked my flight leader, Captain Holcourt, how Ferret got his name, but I wasn’t able to get a straight answer. I did learn, though, that it involved his attempts the get a nurse to date him back at Seymour Johnson AFB, the 336th Squadron’s home base. It was midnight the day of the UN deadline. I just watched the news, and Saddam had been meeting with children of Westerners, trying to win hearts and minds. I doubted it would work.
Grant and I had become close friends, as had Fairgate. We hung out with Ferret and Murphy, Grant’s wizzo. Fairgate was assigned to Flight Alpha, and his wizzo was Captain Patterson, a born-again Christian from Louisiana that was always trying to get us to turn our lives around. He hadn’t been successful, at least not yet. Grant and I became friends with an older British gentleman that made something called “squeak,” illegal moonshine flavored with peaches. We got ten gallons at a time and resold it everywhere. To us, drinking was really just something to do during the long, boring days with nothing to do. I knew that if Johnson ever found out, he’d beat us senseless, but I really didn’t care about that. I just wanted to go home. I missed the Chesapeake. I missed my family. I was trying to think of everything except the fact in thirty-five minutes, the UN deadline expired, and I would be in a shooting war. I didn’t think President Bush would back down from his ultimatum.
I looked up at the clock as it struck midnight.
“All balls!” yelled Ferret.
“No more deadline,” I said,, somewhere just above a whisper.
Colonel Johnson walked in. “Brown, you’re sweating. You okay?”
“Yes, sir,“ I said back quickly.
“Being scared is okay. We train you so you know what to do when you’re scared.” I nodded as the Colonel continued, “You should be more afraid of what will happen when you and your criminal friend Grant get exposed as whiskey runners.”
“What’s that, sir?”
“Play it stupid, bald pecker. I wouldn’t expect anything else.”
Holcourt spoke up to Fairgate, “Fairgate, Brown, and Grant, let me tell you a story. When Carlson first showed up in the Squadron, he was like most bald pecker Second Lieutenants—just like you. He was always bugging the old man about having the need to go crazy and have sex with as many women as possible. He bugged Johnson every day for two months. You know, the old man, he got sick of it, so he says, ‘Look, you fucking moron, the camels show up on the fifteenth of next month.’ So Carlson is going crazy, and just like the old man says, the camels arrive. Carlson runs out, rips off his flight suit, and starts fucking the camel. Johnson is laughing his ass off. Carlson comes back in, and Johnson says, ‘You dumb ass… we ride the camels to the corporate compound, that’s where the women are.’”
We all started laughing at the joke. Holcourt said, “That’s a gift the next time a bald pecker shows up. You or Grant or Brown need to pass it along, ‘cause it’s a tradition.”
I realized what the Colonel was doing. He knew how we all felt. He knew and was trying to get us to think about something else, trying to give us something to smile about. As we were sitting there talking about squeak, the Colonel walked in front of us.
“Here is the deal. Wheels will be off ground in two hours. The ground crews are prepping the ‘hens. Go prepare yourselves. Go beat your meat, pray, or whatever you need to do, because in 120 minutes, we are in a war.”
I couldn’t pray, I couldn’t think, and I certainly couldn’t beat my meat. Time moved to a crawl. I headed out to the flight line in a zombie-like walk of the dead. My whole life seemed as if it had led to this moment. I was frightened to death. I sat there feeling the seconds tick. Colonel Johnson stepped up on my access ladder. “You okay?” he asked.
I nodded. He slapped me on the shoulder and helped himself down. Ferret eventually climbed into the back seat . We were sitting there, and the Colonel was right: it was all automatic. When the orders come through, we just moved into place. I was taxiing, and I heard Ferret behind me saying the Lord’s Prayer.
“This is it!” I proclaimed as we took off. I followed Holcourt, who was leading our flight. I was off of his right wing in a tight formation. I felt afraid, but confident at the same time. My commanding officers had prepared me for this. We had run this mission a thousand times. As we passed into Iraq from Saudi Arabia, the reports were coming in… “Apaches have hit the Iraqis massed at the borders”… “We are going for Baghdad, an Iraqi Air Force base.” We were supposed to flatten the base. We saw occasional explosions off in the distance. We were flying in low at about 400 meters off the ground at night. Off in the distance, I saw a glowing city. It was Baghdad. It was green with occasional brilliant yellow explosions. My thoughts were interrupted.
“336 Delta Three, are you with us?”
“Affirmative,” I answered back.
“Correct heading to 136.”
“Bandits airborne,” I heard. I looked down at my radar.
“Six targets are moving west.”
“Delta Two, Delta Three, pursue.”
I broke off, and so did Grant.
“Ferret, you with us?”
“You catch ‘em, I’ll bag ‘em.”
The flight was short. The MiG-17s were no match for us. We pursued quickly. Ferret locked and fired a sidewinder. It cut into one of the jets, exploding in a orange ball. We flew through the ball of fire as the destroyed wreckage tumbled toward the ground.
“Delta Three…,” said Grant, “what the fuck?” he screamed as the remaining MiGs exploded from an unknown source.
Holcourt radioed back. “Delta Two and Three, return to formation,” said Holcourt. “Mission accomplished.”
I heard a horrible sound behind me. Ferret was throwing up
“You okay back there?”
“Yeah… just a stomach bug, I think.”
We returned to our base. The night was more stress than action. One thing was for sure—I was at war. We landed, and Ferret went over to the hospital. I found out soon that he was grounded for three days because he had the flu.
I was grateful for Colonel Johnson. He liked being in charge, and it fit him well. He was an excellent pilot and knew what buttons to push to get us going. All the other Squadrons resented and maybe even hated the foul-mouthed old man, but he always says that was because they knew he was the best. I knew I was learning from the greatest combat pilot in American history, and I hadn’t seen anything yet.
I was sitting in the front seat of my fighter waiting for my temporary wizzo. Captain Beasley climbed into the back seat and situated himself.. “Can you hear me, Brown?” he asked.
`”Yes, sir, loud and clear.”
“Okay, skull fucker, listen up. I am the wizzo, and you are the driver. I fight the war, and you fly through it. Give me any shit and I will kill you. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir, whatever you say.”
“Fuck off, you little sarcastic fucker.”
The Air Force is full of characters, and the 336th Squadron was a haven for the insane and paranoid. Ted Beasley was a nice guy, albeit just a bit paranoid. We did our pre-flight checks for a routine scud hunting mission. As the canopy closed and we were preparing to launch, I heard Beasley saying the Lord’s Prayer in the seat behind me.
“You a religious man?”, Captain Beasley asked.
“No, sir, not really. I believe in God and all… just not sure what I believe.”
“Yeah, well one day Colonel Johnson told me there is no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole or a cockpit.”
I pulled back, and we were off. As we leveled, I said, “I am not an atheist or a holy roller—just somewhere in between.”
“Copy that, Brown. That makes two of us. Okay, orders are to stay on course. The AWACs will be feeding data on where the scud launchers are. You find 'em, I'll wax 'em.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” I said as I flew north toward Iraq. This routine was duplicated day after day after day, We grew so used to the scud hunt that we knew where every AAA or SAM sight was in Iraq. We pounded the defenses day after day after day. In the rare event we ran into an enemy aircraft, the F-15cs took care of it. Ferret returned and was discharged from the hospital on base. During the first week, I flew over a hundred sorties. Time began to have no meaning, and the only reality I knew was the war. We slept, flew sorties, and ate. About a week after the war started, I first heard President Bush’s speech. The words stuck in my head… These are the times that try men’s souls…
I knew this was originally said by Thomas Jefferson, but I could identify with President Bush, He was a Naval Aviator in World War II. He knew that some young people would never return, but he had the sense to let the military fight this war. The stress was all-encompassing, and there was something always bothering us emotionally. I guess that is why war makes good drunks out of everyone involved.
The other main issue that we had the first week was dealing with the locals. The Saudis were a kind enough people as long we didn’t have to deal with them. The Air Force didn’t order us to hide our religion; they only told us not to flaunt it. One incident I remember in particular was one day when we were in Riyadh, just walking down the street. Most people didn't talk to us, but that didn't bother us. Captain Holcourt was a devout Catholic; he wore his cross everywhere. This time, it was under his shirt while we were standing in line at McDonalds, and he dropped some loose change out of his pocket and bent down to pick it up. As he did, the cross dangled out, and three Saudis shouted at him. Being the sarcastic bastard he was, he said “I didn't know she was your daughter.”