Guest Column

Thoughts on service to one’s country


Several years ago, senior officers of various countries in Europe met to exchange ideas and comments and to socialize. A senior officer from an allied nation, upon reviewing the American and Allied buildup in Southwest Asia in preparation for a war against Iraq, commented that such buildup was simply another attempt by America for a land-grab.

Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, turned to this officer and said very quietly, “Over the years, American men and women came to foreign soil to fight for the freedom of those who live there. Many of these American men and women died in that country. The only land that America has ever asked for was enough to bury its dead.” The room fell quiet.

I served in the United States Air Force and flew C-130 combat tactical airlift aircraft. The airplane handled like a fighter aircraft, was crewed by men and women who were enabled to fly with me by successfully completing rigorous ongoing training and evaluations. I never doubted their capabilities and they never failed me.

Pilots are a brand of people who stand apart in very subtle ways. They are self-confident having mastered the art, skill and science of flight. They have broken the surly bonds of Earth and soared among the clouds in the sky to reach out and touch the hand of God. One’s first solo is as scary, exciting and changing as anything that person will ever do. Flying high at night under a cloudless sky blazing with stars, planets, and the moon puts one as close to our Maker as possible.

And all along the way we meet people who are like-minded, a little crazy, driven, intelligent and very dear friends. We know their struggles having been through the same with them; we know their successes and their failures having enjoyed and been frustrated by the same things.

One of them is a rancher, auctioneer, instructor pilot, C-130 pilot who is very close to his final takeoff. Only a pilot would understand that comment.

Lieutenant Colonel Bill Weaver and I laughed and learned our way through pilot training in Laredo, Texas, in 1968 and 1969. We went to the Kaniksu National Forest for survival and escape training drinking melted snow, eating nothing and sleeping on pine bows against the frigid cold of northern Washington State’s December winter.

Bill and I went to Southeast Asia together where our paths briefly separated. I flew normal combat tactical airlift in-and-out of Vietnam and Cambodia delivering food, weapons, bombs and other war-making essentials. We had radio contact with Cambodian troops on the ground. One morning during a combat airdrop we heard gunfire as background noise to the transmission from the ground controller. The noise of the gunfire grew louder; the last we heard on the radio was a loud yell, loud gunfire and the radio went dead.

Bill worked for and with another organization that ultimately exposed him to a chemical agent meant to defoliate. We now know that such chemical not only takes the life out of plants but other living organisms as well. With minor diversions, Bill worked with this organization through most of his career. He distinguished himself frequently by his intelligence and his extraordinary organizational skills. He exercised those skills through the most difficult personal times to make sure that his family would be taken care of no matter what happened to him.

Indeed, prior planning is a hallmark of a good Soldier, Airmen, Sailor, Marine and Coast Guardsman. We have seen it during Desert Storm, the response by the military to September 9, 2011, and to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. With very few exceptions I have not known a military service member who did not exemplify these traits.

The challenge for Americans is to recognize the need to populate the military with women and men who have the skills, the character and intelligence to respond positively and with success to the orders of the National Command Authority, the President and the senior military combatant commanders.

If they are anything like the people I knew during my career in the United States Air Force, there is no doubt in my mind those people will successfully accomplish every mission. Just like Bill Weaver.