While watching on television the horror of Sept. 11, 2001, my radio program engineer, Greg Nercessian -- newly married and planning to start a family -- felt he had to do something. With the blessing of his understanding and supportive wife, he joined the Air Force Reserves. Greg spent seven-and-a-half months in training, away from his then-pregnant wife. He returned home just 13 days before the birth of his son.
My engineer, now a senior airman working in Intelligence, invited me to March Air Reserve Base for "Operations Group Employer Appreciation Day" on Saturday, Oct. 23. With about one-half of our nation's total available military manpower consisting of Reserve components, the event was to thank employers for keeping open the jobs of those in the Reserve and Guard as our country deploys them. Greg told me that Appreciation Day consists of a tour, and possibly a brief flight to give us some idea of the never-ending training Reserves undergo to stay fit and ready.
Usually, after a long work-week, I look forward to sleeping in on Saturday mornings. But, after a few hours of sleep, I got up at 4 a.m. last Saturday for a two-hour drive to Riverside, Calif., east of Los Angeles. I found traffic, thankfully, light at that hour of the morning. After all, I felt quite fatigued -- but not for long.
During our employers' orientation, I sat next to a base employee. I told her about my two Vietnam-era brothers, and my father who served in World War II as a Marine. I said that I, like Vice President Dick Cheney and others, used college deferments during the Vietnam War. I told her I regretted not having served my country, considering the greatness of America and the opportunity it provides me. She said, "Well, people serve in many ways. You serve now by allowing your employee to go off while keeping his job open. And remember, we need civilians to remain stateside to run the country as others go off to war. So many may serve in different ways, and I consider you, sir, to be serving right now."
The briefing commander told us that -- good news! -- today several fighter planes from bases in the Eastern part of the country need to rendezvous with a refueling craft -- the one we would be on -- for a refueling exercise. Our plane took off from the base, and we flew all the way to Oklahoma, where we rendezvoused with 10 fighter jets, lowered the "flying boom" to transfer the fuel, and refueled the planes in midair. We took turns lying on our stomachs in the "pod" to watch through a window in the belly of the plane as our aircraft and the fighter jets performed this delicate dance and flawless midair coupling -- a probe on the fighter jet gently connecting with a shuttlecock-shaped drogue attached to the end of our lowered boom. What an unbelievable sight!
Before the flight, the commander warned us not to expect a plane equipped for comfort. But the crew of four -- an aircraft commander, a co-pilot and two "boom" operators -- skillfully handled our KC-135 Stratotanker. The tanker can fly up to 50,000 feet in altitude, reach 530 mph (just short of Mach 1) and carry up to 200,000 pounds of fuel.
At all times, the pilot and co-pilot and other airmen performed calmly, smoothly, efficiently and with self-satisfaction. They bantered freely with each other occasionally, while maintaining a cool confidence as they went about their responsibilities. California to Oklahoma, refuel 10 planes in midair, back to California -- all in four-and-a-half hours. Just another morning's work for these airmen.
Before, during and after the flight, I spoke with many Reservists about Iraq. How's it going? Should we have gone?
To a person, they felt that, based upon the available intelligence, President Bush wisely moved to depose Saddam Hussein. Several, just back from Iraq, complained about the disconnect between the positive developments they saw in Iraq and the negative news on TV and in print. We feel confident, they said, that if America stands behind the president and the troops, we will prevail in Iraq and in the War on Terror.
One commander told me, almost tearfully, that as he watches 18- and 19-year-olds go to and come back from Iraq, he thinks, "Jeez, I have underwear older than these kids." But he smiled as he spoke of the pride he feels when watching dedicated, hardworking, young men and women enthusiastically go off to defend our country.
The Air Force Core Values are "Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence in All We Do." The Reserve professionally responds to its challenge: ready to defend our country with trained personnel prepared for duty at a moment's notice -- men and women willing to leave their civilian lives and civilian jobs for the sake of their country.
Winston Churchill once said, "The Reservist is twice the citizen." What a Saturday.