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Interview with Jaden J. Kim [10/14/2003]

Eleanor M. Wilson:

This is an interview with Captain Jaden (J-A-D-E-N) J. Kim (K-I-M), which is being conducted on the 14th of October, 2003, at Camp Pendleton, California, and the interviewer is Colonel Eleanor Wilson.

Jaden J. Kim:

My name is Jaden Kim, and I was born in Seoul, Korea, on 13 May 1974. Moved to the United States, the city of Chicago, in Illinois, in 1976--or '77. I was 2 or 3 years old then. They count birthdays differently in Korea than they do here, so you always add one year when you figure your age. So you're actually older, which I'm not a big fan of, but that accounts for some of the confusion.

Anyway, so we lived in Chicago. I have a younger sister, four years my junior, and I have a brother seven years younger than me. They've all graduated from college at this point. Both of them are living here in San Diego, California, with me right now. Both of my parents remain in Chicago. My dad is a pediatrician, and my mom fusses about the kids. She runs around, keeps herself busy playing golf and all sorts of craziness. But that's only because all the kids are out of the house now. When we were growing up, she spent most of her time herding us from lesson to lesson, to practice, to lesson, which I don't know how she ever did it.

But anyway, I went to a grade school in Chicago. I went to Catholic school, and then I went on to high school in Chicago as well. Left to go to college. Went to New Jersey, went to Princeton, that was in '92. Graduated from Princeton in '96 with a bachelor's degree in politics. At the time, I was actually in the Army ROTC program, because I planned to serve in the military. They didn't have a naval ROTC program at school; they only had the Army ROTC program and a satellite campus program for the Air Force. But I had [?] the Air Force, so I figured, well, maybe the Army's close enough, and to be honest, at the time I really didn't know the difference. I had thought that I'd really like to be a Marine, but that's not an option for me here, and I didn't know that much about all the different commissioning sources. So [I was] a little ill-informed. So I started off doing the Army program, and after a couple years doing that through college, I realized this is just really not the program for me, and gosh, I'm not really liking the things that I'm learning about the Army. I'm sure they have many great things, but quite frankly, it just wasn't for me. It was not my personality. So once I left college in '96, I actually had to wait to make sure all my discharges and all my papers from the Army were complete before I could submit my papers to the Marine OCS board.

So it took just under a year to get all the Army discharge paperwork back, and during that time I put together all my paperwork for OCS for the Marines, and I just kind of bided my time by hanging out in DC after graduation. Working for some different type agencies, dong a little paralegal work, legal secretary work, that kind of thing. And then I also bartended for awhile in Georgetown, and I--not to get a permanent job, or even a semi-permanent job at the time, just because I knew that I was waiting to join the Marine Corps. So I didn't really know exactly how much time I'd have left before my paperwork came through.

It finally came through early in '97, so I put my package in, right under the wire, and they took me in the women's officer candidate class for June of '97. So I reported down to Quantico. A little rough because--well, I'd been prepared by my OSA. He told me, better be in pretty good physical condition, and all that. I was like, well, nothing hard, because if nothing else, I had the edge of having been ROTC for three years, so some military aspects of how the whole system works, and what an operations order is, that stuff I probably had a foot up on.

But the physical side--I had, admittedly, a little out of shape, and I didn't quite know how hard it was going to be. It was probably the most painful aspect, that I could think of, and when people ask me, before they go to OCS, what's your recommendation for how to prepare, I'm like, work out. Work out four times a day if you can. Cuz it's really--do pull-ups, and run, run, run, as much as you can. It's almost actually a fun experience, probably, if you're really in good shape. You get to do a lot of neat things. You do some rope climbing--that's another thing, if you don't know how to climb a rope, learn before you go. You can do it while you're there, but there you gotta do it my way, which is standing around on Saturday afternoon when everyone else goes on libo. And you stay around the barracks and get extra help. Learning how to climb the rope. I did it that way, and it's doable, but it's probably not the preferred method if you can avoid it.

I did a lot of things not quite the preferred method. I ended up fracturing my ankle in the first two weeks of OCS. That made it a little more difficult, too. But [?] stay and gut it out--well, pretty much short of a broken limb--if you put forth the effort. A lot of people say that to the point it almost becomes trite, where they're saying, well, as long as they see that you really want this more than anything else, they'll give you a chance. It may not always be true, but I think--in my case it definitely was. Cuz I was not a fast runner, and I was a nothing-much-put-together Marine.

Me, trying to iron my cammies, which was the biggest pain. I looked like the [?] marshmallow man wherever I went, because I just could not get anything to hold a crease to save my life. Good gracious, it's a good thing we changed to the new utilities, because you don't have to iron these. The other ones, where you had to iron them and use starch, that was terrible. Especially in the summer time when it was so hot all the starch would melt, all over the place. I was never very good at ironing, then get hold of the iron, and I'd just get white specks and splotches all over my uniform. It was pretty much a nightmare. Anyway, that was OCS. I would say, definitely, if you're planning on going there, then working at it is the most important thing.

We had five platoons in Charlie Company for that summer, June of '97, OCS class. Four of the platoons were male, and they had approximately just under 50 male candidates in each platoon. Fifth Platoon was the only female platoon. During the year, right now, they typically have two OCS classes that have any women at all. It's the June class and the October class. I'm pretty sure the other classes still don't have any women, so there are only two possibilities.

In Fifth Platoon, the female platoon, we had about 64-65 candidates that first day when we all started--did our seabag dragging, drug everything to the barracks. In the end, we graduated 21 or 22. So we had a pretty atrocious attrition rate. In the beginning, it wasn't too bad. Your day consisted of getting up at five, you woke up at five every day. Light's out was ten o'clock, 2200, every night. So you'd get up at five, and you'd stand on line, and then your drill sergeants would come, screaming up and down the line, and there would be girls who hadn't made their beds quite right for some reason; they'd gotten into--this was in the early days of hits. After that, you just plopped on top of your bed and you never actually got underneath the covers, because you wanted your bed to look perfect in the morning. Or your rack, I should say. But in the early days, we would wake up and it would be great, because you had people with stuffed animals laying out, and books and letters home to their boyfriend or their family, and of course those all get read out loud if you leave them sitting on your rack in the morning when you're on line. So that's always fun. And then in various forms of dress. Because when you're on line, you were supposed to already be dressed, and so we started getting up earlier and earlier and earlier as time went on, so we could have everything ready--the rack is made, our socks, our boots, everything is on the way it's supposed to be. But you'd have people with one sock on, in the early days, and of course they'd get picked on. And if you're lucky enough not to get picked on, then you just laugh at everyone else. And they come up and down the squad bay area, and you had all these bunks, and we had fifty-something women, so we had about thirty-something bunks all squeezed in, two rows on either side of this large open area, and there's this tile floor. It was pretty fun, there wasn't a whole lot to it, and every night--I can't even remember what the phrase was, it was like "scrub brushes in the air" or something like that--we'd grab these scrub brushes, and we'd start at the outer walls, and we would brush the floor. I'm not sure why--I guess it was for the dust. I don't know how much dust there could be after one day when there's nothing there in the room to begin with. Every candidate had a foot locker, you were supposed to keep a lock on it--that was always fun, too, because if you left lock unlocked by accident, your drill instructor would come down and undo the lock and spray your stuff all over the squad bay. So now, not only you have to clean up your stuff, but if anything's spilled, you gotta clean up the squad bay, too. So that was always great. But there we would go with scrub brushes in the air, whoever the platoon leader for the day was, and we'd go and scrub all the dust to the center, and they we'd have the big dust broom handler--the big broom go down the center and gather all this stuff up.

And then we'd supposedly go to sleep, which really consisted of staying up for another few hours, sneaking around in the dark, trying to get the last minute things done that you hadn't done during the day. Which would have been ironing your cammies, in which case for me, it took me hours and hours. Polishing your boots. Once again, mine pretty much looked like a chocolate bar the entire time that I was there. Writing letters home, and what not. And for some people it included doing sit-ups in the middle of the night, or trying to do pull-ups in the stairwell, because they just weren't good at those things, and they were getting yelled at and picked on, so they were trying to use their own extra time to improve on these things so they wouldn't get picked on anymore during the day. So some of that stuff was pretty motivating so see, because you realized really quickly who really wanted to be there and who was just kinda there because somebody else wanted them to be there. There was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that would go into each day.

But you'd wake up at five in the morning, do your on-the-line thing, you'd march over to the chow hall, you'd stand in formation, when it was your turn to go into chow, you would do that. Then you'd come back out. You were supposed to stand in formation and not talk to anybody, just look straight ahead. Hang out until everybody had gotten back, and then the whole company would march back together. Of course, every now and then, you'd just have to have the one guy walking by--a candidate from a different platoon to you--ask you what time it is, and you'd try to answer. The next thing you know, we had one female who was standing in front of like the other male platoons, and the drill instructor was laughing at her, and saying, go ahead, you want to check out them nasty boys, go ahead and stand there. Just look at them. And they were all trying really hard not to laugh. Even drill instructors try not to laugh. He was like, what you doing, checking out the guys? This is Officer Candidate School. You are not here to pick out some nasty bald Marine officer candidate who ain't even a Marine yet. It was great. And just watching them, like the drill instructor, sometimes almost lose it was the best part. Cuz we would just drive them up the wall. We would mess up simple things like printing your last name first. Somebody had to put their first name first. And they would just freak out--jump on top of the bunk, and we would try so hard not to laugh. It's an art form, the drill instructors, it really is.

But we would have some classroom instruction, either in the morning or the afternoon, at some point. And we would PT at least once, which meant going for some kind of run, some kind of obstacle course, where there's some kind of circuit training, calisthenics, involved with always running. You always ran from one place to the other, and it was almost always in your boots, after the first week. In the first week they kinda wanted to break you in a little bit, so you'd do a little running in your tennis shoes and your go-fasters, what they called them. But by the second week, third week, of a ten-week course, you're running around everywhere in your boots, and trying to condition your body.

Go-fasters, they have funny names in the military for everything. Like a pen can't be a pen, it's like an ink stick. I guess maybe that's how they list it on a roster for supply or something. Maybe it's listed as ink sticks and they call it that, or like rubber bands. Rubber bands are like elastic fasteners, I'm not even sure. Go-fasters was their fun drill instructor name for tennis shoes or running shoes. Put them on and go faster. Which, well, it mostly didn't apply, especially not to me, but anyway they called them go fasters.

But so we would PT at least once a day. We'd go class, and then we'd do some other field evolution after lunchtime. Maybe we'd go and do our practice, fire team stuff, or squad stuff. We never really had anything above squad level, because we're still in the baby steps of learning how to be an infantry platoon commander--ultimately, I guess, is their goal.

In the classroom the academic issues that we would cover would be the basics of the Marine Corps, anything from who's the Commandant, or the fireteam is composed of-- it's basically four people to a squad, maybe 9 or 10 people, it kind of depends on the unit you come from or who you work for in the unit, but it's just the organizational system. But that was a big focus of effort. Some Marine Corps background history. Because you're assuming that everyone who goes to officer candidate school should have had done a little bit of research so they know what they're entering. But, at the same time, maybe they don't have that much information or education about the actual background or the history of Marines.

And then some more practical stuff. You would be taught about some weapons systems--we'd start out with the M16-A-2. How to assemble, disassemble--some of these classes aren't taught in the classroom, but outside like a bleachers or something, where you can go hands on, and take stuff apart yourself and put it back together again.

And nuclear/biological/chemical warfare issues. At one point you have to go through the gas chambers. You'd be taught your technical specifics, whatever the specifications on your gas mask--you'd pull it out, take it apart, put it back together. They'd show you how to decontaminate it using the different little cloth things in the packet that comes with it--I can't even remember the name of it--how to test for any kind of chemical agents or contaminants there in the area. Your processes for donning and clearing your mask. As your final exercise, you actually go into a gas chamber where they put in CS gas, which is basically tear gas. It will make you tear up and feel like you're suffocating, and your throat gets very irritated, and your eyes become like a [?] shot. It's a really great experience. And the reason you know that, you never forget where your gas mask is, because of course the idea is to teach you confidence in your gear, so that you know it's working. And me personally, I don't really feel like I need it because I perfectly trust that my gear's working. [I know] what CS gas feels like.

Anyway, you go in, you've got your mask on, everybody files in after each other, and some people are a little bit more cautious [?], because they're not doing well as it is, so there are people up there breathing pretty fast. And then they'll tell you go jump up and down. It's fun. Actually, I don't think they're allowed to do that anymore, but when we first went through OCS, they were allowed to make you jump up and down, do some push-ups, do some jumping jacks so that you get breathing a little harder. Because then afterwards they'll say, take off your masks. And you take off your mask. Everybody has to take off their masks, and they don't start counting until the last person gets their mask off. If you've got one idiot standing there, refusing to take his mask off, everybody else the whole time is just breathing this gas in. Of course, you know--well, not that we beat the crap out him later, but it was certainly in our mind. We would like to. So we take off our mask, and we'd have to go up and say our name, Social Security number, whatever it was, Candidate Kim, four six three, blah, blah, blah, and then they'd be like, okay, get out of here. And you'd run out the door. You'd have snot coming out of your face, and you could hardly breathe, and you're coughing, choking. It's really pretty harmless, but it's just that feeling like you're gonna suffocate. Nobody ever does. But they think they're going to. So you always have the one person who just bolts before taking their turn. They can't handle any more, they really think they're going to suffocate, they just run out the door. We've had a bunch of staff sergeants chasing down--hey, where are you going? What do you think you're doing? There's nowhere for you to run to. Where you gonna hide? It's always funny.

So you do different things. There's the military training like that. And then when you go out to the field, your carry all your stuff with you. You've got different--like vest-slash-harness, getup, a contraption that you wear. Gotta wear a couple of canteens. Fill them up with water, of course, because it makes yourself heavier. That seemed was the only purpose, was harassment. You'd wear all this stuff--maybe you'd have like a dummy M16 to simulate the fact that you've also got the additional burden of carrying a weapon with you, and a couple magazine pouches, where you carry magazines for the rounds for your supposed weapon that you're carrying. And maybe a compass, different items that you're carrying around with you. And depends how long you're in the field. Sometimes we're only there for the afternoon, so we wouldn't have to carry that much. Sometimes we're out there for two or three days, in which case we'd have to carry our shelter-halves, half of a whole two-man tent, and you only carry half, so it's actually a shelter-half. And then you have to get together with your buddy, who also has half a shelter, and you snap the buttons together--it's this ancient canvas material that didn't hold out water, didn't hold out wind. I'm still not sure what they used it for, other than it was like this forty-pound pack of canvas with poles that did not bend, and tent pegs that were only there to get lost. You'd throw this in your bag and you would carry this thing around, and you'd pitch your tent at night, and try to make it as straight and tight as possible so that you could sleep it. The instructors would come around and yell at you for doing it wrong; hey, your tent's sagging in the middle, and it's not lined up with everybody else's; how come you gotta be different? Part of the harassment package, I think.

Of course they're just trying to teach you the importance of attention to detail. Cuz later on you're going to be leading Marines, and you gotta be paying attention because there may be other things that are going on wrong. That may be something as trivial as whether or not you're an inch off on your tent position from everybody else's, but I don't know--I’m ultimately an airwinger, so my whole mentality is a little different from the ground side. I'm sure on the ground they have this really great justification for why it's so important, but on the air side we don't really pay that much attention to those things, those ground things.

But during OCS it was important because you just didn't want to highlight yourself as being different from everybody else and get yelled at. The whole point of OCS was to not get yelled out, and to tolerate the harassment packages as best as possible.

But so you go through something like that, and while you're bivouacking at night and setting up your shelter-half, during the daytime you would do different exercises. For example, you have different kinds of patrols. You could do area reconnaissance patrols, there were ambush patrols, and you would set up as a squad, maybe you'd have a squad of two fire teams, and they'd have a squad leader of some sort, and of course there was always the ever-present obstacle course. Which really wasn't that big a deal to begin with, and the hardest part for most of the women, I would say, would be the rope climb at the very end. You're supposed to run the whole thing as fast as possible, but what I discovered really quickly was if you expend all of your energy trying to climb over the logs and jumping off poles, there was no way you were going to get up the rope at the end. So I became a little bit of a slacker. I called it smart planning, but, no. I ran the first part a little slower, and that way I still had enough energy to get up the rope. The rope is an interesting thing, because if you've never done it before, no matter how strong you are, you may not be able to do it. Unless you just have sheer brute strength, that you can go hand over hand up this thing. It's really a thick rope, too, so if you don't have a lot of grip strength, and you're like me, you got small hands, it's a little difficult. You gotta learn how to use your legs, and there's a whole technique that's associated with it, which you've gotta practice. If anyone were going to OCS, I'd say, run a lot and go find a rope somewhere and figure out how to get up that thing. Cuz you're gonna climb up that thing a lot. In the beginning it's just you and your own body weight. By the end you're carrying all of your gear, and trust me, with the additional 10-20 pounds, it makes quite a difference on actually getting up that rope.

But like I said, by the end we graduated about 22 people or so, and our platoon sergeant--at the time Staff Sergeant Mannis--now Gunnery Sergeant Mannis, she was the first female PTI in the Marine Corps--that's a physical training instructor. Most of the rest of them are these huge guys, kind of like you imagine when you think of a very, very fit--fitness instructor in the Marine Corps. Like they're the best of the best when it comes to training. And there was only one woman. As far as I know, there haven't been any others. She was like an Amazon. People revered this woman--male, female, it didn't matter. She must have been five ten, five eleven, the waist the size of a pencil, these huge broad shoulders, and she could climb up that rope, hand over hand.

I think it was really great that our female platoon--we were an all-female platoon, none of that combined platoon stuff that they had going on in the Army. I thought that was really important, as far as setting a really good example for the new female officer candidates. They weren't afraid to talk to you, whereas I think male drill instructors might have been a little bit edgy talking to you quite frankly about things. The female platoon staff definitely didn't feel that way. They would just speak their mind and tell you exactly what they thought. If they thought you were messed up, they didn't have a problem telling you that. I think that's really valuable, especially to people who are impression--just learning the beginning steps of the Marines.

I'm a real fan of separate gender, as far as the initial training for boot camp and for OCS. They go ahead and combine you when you graduate from OCS and go into the Basic School. Even while you're at OCS, you have your own separate platoon, but for the OCS candidates, we did everything side by side with the guys anyway. So they could see us, and we could see them, and we knew that we were doing the exact same thing, going through, which is also very important. That way--the guys in the platoon said, oh, you're that fifth platoon, they're getting awfully small, but they do everything we do and they try their best to keep up. And if they're not keeping up, we see them getting kicked out. So that's really important, because you want to know that there's the same standard--that there's not these different standards for men and women who are joining.

So then you graduate from there, and you get your commission, so you become a second lieutenant, and then you report to the Basic School, also in Quantico, Virginia. Basic School is basically OCS on steroids. You do everything you did--less physical training, it's not quite as intensive physically--but you spend a lot more time out in the field digging holes. Stay out there for 7-8 days at a time, and it's freezing, it rains, the weather's miserable in Virginia that time of year, actually any time of year, it's either too cold or too hot. You're divided up into platoons, so let's say about 40 people in each platoon. You've got a staff platoon commander who's basically a junior captain. They kind of run the show and help you go through the rest of the field training. The whole purpose of the Basic School is to give you, the new Marine officer, the basics of becoming an infantry platoon commander. So everything is focused on you, your M16, your M9s--you go to the pistol range, as well as the rifle range, to qualify for the first time. Taking a whole bunch of Marines in your platoon and just charging over that hill, that's the whole point of the Basic School. So it's not everyone's cup of tea, and [?] some challenges.

In my platoon we had three women, but the other two women were in the other section, because we were divided up in two sections per platoon. We actually had two staff platoon commanders per platoon. That was a short, experimental phase they went through at the Basic School; I don't think they do that any more. Now they have one staff platoon commander, SPC, per platoon again. During the time I went through, I was the only woman in my section. And so that left its own challenges. They never knew who to house me with. We'd go to the field and I'd have this shelter-half, and all the guys were afraid. They didn't want to be my partner, because they were feeling, I'm not sure she'll [?]; are we going to have to--it was a pain for them. I could understand that. It made my life more difficult, but it certainly made theirs difficult logistically, because they always had to plan, and coordinate with other platoons, who had an odd number of women, so they could figure out who was gonna stay with who, and in what section. Was I gonna stay with First Platoon, or was I gonna stay with Sixth Platoon? Cuz the other woman was in First Platoon, so they were on the other side of the bivouac site, and that was an early lesson to learn, because that would be true many years later, even in the squadron when I had finished all my training. Where do you put the women? It always seems to be an issue, and probably always will be until we get a whole lot more women, so it becomes less strange.

But USRTS, that's six months long. That was from August of '97 to about early March of '98. I think I slept through every class, pretty much. We were always tired. We didn't live in the barracks at TBS, because during this time one of the main barracks at TBS had just been closed, due to like--all kinds of problems. There were environmental problems--like roaches and asbestos issues. It was basically condemned. One of the barracks areas got condemned, so they only had one building left to house all these lieutenants. So it was like ten percent of your company, it was like 250 people could stay in the barracks. Everyone else had to go out in town. They would pay everybody a bachelor's allowance for housing, and it was so expensive to the Marine Corps that it got their attention up at Headquarters, and they said what is all this money doing down at Quantico? And they said, oh, we gotta put money into infrastructure. Building more barracks for officer housing at the Basic School. Which was the point, and that's why they had done that--sent us all into town. Every second lieutenant was supposed to get a certain number of square feet, there's a manual for this, where they can sleep, and they didn't have it. In the barracks there they had assigned the entire company into a notional room, where we could check in, as part of our squad, and there was like five people per room. That's the size of closet. So it really was unsat.

But we lived out in town. I lived with Rachel Barney and Naomi Boyam, two other women from the company, one who is now actually flying and doing electronic countermeasures ops from the east in the Prowler, and the other one who became the second female Cobra pilot in the Marine Corps. So I guess we all ended up going aviation.

The two of them had aviation contracts coming into the Basic School. The only way you can do that is if you're gonna be a pilot, and you pass all the tests before hand and sign up with your officer selection officer before you go into OCS. So you know you have an aviation contract. The other way, if you come out of the Naval Academy--they have aviation slots coming out of the Naval Academy, as well as backseater slots, naval flight officer slots. But that's the only place you can get a contract to fly backseat, is from the Academy. So the predominant number of people come from the Naval Academy.

Because when you're at TBS, it kinda depends on the year, whether or not there are a lot of slots available for aviation. In my company we had two available naval flight officer billets, and we had a company of 250. When the opportunity came up to compete for it--they said, hey, if anyone here is interested in competing for one of the aviation slots, they had like four pilot slots, two NFO slots--you gotta go and take these exams, you gotta go get a physical, you go get a full flight physical, which is fun, about two days being poked and prodded by all the naval doctors, and then you come back, and they make you take an academic exam, which is kind of interesting. The basic sections on math and English are no problem for pretty much anybody, but they have these weird sections that are aviation specific, or maritime. Marine specific, like what color is the buoy on the inward side of the channel? There's no way you're gonna know this unless you study for it, or if you're just interested in that kind of thing growing up. I really never paid attention to the color of the buoys in the channel, so I think that was my weakest section. But apparently I did well enough to pass that part. And then they've got perspective exams where they show you pictures of aircraft at different attitudes, and then you've got to match it with what it probably looks like from the inside of the cockpit, like what the horizon looks like. Those are kind of interesting. I guess you get better with those if you practice. But the thing with that section is, there's 150-200 of these things, and you've got a very short limited time period, much do as a speed exam. It's not really about getting them right, it's about getting as many as you can as quickly as you can. They don't tell you that stuff unless you get one of those study books ahead of time, or somebody coaches you. I had neither.

I didn't know that aviation was open to women, until I got to the Basic School, cuz I'd always been told growing up that only men fly--fought in combat aircraft. And any of the Marine--all aircraft are combat aircraft. So until they opened combat aviation to women, Marines did not have any female aviators. What I did not know was that they had opened it up in, I think in, like '92 or '93. That's right in the early '90s, that the first female aviator had actually been winged a few years later. Just a couple years prior to my time frame, in fact. So when I got to TBS and I found out there are women, I was like, I'd really like to do that. But it was late consideration for me only because I never thought of it as a possibility. Everybody told me, you can't do that. It's just not done. I was like, okay, I guess it's just not done; there are none. That's why I shouldn't put it on my list of things to do in life. But when it came up as a possibility, I went ahead, hit all the wickets, went to my aviation exams and all that, and then became one of the eligible people to compete for the spots.

Now it was a matter of convincing your staff platoon commander to try and go to bat for you, to try and get this spot. It's by order of merit, top spot of the company, when you only have two aviation spots, you have to convince them that you really want this spot. I don't know if I was in my right mind, but when I went to talk to my SPC the day before selection assignments were sent out, he's just like, so, have you ever been flying? I was just like, oh yes--I was very excited. I'm like, sir, it's the greatest. I was flying in this helicopter once when I was in the Army thing, and right there at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, we were flying around in these Blackhawks, and they were so cool, and the door's open, and I was leaning out the door and I almost fell out, and then was the time when I did fall out, because I was leaning too far outside because I was so excited, and we were really near the ground, and the ground looked a lot closer than it really was. It really wasn't. It's better being in the aircraft than it is being on the outside, because one time I was on the outside, and they sent in this 46 to pick up this pallet, and I was standing there with the hook, and I was too short for it, and so the 46 came in and it blew me off the top of the pallet. So of course I couldn't put the pallet hook on top the--and he was like, Stop. Just stop. He was like, I get the point; you kind of like this whole aviation thing. Yeah, I do like all that. I don't think I'm really suited for the ground side, anyway. He just kinda laughed. He was just like, I think you'd be really good at this. I think you'd be a real asset to the aviation side. I think you should give a chance.

So it just turned out lucky; I did well enough in the company so I fell out as one of the two people, in the two top spots, who wanted it, and so I got it. The next thing you know, March of '98, I'm finished with TBS and I'm driving down to Pensacola, Florida, to start flight school. I checked in there. For flight school, there's three different phases. There's primary, intermediate, and advanced.

Primary for the backseater is learning how to fly the T-34 Charlie. Just like a pilot. You just don't have as many flights in the front seat as a pilot. Cuz obviously that's where they're gonna sit. For us, we spend 9 or 10 flights in the front seat, no kidding, and taking off, landing the aircraft, just the very basics. Then we moved to the back seat, and from the very beginning, we focused on navigation, fuel, analysis, [?], all that stuff.

Then we move on to intermediate, and now we're starting to work on strike routes. We plot out these charts, where we figure out where our notional target's gonna be, and it's like a 30 minute flight to the target, but we've gotta hit points alpha through golf on the way to get there. There's these crazy little routes, and you have to visually pick up your points, and you've gotta be on time, too. It's not just a matter of finding your target in the end, by visually following a bunch of reference points kind of like a scavenger hunt, but you gotta be there at the right time. You gotta factor in winds, fuel, all this other stuff, and timing, and be able to make mathematical corrections for all that stuff. No kidding, you sit there in the aircraft, and you go like, okay, I see a fire tower, that's supposed to be my second point. But it looks like--you'd eyeball it--it looks like it's a mile to the right. We're supposed to be right on top of it, but we're a mile left of course, and seven seconds behind. And the winds are coming out of the north. So you sit there, and you figure all this stuff out as you're flying along in this little T-34, like 500 feet, and you'd have to say, okay, that means I need to make a 20 degree correction to the south for the next 37 seconds, and then I come back on heading, and that should be back on course. But that's gonna put me behind an additional seven seconds; that's a total 14 seconds that I'm gonna be slowed, so I've gotta push up the power an additional 25 knots for the next minute and a half. I mean, it was ridiculous. Put all this stuff in, and put in your course correction.

Before we even started flying, though, with primary, you go through an academic syllabus that's supposed to help prepare you for aviation in general. It's a very general background--it's like six weeks long, and you spend--there's two classes on aerodynamics, the fundamentals of. There's a class on engines, there's one on flight rules and regulations, and basically--there's a meteorology course as well, to learn about weather. So you do six weeks of that. Once you finish--it's Aviation Preflight Indoctrination, API, is the name of that class. Once you do that section, you check into primary.

Flight school as a whole, advanced being the meatiest portion of it, where you really learn your bread and butter of the job, flight school as a whole probably took me about two years, just under two years to complete. Which was pretty typical at the time for an NFO--for a backseater.

I selected F/A-18s. At flight school, that happens about halfway through your advanced training. And for backseaters, it's either gonna be an EA6B Prowler, where you're an ECMO (electronic countermeasures officer) [pronounced eck-mo] or you're a WSO [pronounced whiz-oh], a weapons systems officer, for the F/A-18D, which is a two-seat version.

That happened in the fall of '99, that I received my wings. So the fall of '99 hits, I get my wings of gold, and it's great. At this point I'm a first lieutenant, and I drive from Pensacola, Florida, out to Miramar, California. And settle in in Southern California, check into VMFAT-101, the Sharpshooters, which is the fleet replacement squadron, the training squadron that you have go through, learning your new platform, which is now the F/A-18. Before you check into a fleet squadron where they already expect you to know the basics of your aircraft and the systems, and they start treating you like a fleet person capable of carrying out a combat mission.

So at the time it was taking about 12-13 months to complete your FRS training at 101. Now I think it's only taking like nine months, or eight months, they've really sped up the process a whole lot. But my introduction to the squadron, the first thing I did was go to SERE school, which is survival, escape and evasion school. Basically like a POW camp, just in case you ever get shot down. It's a lovely time; I highly recommend it to all. And then you come back, and I went through a year of fleet replacement training.

When I completed that, they sent me to VMFA(AW)-121, the Green Knights, also located out of MCAS Miramar. I checked in there the beginning of March of 2001. With that squadron, I made three deployments that were overseas and then a bunch of minor dets within the country--different places for training, anywhere from a week to a month at a time. But our three major deployments were Operation Bright Star--that was in the fall of 2001--and that occurred just around the timeframe of 9/11, actually--just after, because that was the month of October of 2001. And then when we came back, basically everybody was just waiting for something to happen; we knew it was going to happen.

And all that stuff that was going on over in Afghanistan, we knew that we might be assigned out there. So, by the time it was April of 2002, our squadron deployed to Gansi Air Base in Manas, Kurdistan. Which was kind of interesting. It was an Air Force base located in Kurdistan, which is a former Soviet Union country. We were the only Marine squadron out there, other than the ones that were attached to the boats and the carriers that were off in the ocean. It took us about an hour and fifteen minutes to fly down to the northern border of Afghanistan. But for Operation Enduring Freedom, we flew missions over Afghanistan for the following six months. We came home in mid-October of 2002, six months later.

We were at home for another three months or so, and then in February--we knew we were leaving again soon, because there was stuff going on in the Middle East--so when it came to about February 2003, we were already gone again. Actually, the end of January is when our jets left. We were maybe home for three months. We left and flew into Kuwait, into Al-Jaber Air Base, and for the next three months and change, supported Operation Iraqi Freedom, by flying missions over Iraq, for that timeframe. We came back home late May 2003. So we were gone nine months out of twelve.

When we first arrived in Al-Jaber Air Base, Kuwait, in February, it was very cold. It was very, very cold. We didn't have cots; we were lucky to have frames with tarps set over them, so we were sleeping on wooden floors which were set on gravel in Tent City, which are like hundreds upon hundreds of tents all separated by maybe a foot apiece, just rows of these, and they were 10-12 man tents. We would all just pile in there in our sleeping bags--freezing, and the nearest head was like a half a mile away. Wake up at four in the morning, jet lag, want to use the bathroom, and you can't because it's a half mile away and it's like 30 degrees out.

As far as flying, when we first arrived, we flew into part of Operation Southern Watch, so they were still basically patrolling flights on the southern side of the no-fly zone. Once the war kicked off, we went to 24-hour ops, seven days a week. So we had day fliers and night fliers. You couldn't swap because you would mess up crew rest, and crew rest was a big issue there, because people were really tired, and you're flying in combat, people are shooting at you. You need all your senses firing on the right cylinders. And it's really easy to not get enough rest. By the time we left, now it was 110 degrees during the day, you couldn't sleep--especially for night fliers.

I was a night flier, so my typical schedule, and we flew every day, sometimes twice a day, my typical schedule would be--I'd wake up, well, starting in the morning--I would probably go to bed around seven in the morning, cuz I'd be returning from a flight, and then I'd try to sleep for an hour or two. But it would start getting so hot by about eight thirty, that I couldn't sleep any more. By the end of the war, I just wasn't sleeping for like a month. So I'd get up and I'd wander around outside in the morning. I'd try to go work out maybe, depending on how terrible I'm feeling that day, and it's already 90 degrees now, it's like ten in the morning. I'd go get something to eat. I'd come back, I'd read for several hours. I read like 40 books in 30 days. And then for crew rest and crew day, I probably couldn’t go in to work until about 7 or 8 at night. Depends--it would be twelve hours between the time I landed and the time that I went in. Our max was I think like ten at the time, and that was even waivered for us. So you'd basically be trying to be killing time all day, all day, all day. At night I would try to take a nap right at dinner time as the weather is starting to get a little cooler and the temperature's dropping a little, you'd try to get another couple hours of sleep. Then you'd get back up, you'd get some food, and you'd check into the squadron and into the mission planning center about 7-8:00 at night, and you would mission plan now for about four hours.

For your mission planning, you would go to this huge tent, the only tent that had air-conditioning toward the end. You would set up your charts, figure out what your targeting was, go talk to the intel guys, see what was going on. Basically get the whole mission scenario and find out what you're doing that night. Are you gonna be tactical commander for a reconnaissance mission, like a hunter-killer kind of search out the targets and destroy them, are you gonna be just--do you have set targets where they know you want to go drop a certain number of bombs on a certain target? They would give you the coordinates; that's simple enough. And then you would brief for about an hour, with the rest of your flight, anywhere from a two-ship to a four-ship, maybe. If there was a huge strike like early on in the war, it might be involving three different squadrons, eight different aircraft. You would all get together and you would brief for about an hour. Then you'd allow for about an hour and a half, in which you would get all your people together, drive out to the flight line, get all your stuff on, all your gear on, go out and preflight your jet. Make sure all your ordnance is correct, and everything's good to go, get in the jet, start it up, make sure everything's working. If it's not, you might have to spend extra time getting to a different jet that has the right ordnance. There's no point in taking off for the war and not having bombs that you can drop, or anything, it's kind of a waste of time.

You would do all that, and then you go fly your mission. Which, depending on the day, could be anywhere from about an hour to two hours, maybe. After you complete your mission, you'd come back and [?], four in the morning or so, and now it's gonna take you another hour to get out of your gear, debrief your intel guys, let them know what you did, where you did it, turn in any pictures and imagery that you may have for them. They'll pass it on to higher, once they've figured out what they're gonna do with it. Then you get out of your gear and you go back to the briefing spaces, and now you debrief your mission with your whole flight, hey, what went on, what we did, blah, blah, blah, and you go through all that stuff. So by the time you're done, you're like, well, maybe I should get breakfast before I sleep. It's six in the morning again, so, yeah, you're probably gonna go to be about seven.

And that's if you only had one flight. If you had two, then you probably went in a little earlier. It really depends. The day players, obviously, it was perfectly reversed. But I was a night flier for most of the entire war.

I would complain about the living conditions all the time at Al-Jaber, but of course it was nothing compared to all the ground guys. And I would make fun of the ground guys, because I don't think they even had running water. They were amazed by running water, hot food, non-MREs, those meals-ready-to-eat, awful shelf life of 2000 years, packages that they would give you. I guess they're better now, but I still don't--I don't really trust it. So we actually had hot chow, because we were at the Air Force base, and they have everything. They even had a pool, which they opened up toward the end. The Air Force side lived a lot nicer than we did. For our part, we lived in these ten-man tents like I said. Thousands of Marines in this tent city, all separated by maybe a foot of space of gravel in between each tent. There were ten of us living in my tent, which was actually relatively small, and we had enlisted and officers combined. So all the women in my entire squadron were in one tent. That was their way of trying to keep us in one place. Which is better than the deal that most of the women had, which was be--

[end of tape side one]

--calling Al-Jaber Air Base "Camp Al-Jaber," because the Marines had taken it over. It was meant for a thousand people on that base, that was originally what it was built for. By the end we had 4000 Marines to a thousand Air Force personnel. So there were definitely some tense moments in the relations between the services.

But the food wasn't too bad. It was actually really good compared to everybody else. I think some people actually gained weight while they were over there. And living conditions weren't too bad, although the heads were very crowded. They only had a couple female heads available. So during certain rush hour shifts, it would just be so overcrowded, so packed, that they would run out of hot water, and there's like two dozen women in there, all trying to get to the showers, and they were told to take [?] showers, basically like 2-3 minute showers, where you just hurry up, rinse off, and get out. But really, it wasn't bad, because we had showers, and the rest of the guys on the ground further north didn't have any showers at all. So it wasn't too bad. Except in the dust storms. They would have these horrendous dust storms, and then everybody would be really dirty.

I think we were so well prepared by the time we got to Operation Iraqi Freedom--we'd just spent six months flying over Afghanistan, and the ground situation there was much worse. Because you receive all your intel briefs on what the situation is, if you're shot down and become--taken a POW. It was just not a very pretty sight in Afghanistan. There were not a lot of friendlies on the ground. We had Special Ops teams doing their own thing, many different nations, and you'd get briefed on that kind of thing regularly. But for the most part you didn't have any large allied force presence or anything in Afghanistan at the time, and it's a pretty large country. Then you had the mountain ranges that we'd fly over, and you were pretty much done, you were toast, if you ever had to go down in the mountains. Some of them went up 25,000 feet, so survival was not really much of an issue.

After flying those kinds of missions for six months, by the time we got to Iraq, it really didn't seem that big a deal. The only difference was that you were really getting shot at every day. The amazing thing about it is that--I can't really speak for anybody else, but for me, it didn't bother me that much. Because I was so focused on trying to get the mission complete. For us we knew that a lot of our work, in the early days of the war, were gonna be battlefield preparation. Before our guys on the ground can move in, we want to make sure that anything that can hurt them, and touch them, is knocked out and out of the way. So especially as a weapons systems officer, target on positions is my job. I have the coordinates, I'm looking for the target, and I have to find them, using my various sensors on board. In fact, I would get so wrapped up trying to find my target, that sometimes we'd be shot at and I wouldn't even know. I mean, I would know but I just didn't really care. I'd just feel like, yeah, just avoid it. I'd just tell my pilot, stay out of the way, don't get us shot down. He'd be like, you need to go a little higher; this is not a good altitude, and I'd be like, if you go higher I'm gonna have more trouble finding the target. So it was almost like a fight between front seat and back seat; your frontseater typically is looking outside trying not to get shot down. He's responsible for the aircraft and the aircrew, and so he'll try to fly higher and higher. And the guy in the back is like, no, lower, lower! For his sensors to work, he wants to be out of the clouds, he wants to be lower, to get a better picture, and so it's very funny, cuz you'll hear the pilot saying, look outside, you see those clouds, they're not clouds, it's triple A fire. I'm like, I can't, I don't care, we're almost there. So you have so much of that going on in the cockpit that it's--you really don't have too much real fear. I think that probably wouldn't hit until you actually ejected and hit the cloud and were running. At that point I think you'd be like, survival, survival. But when you're in the air you're more concerned about making sure your bomb's on time, on target, because you are in a support role, as Marine Air, and your job is to make sure that you knock out your target so they don't hurt your Marines on the ground.

And you would hear that. I have to say the one real emotion, other than just I need to get my job done, that encouraged me, was one night when we were flying back home--we had prearranged targets that night--we went out there and dropped our bombs on time, hit the targets we were supposed to, started heading back home--and it's a good hundred miles if we go all the way to Baghdad and back, and we were on our way home--we heard a call over Guard, one of the ground units, clearly American and it's clearly troops in contact receiving fire, and they needed air support, and they were calling for help, and they're saying, "Any aircraft, any aircraft. We're receiving heavy fire, the following coordinates--" They weren't even afraid at this point of just broadcasting their grid coordinates, because they really needed help. And I'm the only one out there. It's my section, I'm in the lead aircraft, and I'm like, okay, God, we have nothing. We're [?] gotten out of ordnance, we don't have bullet rounds in the nose, and we don't have the fuel. Because we'd already taken our gas on the way up, from the tanker, heading north. So heading south we'd only planned for enough fuel to get all the way back to Al-Jaber. At the time there were no feasible divert bases for us, where we could say, hey, we had an emergency call, we had to go support this situation, and then we had to go to a divert base. There were no divert bases we could go to. The only base we could go to was back in Al-Jaber, which was a hundred miles away. The call, when I plotted it out on my chart as soon as I got the coordinates, they were a good 70 miles the other direction. So we couldn't support it.

So I put out a call on various frequencies, which is a whole different story--working over Iraq there's like 5000 frequencies, and nobody ever knows who anybody's on. I tried to find other aircraft to support these guys. I talked to them on the ground, I said hey we hear you. We can't support you because we don't have the fuel, and we don't have the ordnance, but let me see if I can find somebody else. They're like, okay, roger that, anything would help; we got nothing down here. I found a couple of F-16s, who were carrying HARM; they didn't have any rounds, they didn't have any regular pods, all they had was the AGM-88, a [?] missile, good for knocking out SAM sites, not very good for close air support. But I talked to them and they were like, well, I don't know what we can do; we got gas, though. I said, okay, great, just go over there and fly low and just circle around them a couple of times and just do a show of force. I'm like, just whatever, but those guys are hurting and we can't do anything about it. So if you're near them, can you just go over there and do something, some kind of presentation? So they did. In the meanwhile, we called back to home base and said, hey, we need another aircraft launched as soon as humanly possible.

But with air support you always run into the problem of [?], the fact it takes a minimum of thirty minutes, even after you have aircrew walking to the jet, a minimum of thirty minutes to launch, and you've got transit time. So, to me, in an aircraft ten minutes is nothing; to a guy on the ground getting shot at, ten minutes the fight could be over. So the only real emotion out of there that I experienced the entire time was this real feeling of, gosh, I wish I could really do more. I really wish I could be there. I wish I could be superhuman, and be here and there, always have extra, infinite number of bombs, and any time someone asked for help I could go out there. Just listening to this voice calling on the radio when nobody could answer their call. Luckily that didn't happen very often at all, but when it did, it was really pretty horrifying. So it was more than my fate--the overriding emotions and concerns, that came from all the aviators that I served with, was really about the guy on the ground, and the other people that we needed to support. And a sense of failure if we couldn't do what we needed to do, because we realized the impact that our failure would have on them, not so much on us.

So we returned home from OIF in May of 2003. I spent a few more months at the squadron, helping them train our brand new guys. We had just received like two new pilots and three new WSOs, and they were working for their combat wingman quals, their basic qualifications--air combat, low altitude training, and you always need someone with more experience in the other jet, to fly, cuz you can't have junior guys in both aircraft, so they try to stagger it out, junior-senior, pilot-WSO, aircraft-aircraft, like that. So I did that for a few more months, and then--you only spend, as a Marine aviator, you're only supposed to spend three years on station, in a fleet tour. And you're required to go to a non-flying tour. So this is my non-flying tour, that I just reported to on September 5th, and it's the First Marine Expeditionary Force protocol officer. It is a one-year billet, and before you can go back to a flying job, you gotta spend a minimum of--I believe it's nine months--outside the cockpit, doing something else for the Marines. So I'm eligible to go back to a flying squadron next summer, once my one year is up. So next August-September timeframe, I'll be hopefully looking to go back to another flying job.

As a closing thought, and this is something that I'm always harping on, it's kind of my personal soapbox, since I've joined the Marines, and more so since returning after nine months deployed overseas. As an aviator, you get a lot of attention for the job you do, as far as the whole guts-and-glory thing. A lot of people pay attention to you because it's kind of one of those glamorous-type jobs, I guess. But we couldn't really do it, at all, if it weren't for all the Marines that work in the squadron. In a squadron you've got, what, 20-40 fliers, depending on if it's a single-seat, two-seat squadron, but you've got like 180 enlisted Marines. And they run their butts off on the flightline, to make sure that your jet is good to go. They support those 24-hour operations, which means that day crew, night crew, each one's going 14 hours, because they've got to overlap so they can pass on to the next crew what's been going on. Oftentimes you're shorthanded in a squadron, so you'll only have four guys in one shop, in Airframes or in QA. So if one guy's sick, one guy's on leave, one guy's not there for some reason, you're down to like two people, and they've gotta work the whole shift. And they've gotta work it out amongst themselves. And they don't have crew rest; they don't have crew day. So they could be there, no kidding, 14-16 hours easily on any given day. When we were overseas, there was just no rest period. There were no breaks, and it was very motivating, because they would do everything they could to make sure that jet was up and ready to go on time, and they always had backups ready. The maintenance department at the Green Knights, those guys had an amazing maintenance record. There were some squadrons that were having trouble maintaining 8 out of 12 jets up at any given time. And us, at any given time, we only had one or two jets that weren't flyable, and that's to be expected. That's above and beyond what's normal for a squadron. And they're really amazing. If I wanted to continue flying, or if I wanted to continue in the Marine Corps, it would be for them. Because, regardless of everything else, they're really the unsung heroes.

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  October 26, 2011
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