Last Hours of George Bush

I’ve been looking for an appropriate opportunity to post an email I received over a year ago and today seems like it. In a few hours Barack Obama will be sworn in as president; George Bush becomes history. Surely to be remembered for a multitude of sins and failures, it seems plain that the Iraq War will remain at the center of Bush’s legacy.

The following email, which deals only peripherally with Iraq but squarely with the military, was sent to me by a Juneau friend who left Alaska to fly U.S. Air Force planes and works today as a pilot for a major U.S. airline. Who knows, maybe he will be in the cockpit of the next flight you board. But if not him, very likely someone who has shared the experiences detailed here. The whole thing comes around to Iraq in the last poignant and arresting paragraphs.

The email came to me as part of an ongoing discussion about all things military and took me a bit by surprise. It’s an intense and eye-opening view into the world of military training and patriotism and brainwashing. It gave me a window into a part of Dave’s life that I previously knew nothing about.

It’s long, but I’m posting it here (with Dave’s permission) exactly as I received it, typos and all. The only change is the name of the man called “Bill,” simply because I felt it would be best to protect his privacy. I’ve read this email several times over the past year and it never ceases to fascinate me. I love this kind of writing—direct, honest, and fearless. Qualities we haven’t seen much of out of Washington D.C. for the past eight years, and ones I believe we’re all hoping to see more of starting today.

Chuck,

Oh yeah, boot camp would be a challenge!

I really didn’t like OTS too well (Officer Training School at Lackland AFB Texas whereafter I was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the USAF) but I can tell you that we all felt pretty damn good about getting through it! But a regular enlisted guy boot camp… Yow! Less mental stuff, but the physical and psychological…! Yeah, tough.

Survival school, no… you don’t find many people that liked that at all so I’m sort of an exception there, but man, it was all good…

Essentially, it was a three week deal. Week one was classroom with me and my new found pals heading downtown to party every night in our rent-a-dent Maverick. Week two was in the woods …

The first couple days in the woods were just in a benign sort of regular outdoors survival situation with a squad of 8 guys or so. We had a mix of talents and comfort levels with the outdoors. We had this one guy who was a flight engineer of a C-141 who was from NYC and had never been off the sidewalk in Central Park. I remember practically carrying the deadbeat up some steep pitches.

On the other hand, we had this Australian Special Forces Commando guy… ultra tough, he and I are cooking up a little food for the crew (we had a live rabbit I killed with a stick and a couple potatoes) and as we are getting things ready by flash light, we notice that there are like millions of these huge daddy-long-legs’ spiders crawling on us! So we look at each other and start cracking up simultaneously as we conspiratorially start grabbing the spiders and stuffing dozens of them into the canteen cups we are making our rabbit and potato stew in! Only a few people stayed up to eat that night and we had a great time between us knowing we had stuffed a zillion of these big fucking spiders into the chow!

The rest of the week was escape and evasion and cross country navigation. Basically you break into teams of two, and you have a topo map and a destination to make for a rendezvous. There are no trails, it’s all map reading and orienteering, and on some days you covered nearly 8 miles. My partner was “Bill Jackson,” who was a C-130 guy from Abilene. Bill was a pretty savvy outdoors type guy from Texas, and of course me being a Juneau kid I’m no stranger to the forest land. I’ll never forget our first afternoon evading… Bill and I were on this ridge and we hear this chopper coming over so we ditch off into a little hide area… Hmmm, we think — so this is how the game is going to go… Then… we looked across this little valley we wanted to cross to get to our rendezvous with the “partisan” motherfuckers, and son-of-a-bitch if there weren’t these 2-1/2 ton trucks coming up this road loaded with troops to search for us!!! We became like sinister forest animals at that point… I mean, in a sense… It was like a giant game of hide-and-go-seek, and yet of course, this was our job!

Of course, the biggest thing in any training we had back then is that if you really fucked it up, you would have to repeat it; and of course — it was pretty hard to start with so you really didn’t want that to happen, and along with that — look like a loser for having failed! And cleverly enough, you really never knew where the limits were, so even if you wanted to slack it off, you had no idea of how much you could ease it off. For me, I’m pretty much on full blower all the time anyway on that sort of thing so it was no problem, but there were a lot of guys who had a pretty hard time of it. And of course, this “fear of failure” was the huge motivator for the last week of training… the POW Camp.

So a week of classroom, a week in the woods, and then the last week… the camp.

It actually started with another day of class, but that evening, instead of heading out to party, we had to report to some sort of muster right after dinner… We were loaded onto these busses just as the sun set, but, our busses didn’t go too far in the dark when we stopped and were boarded by some bad-ass looking dudes with guns… a couple of flash grenades went off… and the next thing we know we are herded off the bus and we are on our knees with hoods being choked over our heads… Next, roughly barked instructions in a Russian accent as I’m roughly pulled to my feet… “Criminal…put your left paw on the criminal in front of you’s shoulder.”

Around me, I can hear people being pushed around and roughed up. Eventually we assemble into some sort of line held together with our paws on the shoulder of the criminal in front… More orders are barked: “On you left hoof, Harch!” And off we go into the unknown but dreaded and mythical ‘Camp’.

People often talk of “suspended disbelief” when discussing movie experiences, or even a nice escape into a book. I can tell you that the POW camp experience provided something like that… but to a level of which I would never have thought possible… and to this day I simply marvel at. It was an experience of a lifetime, and the design of which was pure genius. All the while, we knew were in a school, and yet at the same time we knew that we weren’t…

I mean, we had all heard these stories from our mates that had come back to the squadron after the school, and so in a sense, you have a pretty good idea of what might happen, but being there, and doing it any foreknowledge anyone had some didn’t seem to matter…

I can’t tell you everything that happened, but I remember being in an isolation cell for a long time, with these weird “musics” on the loudspeakers, and we could only stand, and I could hear guys getting the shit beat out of the around me, and then somehow a firehose was spraying on me and the mean guards ( I had a hood on still so I couldn’t see them) are making me stand up again…

Interrogations too of course…

I can’t really describe this well, but the feeling I had when I was there, was that… inside, I knew I was at survival school, and that a certain series of events was likely to play out… but, somehow — and even more intensely — at the same time — I KNEW that something had gone wrong with our training, and that: A) We were going to be in this camp situation for a long time; much longer than had originally been foreseen; B) I had no idea ever of what time it was or what day it was. C) It was really, really tough. D) there really was NO HOPE of getting out of there anytime soon…

So at some point on some day, I was raking up these rocks outside a bunker and it was dark, and I ran into my buddy Bill! We were both pretty low… Dude… how are you?… Hang in there… we’re fucked, this whole deal is just fucked… I go back to raking up these rocks before some guards can start fucking with us and I’m completely emotionally and physically exhausted; Billy is too.

A mortar attack comes in and we all scurry underground into the bunkers as explosions thunder overhead. The raid is over and I’m back with a hoe in my hand.

And then, over the loudspeaker system… We’d knew the drill by now… the Giant Voice raved… “Criminals; Put down your tools in a safe fashion; turn and face the loudspeaker for an important announcement from the camp commandant.” This time we had to muster in front to the commandant’s rostrum where we were normally denounced and browbeaten, and our senior officers were humiliated…

It’s night, I’m exhausted, emotionally drained, I have no idea what time it is or what day it is… and I KNOW — and no shit, I mean this, I KNOW and Believe — we are in some deep shit and we are in for a long haul in the joint… I mean I know this and it’s hard and it hurts…

The commandant commands us to turn around, away from the stage… but the tone of the tirade changes… and then it’s like — and I just CAN’T remember the exact words, but it’s like, somehow it’s something like…. “You are soldiers for the greatest nation on the earth…” and we are commanded “ABOUT…FACE” and we wheel around and there…

There are these spotlights…

And the spotlights are shining a zillion watts up into the sky, up to the top of a flagpole….

And flying high on the top of this silver pole… There is this GIANT FUCKING STARS AND STRIPES FLAG… and it’s over.

I wish I could remember exactly what the commandant said that night, but let me tell you — that turning around… and seeing that flag was one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had.. I cried then, and I’m crying now!

Yeah… Survival… That was a time….

And listen Chuck, it’s just that sort of shit that bonds the military guys together so tightly. I mean if I meet some USAF guys, we are automatically pals…. So… you didn’t want to be in the military, and really neither did I! I just wanted to learn to fly and become an airline guy, but along the way, man, it was a great experience. So you would have had a great time in the service!

Oh also, the flip side of Aircrew Survival and the Camp at Fairchild was “Ejection Seat Water Survival” at Homestead AFB Florida! This school was totally cool! For our ‘final exam’ we ‘parachute’ into the Atlantic Ocean via being towed by parasail at about ‘800 feet, then, the boat holds up the ‘Release’ flag and we knock away the pelican hook on the towline and it’s “Canopy; (helmet) Visor; (disconnect oxygen) Mask; (release) Seat Pack; (inflate) LPU (your life vest); 4-line Jettison (to allow steering your ‘chute); Steer into the wind.” and SPLASH! into the Ocean you plunge… Pretty good training eh’ I can still remember the litany of the “after the chute opens” procedure!

After splashdown the chute was sort of towing me backwards but I quickly released him and the chase boat rolled up to retrieve it; After that, I’m on my own in the ocean…. Unbelievably, Both of the C02 cart’s in my vest actually worked, but no way on the raft! You would not believe how fast you can blow up a one-man raft with pure lung-power when you know that barracudas and sharks are looking at your feet like a fucking menu item! So you float around for a day or so and then a big heli comes and picks you up! Man that is something! It’s like a hurricane underneath a HH-53 and you have to flood your raft and than swim to the pickup hook! Totally good school!

Anyway man, I ramble on, but suffice to say, these modern times and middle age are pretty fucking lame. And really this is the dilemma a lot of military people face; Look at some kid in Iraq… he kick’s down a door and some sort of dune-coon motherfucker shoots him three times in the chest with an AK-47… his body armor keeps him alive as his squad fires up the shooter… later that day, he talks to his dad about it, and his dad tells me the story when we’re flying down to LAX…

So here is this kid when he comes back to the normal world after the service… How do you find a normal job that offers even ten percent of the rush of what you just got done doing? How do you go back into the normal world of stupid people driving around talking on their cellphones gossiping about how lame their job is, and where 99% of people have no idea of how intense life can sometimes be…

Anyway, enough rambling, sometime I’ll tell you about getting intercepted by Russian fighters off the Sakhalin Islands.

Dave

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