“It should give you an opportunity to exorcise some demons and obtain closure!”
….said a friend to me. I wasn’t aware I had any demons to exorcise or required closure on anything except my wife and daughter’s expensive equestrian hobby!
This conversation was initiated by my delight to see BGW on my work roster. For the previous few months my airline had been operating to BGW or Baghdad International Airport. In my previous life as fast-jet jock on the Tornado GR4 I had flown many missions and hundreds of hours over Iraq in support of Coalition objectives. Now I had an opportunity to return to the capital city of a country that for 2 out of my 4 Operational tours did their level best to shoot my WSO and I out of the beautiful blue sky. I hope they don’t hold grudges!
The last time I had been in Baghdad, or more accurately orbiting at 12 000ft in the killbox to the east of the International Airport, was in 2007. My WSO and I spent several hours supporting troops patrolling through hostile areas outside of the’ Green Zone.’ With our Litening laser designation pod (LDP) we had sufficient fidelity in TV and IR mode to identify and highlight to the soldiers on the ground any unexpected problems we saw on the ground. It took an experienced crew to notice and quantify changes in ‘pattern of life’ activity but it was one that we all took very seriously. An un-scheduled roadblock with 3 ‘hot spots’ on a roof top could mean enemy snipers waiting to ambush our boys down below. Any airborne platform that could provide real-time intelligence was valuable in these dangerous times. The LDP strapped to our belly was even more valuable as it was one of the only pods in theatre with a data-link capability. This allowed ‘fast air’ to beam live real-time video to the Forward Air Controllers (FACs) if they were equipped with a suitable ruggedized laptop and on the same net as us. This isn’t the type of Hollywood blockbuster heroics one comes to expect of fighter aircrews but in 2007 we played an important part in the ISTAR (information, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) picture and it made the soldiers on the ground happier to know that we were riding shotgun with them. Big brother on overwatch: watching and ready to strike!
In 2017 the only payload I was going to drop was 21 tonnes of freight to satisfy my airline’s corporate and customer requirements. Flying up the North Arabian Gulf bought back memories. Familiar sounding waypoints including the critical one on the border of Iraq where we completed our FENCE checks; ensuring all systems were GO/NO GO before entering bad-lands.
We passed Kuwait to our left. It’s border with Iraq so clearly delineated with sand of unusually and strikingly different colour. “Enemy coast ahead. Check your guns!” was a phrase used by Bomber Command crews in World War II when crossing the border. My WSO and I said it every time we crossed the border. I suppose that we were using military humour and tradition to settle our nerves but it also served as a reminder for us to focus on the job at hand for as soon as we crossed that clear line in the sand, they were tracking us and trying to shoot us down – FIGHTS ON!
The familiar Um-Qasr waterway loomed ahead with the Shatt al-Arab river some way to the east snaking north to the large city of Basrah. To the north-west of this city of over 1 million people was Basrah Airport and the COB (Contingency Operating Base). In 2007 it was home to over 4000 service personnel and civilians and I must have spent hundreds of hours orbiting over it and the streets of the city, observing life-threatening pattern-of-life changes. I saw Basrah International Airport through the haze and tried to identify the AAA berms that we had once attacked and also the dead-area to the south where we had engaged insurgents readying a home-made rocket to fire at our troops based at the COB.
Basrah departed behind us and more familiar names passed by; Al Kut, Nasiriyah, Amarah, Al Fajr, Samawah, Diwaniyah. It was like returning to your home town when you’ve been away for many years except the memories linked to these places were not the friendly, childhood types. Troops in contact and searching for a sniper after a fatal kill shot, a low-level show of force to relieve the pressure on friendlies during an intense firefight, my first operational bomb drop on a pop-up target inside an operational SA6 MEZ (missile engagement zone). It also brought back memories of friends who didn’t make it: the Tornado crew killed by friendly fire as they returned home after a successful mission, a good friend who survived his Tornado missions only to be killed when the C130 Hercules he was traveling in was shot down. November, the month of military remembrance in the UK, was close which might have heightened my feelings but I hadn’t re-visited these memories for such a long time.
We began our descent into Baghdad International Airport which was as normal as any approach I have flown before. Fourteen years previously this was the Baghdad Super-MEZ! Home to a lethal array of surface-to-air missiles and AAA guns all pointing south and waiting to engage the “Bastard Ravens of Evil” as Saddam’s PR machine had named us once in the local newspaper. We passed a disused military airfield. Hardened aircraft shelters still scarred by the direct hits of our laser guided bombs years before. Runways and taxyways redundant and disused.
As Baghdad International appeared in the haze, the familiar lakes to the east of the airfield with Saddam Hussain’s derelict presidential palaces appeared. The sprawling mass of the city further to the east with the most dangerous road in Iraq – IED Alley – now alongside the southern perimeter fence and teeming with traffic. Gear down, Flap 30, land, taxy in and 30 minutes later I am observing the unloading of the aircraft drinking a cup of tea and gazing at the palaces and the city from a new and different aspect than previously.
I guess my friend was correct. We all have demons – some small, some not-so-small. As a 6ft tall, rugby player, husband and father of 3 does our society allow me to allow myself to acknowledge those demons? Only by acknowledging the memories of our past can we confront and deal with them – however that might be achieved. I thought I had dealt with some of the things I experienced during my time on Operations but clearly they were still present. Fortunately my trip to Baghdad, followed by my wife’s excellent listening skills and a few beers, helped exorcise those demons. Anxiety issues after significantly stressfull events, commonly termed PTSD in the medical world, are well documented and feature in the news headlines frequently but that does not mean our community is open for us to chat about them freely over a coffee or a beer. Personally, I am open about my experiences and find reflection and discussion helps relieve the stress but it’s not that easy for everyone. In the future look out for your wingman and support your brothers (and sisters) in arms, whatever colour uniform or cap badge they wear as that strong, tough veneer on the outside might not display how they are feeling on the inside.