Memorial Day Remembrance, 2014

I wrote this speech to deliver to the Village of Kohler, Wisconsin, as part of their 2014 Memorial Day parade and ceremony.

Memorial Day is dear to Americans because it isn’t about us. Simply put, if we are here to celebrate it, then it isn’t about us — because we are alive to remember. It honors the achievement and sacrifice of our countrymen and women whose service required their very life.

As a Marine, the stories of my forbearers who gave their lives in service are legendary to me. Nearly any Marine can tell you the story of Lieutenant Bobo. Quoting from his Medal of Honor citation: “When an exploding enemy mortar round severed Second Lieutenant Bobo’s right leg below the knee, he refused to be evacuated and insisted upon being placed in a firing position to cover the movement of the command group to a better location. With a web belt around his leg serving as a tourniquet and with his leg jammed into the dirt to curtail the bleeding, he remained in this position and delivered devastating fire into the ranks of the enemy attempting to overrun the Marines.” That occurred in Viet Nam in 1967.

A more recent example is Corporal Dunham. His Medal of Honor citation relates, “…[A]n insurgent leaped out and attacked Corporal Dunham. Corporal Dunham wrestled the insurgent to the ground and in the ensuing struggle saw the insurgent release a grenade. Corporal Dunham immediately alerted his fellow Marines to the threat. Aware of the imminent danger and without hesitation, Corporal Dunham covered the grenade with his helmet and body, bearing the brunt of the explosion and shielding his Marines from the blast.” This occurred in Iraq in 2004.

These young Marines, and their sacrifice, live on in the institutional memory of the service. I first encountered Lieutanant Bobo’s name in 2003, when I underwent Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. It was the name of our Chow Hall, a place of great importance to us candidates, and our Drill Instructors never wasted an opportunity to tell us the story of the hall’s namesake (usually as part of a larger diatribe regarding our worthlessness and general incapacity to become Marines. Ah, the sweet nurturing environment of Basic Training!). Enlisted Marines also learn about Lieutenant Bobo in their Boot Camp. I know that in time, buildings and roads on bases throughout the Marine Corps will bear the name of Corporal Dunham, and newer generations of Marines will learn about — and be inspired by — his heroic deeds as well.

These two stories from different wars show us that the decision to give what President Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion” at Gettysburg (arguably the first Memorial Day celebrated by this nation) is not made in the moment of stress. Lieutenant Bobo would not have had the fortitude to resist evacuation and direct the fight after losing his leg unless he had already decided, in some deep unconscious center of his soul, that he would give his all for his country. Corporal Dunham could not have jumped on that grenade “without hesitation” and within the five-second fuse of such weapons, had he not already chosen — in the months and years of training and operations prior to that moment –that the success and integrity of his mission and his team were more important than his own life.

This day is set aside to celebrate our nation’s fallen, but not only their final heroic deed of service. It celebrates also their lives, for each of them had the character and courage to dedicate themselves wholly to the rest of us long before we collectively asked them to sacrifice themselves. They represent the best of these United States, the ones who have made our existence and prosperity possible: the Minutemen who faced British cannon and muskets in 1775; the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin Volunteer Regiments who as part of the famed Iron Brigade defended the high ground west of Gettysburg on the first day of that battle, enabling the rest of the Union Army to emplace and finally score a victory which led to the preservation our nation whole; the Soldiers and Marines who faced the unprecedented peril of amphibious landings at Normandy and throughout the Pacific; the heroes of Viet Nam and recent conflicts in the Middle East.

Today I remember the Marines I knew personally who died in service. Some, like Lieutenant Blue, died in Battle. He was as an outstanding officer, who routinely aced physical and tactical tests at The Basic School where we were classmates. He was also known as a “good dude” (in our lingo), which meant he was the kind of guy who would give up weekends to help his fellow students master testable skills, like marksmanship and compass navigation. He already had what the rest of us recent college graduates were struggling to develop: outstanding character. In training, he had all the talent and drive to graduate as the number one student, but chose instead to use his gifts to help his fellow students (and even so he graduated in the top 10% of our class). Our success was more important to him than his own. If anyone understood the importance of character and service at the tender age of 25, when he was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq (2007), it was Lieutenant Blue. Word of his death spread quickly among his classmates, even to those like me who had limited interaction with him during our short time in school together. I believe he was the first of our class to die in the conflict, and he proved the old adage “the good die young.”

I also remember Marines who died in Training. A fellow fighter jock of mine, Reid Nannen, died this year [2014] when his F/A-18 Hornet crashed into the mountains of Nevada, where he was training at the Naval Fighter Weapons School (otherwise known as “Top Gun”). His callsign, or nickname, was “Eyore” because he was always comically pessimistic, but it under-laid his solemn unwavering dedication to the craft of aerial combat and aviation ground support, which had earned him the rare and coveted spot at Top Gun in the first place. He was also known for his dedication to his family, and was survived by his pregnant wife and three children. Although he was only training, it’s easy to forget that  our service members assume serious risk beyond what most non-military folks ever encounter in just training for combat. And it’s important to note that his family served our country in a way as well, suffering his absence when the country needed him to get ready for war as well as execute it, as he did in Afghanistan, and suffering his loss in the deepest way. Memorial Day is for them, too.

We celebrate the men and women who have died for us because we recognize that the highest and best use of freedom is in the service of others. Some wars we fought to carve out and preserve a spot of freedom on the earth to call home, these United States, and some wars we fought to bring freedom to others. But the men and women who died in our wars swore their lives to protect that freedom, firstly for us, but also for others less fortunate. I ask you all, as I would ask any of our countrymen, to enjoy this day as Americans — enjoy our freedom, our happiness, and our prosperity at the dawn of summer. Enjoy barbecues, enjoy some pick-up basketball games, and enjoy this time with your families. Enjoying our blessings is how I believe fallen service members want us to remember them.

But while enjoying this Memorial Day holiday, I will also honor the fallen with a quiet personal toast of my beer. I invite all of you to do the same.

This article was published first by Military Spouse Magazine. Please check out their site!

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The 11th of November is recognized around the world as “Armistice Day,” and was first celebrated in 1918 at the cessation of the First World War. Since that day, the combatant nations have developed their own traditions about the day, the most common being a 2-minute silence observed at 11:00 AM (the eleventh hour) with the first minute dedicated to the 20 million people who died in the fighting and the second minute dedicated to those they left behind, specifically their families and friends (who were recognized also as victims of the war).

In the United States, Armistice Day was renamed to Veteran’s Day. Its purpose was changed, too, because the United States already had a day of remembrance for those who died in combat. Instituted after our deadliest war, the Civil War, the final Monday in May is known as Memorial Day and is dedicated to all Americans who died in battle. Our Veteran’s Day, however, is meant to recognize not specifically those who died for our nation, but all those who stepped up to take that risk.

The importance of this holiday lies in the nature of our own democracy. Whereas colonial powers in the 18th century chiefly fought with professional armies and mercenaries, the nascent United States chose to ask its civilians to bear the hardships and risks of military service. The founding fathers reasoned that citizens, who were aware of their value to the state and invested in its continuance, would both best defend the country and prevent tyrants backed by professional armies from threatening their freedom. And so the idea of a citizen-soldier came into being.

We all contribute to our national defense mostly by paying taxes that finance our military. During the Second World War, we collected scrap metal, scrap rubber, and planted victory gardens. We may post social media statuses in support of our military, or advocate better care for those suffering the physical and emotional wounds of conflict, or put a supportive sticker on our car. And those are great and appreciated acts, especially considering the many voices that vilely condemn and degrade our service members.

But what separates the Veterans from the rest of Americans is their oath to support and defend the constitution—and, by extension, both the people it represents and the institutions it created—even unto their own death. The Veterans willingly chose to give up some of their inalienable rights for the sake of military discipline, to give up the comfort and safety of family, friends, and society, to practice and execute wildly dangerous tasks necessary for the defense of our nation. They risk their lives, not just in all the conflicts we’ve fought since the ceasefire in Compiègne, France in 1918, but in their daily existence: they train in all weather, risking heat stroke and hypothermia; they service and operate engines, pushing ground and air vehicles to the very edge of design capability; they practice using firearms and explosives. They also forego the luxury of leisurely self-discovery in their service of a higher cause, as well as suffer deployments which take them away from their loved ones during holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, births, deaths, and all the other little life events that are markers for memories in a relationship.

For most Veterans, their service was mostly enjoyable. It bestows confidence, meaningful achievement, strong friendships, and unforgettable experiences. But many Veterans also bear scars from their service. They remember comrades who died, or terrible hate in the faces of their enemies, or the price of a second’s neglect, perhaps on the trigger of a gun or in the cockpit of an airplane. That is often the price of military service, though it mostly gets little press or attention, and most Veterans bear such anguish stoically because they know they “signed up for it” and are unwilling to demean their sacrifice by making it the burden of another.

And finally, let us not forget that the privation and suffering of Veterans are shared by their families and friends, who are often left alone and bereft during deployments or training, and who do not have the military support structure of discipline and camaraderie. Service members’ families also receive far less emotional support from our society than military men and women. As they share the burden, so also should they share recognition on this day.

On November 11th, we remember that what Veterans—and those who love them—have done, what they have risked, is special to our country. It continually validates our democracy and our society, recognizing that our nation’s will is truly of the people and by the people. So for those people who take the risk imposed by their oath to defend this country, and who bear the burdens of military service, we (whether we are Veterans or not) offer our thanks and appreciation.

Thank you for your service.

Tactical Flight, and life in San Diego

It has been four long months since I last wrote about my continuing military adventure. This is partially due to the time commitment of my job, partially due to the other activities I have taken on, but mostly due to the fact that my job is no longer so easy to explain. As I get more specialized in my profession, the knowledge I acquire is more technical and thus of diminished interest to the world at large. But I will try to adequately describe the excitement of operating a real military jet, which is much more than the experience of flying.

As a refresher, I am currently assigned to the Fleet Replacement Squadron VMFAT-101. The purpose of this unit is to train new pilots and flight officers how to specifically operate the F/A-18 Hornet. The program consists of several phases. The first I wrote about in my last post about flying. The next is air-to-ground training: how to bomb and deliver advanced weapons — the ones you hear about on the news. Much of knowledge required is technical specifications about the ordnance itself, or the delivery systems organic to the aircraft, and much of that stuff is secret (no, it’s really classified…I’m not kidding). But the flights themselves are rewarding, because we generally “roll in” on a target, a fancy way to say we dive-bomb it. It has a few advantages: you can look at your target and thereby attack more accurately, and you can deliver the weapon on a moving target (something harder from high altitude). There is little in the world as exciting as flying toward the ground at 500 mph, trying to put a steel bomb on target without actually impacting the ground yourself. Naturally, we are very careful–and we certainly don’t hesitate to pull out of the dive if a dangerous situation develops. But it requires a lot of concentration.

Some of you may be inquiring why we dive-bomb when we have all these fancy GPS weapons. Others might be thinking that we’re crazy to dive-bomb at all, what with the threat of turning ourselves into a kamikaze jet. A single answer suffices for both: dumb bombs are cheaper than smart bombs, and the most effective way to deliver them is by a dive delivery. And since the whole purpose of Marine Aviation is to put bombs on bad guys, we do that as best we can…even if it’s dangerous. And we train to it. Hence the many practice flights. You’d think it gets repetitive, but it doesn’t. It’s a lot of fun, partially because it’s such a challenge. There are few things in life as satisfying as doing a demanding job well.

Speaking of putting bombs on bad guys, the culmination of the air-to-ground phase is CAS, or Close Air Support — supporting ground troops actually in contact with the enemy, as opposed to pre-planned deep strikes against solitary (and presumably high-value) targets. This is also very dangerous, because the explosive effects of our weapons can cover a lot of ground, and the worst thing we could do is hurt our own troops. To add to the possibility of error is the fact that oftentimes we cannot plan our targets in advance, since a battle is always fluid and we have to respond to developing situations. We instead rely on external controllers (airborne or on the ground) to direct us to targets as they appear. So we have strict procedures to follow in the airplane to deliver our weapons accurately. There is a specific brief over the radio (the 9-line) and standardized radio comms to keep everybody informed and allow ground personnel to check our attack parameters and target location. I can’t really describe the excitement of this kind of mission: it is exciting, challenging, and intense. It is, in fact, exactly what I wanted to do when I signed up for Marine Aviation. It’s worth noting that as a backseater, I will eventually train as one of the (airborne) external controllers, and my job then will be to fly above the battlespace and direct other aircraft (including helicopters) in Close Air Support. I can’t wait.

In my civilian life, I have found a church here with a very strong Young Adult program (they tend to get offended if referred to as “youth,” though I still think of myself as such). This facet of their ministry is appropriate considering their location in Pacific Beach , a neighborhood of small shops, tattoo parlors, bars, and small apartments whose chief residents are college students. But the ministry offers everything from a Memorial Day barbecue to in-depth conferences and bible studies oriented toward (and led by) young adults. It’s a fun group—we often go out to dinner after Mass, or simply go out drinking if the mood strikes us. Recently I began leading a bible study with a friend of mine, and the chance to do the “great books” thing again–by immersing myself in the text and trying to understand it with other people and perspectives–has been very rewarding. In fact, spending time with these young Catholics constitutes my largest extra-military activity.

As my parents found out when they visited over Mother’s day, life is good in California. The weather is nice more often than not, and (at least around the city) the landscape is beautiful. It is definitely desert, though–I find it amazing that the entire coastal landscape becomes distinctly greener after a day of rain, and becomes gradually browner during good weather. The real desert is evident when flying over the mountains east of the city to the bombing ranges. It is a bleak, magnificent landscape; never easier to appreciate than when raging around at 300 feet above the desert floor, rolling over dramatic ridges and diving through valleys. Though it’s fun to see that kind of landscape, I prefer the comparatively lush coastline.

On one flight out over the ocean, I chanced to look down as we went “feet wet” and noticed what appeared to be a solitary beach immediately below me. That afternoon I went to check it out as a possible location to go for a run. There were only a few people there, but oddly enough half of them appeared to be naked. It took a minute for this to sink in (since it was so unexpected), but I discovered later that I had found Black’s Beach, which is apparently a de facto nude beach. Given the several-hundred-foot cliffs that separate it from the headland, authorities rarely (read: never) come to enforce the San Diego ordinance prohibiting nudity. Despite that, it is a largely solitary and clean beach, nestled between the surf and the cliffs–a beautiful place to run. In fact, there are many beautiful places around here, and I am happy to be able to enjoy them.

Southern California has not disappointed me.

First Hornet Flight and the Great Southwest

This past weekend I climbed into an F/A-18D Hornet for the first time. From Friday to Sunday I completed five flights. The loss of my weekend was well worth the opportunity to “go on the road,” as the say here, because I got to explore a part of the country I had hitherto only read about.

Friday morning my instructor and I manned up the jet to fly out to Scottsdale, AZ and the to Albuquerque, NM. We had five flights to do, so we started by flying north to Fresno, and then southeast to spend that night in Scottsdale. The first flight is mostly an introduction, so we took time to explore the aircraft capabilities offshore. Part of that is demonstrating turn rates, acceleration, and climb capabilities (all of which are important to know and use when fighting). There, for the first time in my life, I broke the sound barrier. It was actually much smoother than I expected–no more than a slight bump passing Mach 1.0, and then again decelerating. Since it has been six and a half months since I’ve aircrewed a jet, I experienced a little nausea during the maneuvers and some difficulty counteracting the G forces. I was also a bit nervous. But all went according to plan and I didn’t actually get airsick, so all was well. We flew directly over Los Angeles and got to see the entire city from the west hills to Irvine and Burbank, then passed over the inland desert. My attention for most of the rest of that flight was held by the Sierra Nevada in the distance, floating and snowcapped.

We spent about two hours on deck in Fresno, refueling with pizza and Gatorade, and then got on the way to Scottsdale. Our original intention was to fly over the Grand Canyon, but since the sun was westering and we wanted to make it to Scottsdale while it was still light, we decided to scrap that plan and turn to our destination. Having seen it twice from the air (once in a commercial jet), I still have a hard time comprehending just how barren the Southwest is. Our visibility from the jet was unlimited, and nowhere did I see anything but brown, bare, rugged desert. Occasionally a dry lakebed would emphasize the essential lifelessness of the place. It was beautiful, though. It was a place of immense and magnificent solitude. As an interesting bit of trivia is that the Space Shuttle uses one of the dry lakebeds as a place to land – it essentially extends from the end of the normal runway for another three or four miles.

The land becomes more mountainous in the Phoenix area. Small ranges or single mountains grow at random from an otherwise flat desert. Phoenix airspace has become very busy, and my instructor demonstrated the Air-to-Air radar for me by locking up “shooting” other aircraft. We got Scottsdale airfield in sight just as the sun set, and performed a 7.5 G break over the field – far more Gs than I had previously pulled in any jet. That is, incidentally, the maximum for the F/A-18. It was a very exciting, high-performance maneuver and it was a suitable end to an exciting (almost overwhelming day).

The next morning we took departed the Phoenix area to the north. This time we had plenty of daylight, beautiful weather, and were going to see the Grand Canyon if we could. On our way there we passed both Sedona, with its incredibly red gorges and rocks, and Flagstaff mountain, which stands as a solitary snow-capped beacon over the desert. With the canyon in sight, Air Traffic Control (ATC) asked us if we wanted the “canyon tour,” then (unusually) cleared us to deviate right or left as necessary to see the whole thing. Probably only those reading this who have actually visited the Grand Canyon can understand how awesome an experience it is. The terrain around it is 6,600 feet above sea level (and incidentally, was lightly dusted with snow). The Canyon walls themselves plunged alarmingly into a seemingly infinite set of alternate gorges and peaks. It was very colorful, but the most distinct element was simply how vertical the rock formations were. Spires and ridges of stone reared thousands of feet nearly straight up in the air. At the bottom of the canyon was no valley; the Colorado river wound through what was purely a trough of stone. The whole edifice covered hundreds of miles of desert. There are literally no words to adequately describe it, but it was good to fly lazily mere thousands of feet over the canyon and drink in its majesty.

Once we were sufficiently overwhelmed, we called ATC and told them we were heading to Albuquerque. We had a lot of fuel left, so we cruised pretty quickly over there. The Albuquerque airport sits at 5,355 feet above sea level (higher than Denver), and the air is thin enough that the jet takes a lot longer to slow down before landing and a lot longer to stop once touched down, which was interesting and just a bit hairy. We met my instructor’s mother at the terminal, and decided to see the sights of the city. Albuquerque sits on the high desert, with mountains (Sandia peak) towering to the east. There is a famous tram that runs to the top (really more a gondola), which claims to be the longest in the world. We decided to go up, check out the view, and have lunch. It was an amazing ride – the west slopes of the mountain are bare and vertical, with stunted little firs growing trained by the constant wind. Toward the top, three and four feet of ice were plastered horizontally on the boughs. At the top itself, the temperature was 16 degrees Fahrenheit. I never knew the southwest could get so cold! Furthermore, the altitude up there is 10,300 feet above sea level. To give you some perspective on how high that really is, in naval aircraft we are required to be wearing oxygen masks above 10,000 feet in order to prevent hypoxia, or dangerous oxygen depletion. The three of us sat up there in the restaurant and drank down tea and coffee to stay warm, and admired the 100-mile views out to other mountain ranges. Around us sat skiers and snowboarders who ride the tram up and ski down the east slopes of the mountain, which is serviced by three lifts and has long, beautiful, powdery runs–which is something else I didn’t know was in the southwest. The desert sunset from the top of the that mountain was an incredible spectacle. When our ticket finally got called to ride down, we froze in the now four degree air and forty mile-an-hour wind blast until the tram arrived, wondering if we’d ever been colder in our collective lives. I certainly hadn’t.

That night we flew back to North Island Naval Air Station, which is on the island of Coronado in San Diego. Technically still on cross country, it was nice to sleep in my own bed again. Flying at night is peaceful, because the radios are quiet and the spread lights look very peaceful from above. After our ordeal on the mountain top and our tour of the Grand Canyon, we welcomed the relatively stress-free flight back home. The next morning (Sunday morning), we drove back to the jet and took off for the extremely short trip back to Miramar. Fortunately, we had fuel and time so we went back out over the water to maneuver the jet again, and I got to fly up to 48,000 feet and see the curvature of the earth along the horizon, then unloaded (put the jet into 0-G flight) and pushed the airspeed up to 1.38 Mach. My instructor practiced some Air Combat maneuvering at high Gs (which has left my legs quite sore), and we returned to the field in time to debrief and get home for the Super Bowl.

Now, back on the ground, I am tired. My body needs to get used to flying again – the pressure changes, the G forces, the mental strain of operating systems and talking on the radio. But it was definitely fun–I still revel in the fact I am flying in a plane that can accidentally break the speed of sound if the pilot isn’t paying attention, and I welcome the opportunity to see new places. It is good to be here again.

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway

I write this just having returned from Centrifuge training at NAS Lemoore, and it turns out to be a tale worth telling – in fact, it is the first really interesting thing I have done in the past five months. My orders out of Pensacola directed me to report to NAS Lemoore on my way to Miramar, which is a nice little detour north of San Diego to the Fresno area. Centrifuge training has been a requirement since 1998 or so for tactical aircrew, and is designed to accustom new pilots and WSOs (I’m a WSO) to the dynamic “G” forces they will endure while flying high-performance fighter and attack aircraft. These aircraft are designed to turn very quickly through the air in order to either gain an advantage over another aircraft in a dogfight, or run away from an attacking enemy. These aircraft turn so quickly, in fact, that their crew are subjected to several times the force of gravity (a multiple of the force of gravity is called a “G,” so that one G is the force of gravity; two Gs are twice the force of gravity, etc.). Since the human body is designed to operate perfectly under the influence of only one G, the effect of excessive Gs is to cause blood to pool in the lower extremities (away from the head) causing in extreme cases a total loss of consciousness. Obviously, a loss of consciousness on the part of the aircrew renders their jet ineffective in a fight, and may cause the jet to crash for lack of human control. To combat the effect of Gs, naval aviators are exposed to these G forces in a giant centrifuge, where they learn to flex certain muscles and control their breathing in order to stay conscious during this type of flying. The F/A-18 – my future jet – can be flown up to 7.5 Gs.

I left San Diego on the 6th of December. Lemoore is located roughly a third of the way up the length of California, forty miles south of Fresno. With careful attention to timing so as to avoid the worst traffic in the Los Angeles area, I drove the “straight” route up I-5. That freeway is huge – at least eight lanes wide from San Diego to well north of LA. It hugs the coast for a while, affording sporadic views of the Pacific, but turns inland in LA and slows down. I fought traffic for a while before reaching the Santa Monica mountains north of the city, which are beautiful, barren, and high: the freeway climbs to over 4000 feet of elevation between rugged ridges before dropping suddenly off into the San Joachin valley, between the coastal mountains and the Sierra Nevada. When I say “drop suddenly,” I mean it. Around a bend in the road I suddenly saw the valley floor far below me, spread out to the horizon and covered with a pall of smog.

The San Joachin valley is much like Eastern Washington. It is an irrigated desert and filled with huge crop fields and huge stockyards. Coming up on the latter you notice a foul stench several miles before you actually get to the compound. Lemoore itself smells the same way, including the tap water, which is…unpleasant. The freeways are so straight here that there is an actual vanishing point in front of the car – the road literally proceeds for hundreds of miles without changing direction at all. The towns themselves are small and provincial; apparently one has to go to Fresno (which has a university) in order to find a bar that stays open past midnight. Last night I went to a party in Lemoore where the chief entertainment was a bonfire made from throwing together all the beer case boxes and pizza boxes left over, dousing it with two gallons of gasoline, then lighting it. In relating this, I don’t mean to reflect poorly on the partygoers. As far as I’m concerned, they are make the best of their situation. But there is literally nothing else to do in Lemoore.

The centrifuge itself was painful. There were seven other aviators in my class. We completed our run through the centrifuge one at a time, and got to see videos of each other struggling against the increased G forces on our bodies. I blacked out twice, though I didn’t lose consciousness. It is strange to experience your field of vision draw inward to a mere point of focus, and then have everything turn slowly black…and even stranger to find that, after straining to flex the large lower body muscles, your vision comes rushing back. All that flexing, however, has its price. I am still very sore, and the effect of blood pooling in my lower extremities has left little red welts across my waist and legs. This is normal. The Centrifuge run was fun in the sense that a certain camaraderie developed amongst the members of the class – we laughed at each other a fair amount, especially watching the funny faces we made fighting to keep from passing out. It was a short day; we were out by noon. I took the rest of the day off.

The drive back was certainly the most memorable part of the trip. Having heard much about the beauty of the California coast, I proposed to drive from Lemoore to the coast via California Highway 41, then down the Pacific Coast Highway. I will say at the outset that it is the most beautiful drive I have ever done. Highway 41 cuts southwest across the valley floor and through the coastal mountains, which start as a series of barren rolling hills that gradually become more fertile as one gets closer to the coast. About halfway to the ocean occasional vineyards appear straddling ridges off to the left and the right, the terrain gets more rugged, and trees begin to appear. Amazingly, many were still wearing autumn colors, so I was paid back richly for all I missed in Pensacola. At higher elevations there are numerous sharp curves and switchbacks that required me to slow the car significantly. Every so often the road would crest a hill and the land would fall in humps and mountains and ranches and rivers as far as the eye could see. Storm clouds scudded thickly and quickly across the sky, laying their shadows fitfully on the ground. Several times I drove through localized rainstorms, and there was often a view of a rainbow. I paused at a rest stop shortly before reaching the coast, and when I got out of the car I was struck by a delicious, cold, wild scent. After that I drove with the windows open.

I reached the coast at a small town called Morrow Bay. Though I turned south on California Highway 1, which runs down the coast, I had to wait fifteen or twenty minutes for a sight of the Pacific. I passed many small surf towns characterized largely by an absence of chain restaurants, near-uniformly white buildings, and waving palm trees. The ocean was always to my left, its breakers throwing up visible foam in the sunlight. The road would intermittently detour through wet fields, from which the fragrance of cilantro and would seep into my car. This continued for many miles, broken only by the larger town of Santa Barbara, which appeared first as sporadic houses clinging to the hills over the sea and grew into a large beachside city. Afterwards, the highway wound through mountains again before rejoining the coast at Point Mugu.

The terrain was steeper now, and there were more houses. There were also surfers dotting the water off the beaches. The evidence of unbelievable wealth appeared…I saw my first Ferrarri south of Point Mugu, my first Aston Martin north of Santa Monica, my first Bugatti in Santa Monica itself, and I would later pass a Lamborghini and a Lotus dealership while driving into Los Angeles itself. There were probably more beautiful cars than I remember, but I was distracted by the scenery. The sun was setting now amid the storm clouds, lighting up the water and diffusing in the spray of the surf. At times the road would climb very high, affording a panoramic view of the coast and the water, then it would dive down to beach level. I don’t need to explain how expensive and impressive the houses were. What amazed me was the apparent lack of crowding. Even in Santa Monica itself there were pleasant clumps of buildings that enhanced the scenery instead of obscuring it. And the diversity of trees and flowers was beyond my appreciation. Palm trees were the most recognizable, but there were others equally impressive – strange bright kinds of firs, beautiful tall trees with white bark, and an astonishing array of colored shrubs. The sun finally set as I drove under the Santa Monica pier and entered the huge metropolis surrounding Los Angeles.

There I paid for my beautiful drive. I found the Pacific Coast Highway, which had intended to follow until it rejoined I-5 north of San Diego, disintegrated into a series of boulevards chopped up by traffic lights. I finally gave up that plan and found a way to the interstate – after the wide wild roads I had driven earlier, the city seemed crushing and frustrating. As if to emphasize the change, the rain began to fall in earnest, and continued all the way back to San Diego.

I am still recovering in awe from that drive. I have little more to say, except that I check in to my unit at Miramar tomorrow, and there isn’t room to be nervous at all – not after today. It feels like all the relaxation I needed to get ready for the next phase in my training–learning to fly the Hornet–was provided by that single trip. I’m going to love living here.

Wings of Gold

I did it. I earned my Wings today. I capitalize it because it is such a big deal to me: it has been my goal for the last 18 months. I am the Marine Corps’ newest Naval Flight Officer / Weapons System Officer. I completed two flights today, and shortly thereafter I was doused with champagne and ice water to celebrate. The Flight School Adventure is over. What makes this even more memorable is that I winged with a classmate who was also in my company at TBS. He crewed the other aircraft – since our last events are BFM, or “dogfighting” events, we always go up in pairs – and though I got the best of him in our engagements today, neither of us would have made it this far without working together. Tomorrow another classmate gets winged, and we are looking forward to celebrating together this Friday after the ceremony.

Perhaps I should back up. When I transitioned from the T-39 to the T-2, I my remaining events comprised three different kinds of flights. FAM flights came first, designed (through a simple air navigation mission) to give me the time to get comfortable in the new cockpit and aircraft. WEPS flights are low-level air-to-ground flights meant to provide practice operating as a section, or as two aircraft in one flight. For the rest of my career, almost every single flight will have at least two aircraft in it. The third kind of flight is BFM, which stands for “Basic Fighter Maneuvering.” These are the most fun. We depart the airfield as a section, head out over the water, fight each other until we get low on gas, then come home. Today I completed my final BFM flight first, then flew my final WEPS flight. Experiencing both kinds of missions made for a fitting wrap-up.

The T-2 is perhaps the ugliest aircraft ever built, at least when sitting on the ground. In the air it seems much more aerodynamic. It is also, literally, a vintage aircraft. It was designed in 1957, and the last modification we have was probably completed in the late ‘60s. We still fly it with genuine ‘60s flight instruments, too…no computers here, which can be frustrating. For example, the instrument which shows our aircraft heading and navigational information actually drifts over time, and requires constant correction off an old-fashioned wet compass. Every 10 minutes of flying—less if there has been any kind of maneuvering—we must readjust our navigation displays. It is ironic that this instrument is so unreliable, considering how important it is to fly the right heading, especially when a) flying in very busy airspace (so you don’t hit another aircraft), b)flying in clouds (when you can’t see) and c) when flying an approach (so you actually find the runway). Another crazy feature of the T-2 is the Electrical Disconnect Switch. Since the T-2 was designed as a pilot trainer, somebody thought it would be a good idea to enable the Instructor (presumably in the back seat) to simulate a total electrical power failure. So they installed a switch that actually shuts off the generators and the battery – so it doesn’t so much simulate an Electrical failure so much as cause one. Then, of course, you become an emergency aircraft with no way of navigating or communicating…and oh by the way your engines may fail without the electrical spark plugs, which means you either have to airstart one of them or eject. Brilliant.

Idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, the T-2 is a pretty perky little jet. We routinely pull up to 6 Gs during turns and Aerobatics, and it low over the ground it flies really well. During WEPS flights hug every curve of a road at close to 400 mph, then execute a high-performance pull, roll inverted, dive in at our “target” to deliver weapons, then pull hard up and away again. It is fun, dynamic, and physically draining – imagine trying to keep your head up looking around and your arms moving around a cockpit when they weigh five times more than usual! Yet BFM flights are the most fun, not only because you are fighting a buddy, but also because you continually operate the aircraft in high-G, high-performance flight. You might pitch up to arc over the top of your opponent or slice around in a max-performance turn to get behind him, or (if you’re in trouble) you might “unload the jet” (go to zero-G flight) so as to accelerate quickly. In this kind of flying, the only instrument you watch is the altimeter, because you are upside down as much as you are right side up, and the only thing that matters is not hitting the ground. It is extremely exciting flying. It is what I signed up to do. But before I could get there, I had to complete the obligatory aviation simulations.

T-2 Simulator Events are pretty low-key. The instructors are all former military pilots who work for Lockheed and have a contract with the Navy. Some of them have fought as long ago as Korea , and many have ejected at least once from their aircraft. One of my instructors flew the now-obsolete F-8 Crusader, now distinguished as the last American fighter jet designed with guns as its primary weapon system. It was fast, though, and my instructor told me that a peer of his was flying around at Mach 2.4 when the wind blast sheared his canopy right off the aircraft. Desperately trying to slow his jet down, the pilot was pulling the throttles to idle and putting out the speed brakes when the wind pulled his upper ejection handle out from the top of the seat, and ejected him at Mach 1.7. He was hopelessly out of position and slammed by wind traveling over 1,000 mph, which caused his knees to break so badly that his feet were slapping against his helmet visor while he parachuted down. The pilot lived to fly jets again, though my instructor had this comment: “that man does not walk like you or me anymore.”

Despite the sea stories, sim events are graded and can be stressful. My last sim was with an instructor who I had flown before. Though he is widely regarded as one of the nicest instructors around – in the lingo of flight school, a “Santa Clause” – I have always performed poorly with him. He wasn’t mean to me or anything, but for some reason I never, not once, had a good flight with him. Remarkably, he only failed me once. At my Intermediate Graduation, where I graduated first in my class, he pulled me aside afterward to ask incredulously, “How, out of all of these students, did you graduate first?” Anyway, when he walked into the T-2 student lounge to pick me up for my final sim, he stopped in his tracks, looked at me appraisingly with a funny little smile and said, “So we meet again.” Fortunately, I had a fairly decent event (though certainly not my best), and afterward he handed me my gradesheet, saying, “Well, you’re free of me forever.” We had a good laugh about that.

One little side adventure I had during this phase was a trip to Washington, DC. This took place during my three FAM flights. It is nice to do them “cross country,” because not only do I get experience flying outside of Pensacola (which I am very familiar with, but I can travel to cool places for the weekend. The flights themselves are pretty low-key, too: I am only responsible for basic navigation, a skill I have been working on since the first phase of training. Friday we flew to NAS Oceana (at Virginia Beach), and then my student partner and I rented a car to drive to D.C. We had a good time: I spent an entire afternoon in the National Gallery, saw a bunch of old friends, and generally relived the days of TBS when I visited DC every weekend. Sunday morning we drove back to Oceana and took the two quick flights home. Travel is one of the benefits of Aviation.

And now, this upcoming Friday, I will officially receive the Wings of Gold. I am near the end of my time in Pensacola , and that makes me just a little sad. I have grown to love it – everything from the beautiful white beaches to the friendly dumpy dive bars has made this an interesting and entertaining cultural experience. I will leave some good friends behind as I move on, but that’s part of a military life – and it isn’t really new. My old room-mate John has gone to California ahead of me, though not to San Diego, and another old room-mate will shortly move from Jacksonville to Whidbey Island, and yet a third has deployed to Iraq. I was nervous when I first moved down here – I only really know one of the guys I would be living with, and practically no one else in the greater Pensacola area. But shortly after moving in, my other room-mate approached me in a bar and said, “I don’t know how to say this, but I really wasn’t sure if living with you was going to work out or not. I didn’t really get along with you at Notre Dame. I’m pretty surprised it has gone so smoothly so far.” I guess that sounds like a mean thing to say, but I had felt the same way. And now I have many good friends from this Pensacola experience.

Enough reflecting. Tonight it is time to celebrate my newly-earned Wings of Gold.

The Key West Experience

Last February, my training squadron went on a detachment down to Naval Air Station Key West. We did this for two reasons: to give us a break from flying around Pensacola ; and to get a lot of flights done, since February weather is generally very good down there and we are on vacation from our domestic personal lives. Since we all lived together (two to a room) in a dormitory-like setting, we were easily available to fly, but that also contributed to significantly collegiate atmosphere. Combine that with the social opportunities of Key West itself, and well, things got pretty exciting. It was a good trip.

Flying/training in Key West is an eye-opener. We worked with Air Traffic Control agencies that weren’t used to our missions or expectations, and we flew unfamiliar routes. The pilots and instructors from Pensacola flew in that area so long that they pretty much had all routes and airfields memorized. As a student, it is easy to rely on their obvious but unshared knowledge—you feel that if you get lost or get in trouble, your instructor or pilot will know what to do. This all came crashing down in Key West . For the first time, I found that my pilot and instructor were often as clueless as I was. Well, maybe not that clueless, but you get the idea. At first it was scary, especially since during my first event I almost had a mid-air collision and later actually hit a bird. On subsequent flights, however, I began to feel more like a contributing member of the aircrew, instead of simply a student being tested.

For all that, however, flying wasn’t the most “dangerous” part of Key West . The island is the self-proclaimed poster-child of American tropical hedonism. Filled with upscale shops jostling cheek-by-jowl with tawdry souvenir joints selling racy or off-color T-Shirts, and liberally sprinkled with bars and clubs, the actual town of Key West can be a lot of fun. It is quite small, too, so my friends and I ran into our instructors partying as often as we ran into our classmates, and pretty much everywhere. It was like a huge playground. Many stories and legends emerged from the two weeks we spent there—students spending upwards of $800 at bars in one night, students getting in fights and being picked up by (and tended by) shady middle-aged guys, students getting lost and spending the night on the beaches. Fortunately (or unfortunately) I was not involved in any stories, since I spent only four days there. But it sounded like good times.

In addition to the social scene, the island and city of Key West themselves are pretty amazing. US Highway 1 runs all the way down the keys, often on bridges that span more than seven miles of water. Flying approaches around the airfield yielded beautiful sights of white sand beaches and turquoise water and green-sprinkled islands bustling gently with small towns and buildings. It was all very relaxing, even while trying to land an aircraft. Like most young people, I joined the military to see exotic places, and I think Key West qualified.

Unfortunately, as my squadron took off to Key West for a flying “vacation,” my room-mate left to go to Iraq. Flight school is often an insular world (a “bubble”) due to the concentration requred in each flight, and when we have time off we usually spend it relaxing and not thinking about military issues. We don’t (at least, I don’t) spend much time thinking about what our military is doing and where I might be sent. So it is sobering to say goodbye to my room-mate. On one level, he trades in the luxury of America (and things like trips to Key West) for a more rigorous life within the American military effort in that country, but he also is going to do the job he signed up for. Many of my friends from TBS and college have been to Iraq or Afghanistan already, and are either there for the second time or preparing to go back. That’s where my job is. With them. And while I certainly believe that it sucks over there, and that it’s dangerous, I want to be there.

But I have at least another year of training before I am even able to go. Pensacola, meanwhile, continues to treat me well. I have been able to spend a lot of time at the beach, running, reading and studying. Even during chilly winter months, the beach provides solitude and beauty, especially during sunrise and sunset. The nights are beautiful and clear. Though I hear a lot of my peers complaining about Pensacola and its dumpy buildings, poorly designed roads, and lack of nightlife, I am very fond of it. I have grown to love Gulf Coast style seafood,the beach lifestyle, the friendly people, and the inexpensive living. There are few other places in the world where you can waterski in October and go swimming in the ocean in early March. I shall be sorry to leave.