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Sunday, February 27, 2005

Old men in Iraq

Vietnam vets serving in Iraq

Flyboys of Vietnam, Gray and Grounded in Iraq

FORWARD OPERATING BASE DANGER, Iraq, Feb. 20 - The seasoned pilot was recalling a different war in a different place. "Every time we went in, we went in hot," he remembered. "You were fighting your way in and fighting your way out."

The pilot, Chief Warrant Officer James G. Freeman, was 23 when he began flying Huey helicopters in the Vietnam War in 1970. His missions with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company often involved dropping into a battleground to unload soldiers after helicopter gunships had "prepped" the zone with a torrent of rockets and machine-gun fire.

"There were a lot of bullets flying down there," Mr. Freeman recounted dryly during an interview. He was seated in a trailer on the airfield at Forward Operating Base Speicher, an American military base near here and his home for the next year while he is deployed with the 42nd Infantry Division of the New York National Guard, based in Troy, N.Y.

Mr. Freeman is now 58, with wry creases spraying from the corners of his eyes and a penchant for menthol cigarettes. As a member of the Guard, he has been deployed for events including the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., and relief and recovery missions after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the crash of T.W.A. Flight 800 in 1996 and the attack of Sept. 11, 2001.

Now, 34 years after his yearlong tour of duty in Vietnam, Mr. Freeman is back in another war.

He is one of five helicopter pilots from the New York National Guard who flew Hueys in the Vietnam War and who have been deployed as Black Hawk pilots in northern Iraq with the 42nd Infantry Division. The five pilots, all together, flew thousands of combat hours in Vietnam and survived being shot down several times. In this war, however, they say their responsibilities have kept them largely earthbound, as younger pilots rack up the flight hours. And they are not very happy about it.

"I'd rather be flying," grumbled Chief Warrant Officer Thomas McGurn, 57, one of the pilots who is at Base Danger helping to coordinate daily aviation schedules for the brigade. "This is kind of a bummer."

Only two of the five veteran pilots have flown since the bulk of the brigade arrived in Iraq last month.

Mr. Freeman, a retired Suffolk County police officer who lives in Stony Brook, N.Y., has flown once. Chief Warrant Officer Steven M. Derry, 53, a New York State correction officer in Wilton, N.Y., has flown twice. The others have not yet been tapped, but expect to fly sometime this year.

All five are members of a headquarters unit for the division's aviation brigade, which includes four aviation units from around the country and a maintenance battalion from Brooklyn.

For now, the five men spend their days at desk jobs or hanging out in their khaki flight suits, like caged, graying lions. Their command and control responsibilities, rather than their comparatively advanced ages, are the reason they are not flying as much as other pilots, the men say.

Mr. Freeman has taken to calling himself "a staff weenie." And Chief Warrant Officer Herbert A. Dargue, 57, of Brookhaven, N.Y., who is serving as a liaison between the division headquarters and the aviation brigade, said, "I'd rather get in the action than sit behind a desk."

About 5,570 American troops who are 50 or older have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly all of them members of the Guard and the Reserves. Although there are mandatory retirement regulations in the military that can apply anywhere from 55 to 62, depending on a soldier's length of service and other circumstances, there are no age limits on the battlefield.

Jonah, think these men have kids, you gutless piece of shit.

posted by Steve @ 1:48:00 AM

1:48:00 AM

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