G.I. granddaddies: Vietnam vets bring jungle-tested grit to new tour in Iraq
Dodging high-voltage wires and enemy fire over the dense palm groves of central Iraq, John Sharkey, helicopter pilot and chief warrant officer, feels a tinge of nostalgia - for Vietnam.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Perhaps the oldest Army pilot in this war zone, the wry, 61-year-old New Yorker is the dean of a small, unlikely cadre of gray grandfathers crisscrossing Iraq on daily missions. Combat veterans of the eclectic "Catfish" brigade, the Mississippi National Guard's 185th Aviation Group, they nurse aloft some of the Army's longest-flying aircraft with a deft instinct that only comes with experience.
Having weathered the defining conflicts of the modern American military, these leather-skinned fliers came to the desert less out of principled conviction than personal loyalty. With somewhat jaded detachment, they view Iraq through the discerning, gritty lens of past wars.
"Vietnam - that was a far galaxy," says Chief Sharkey one evening at dusk before climbing into his CH-47 Chinook on the humming flight line of Camp Anaconda here. "It was a war we shouldn't have gone to," he says, recalling two tours with the Marines in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970, dropping 500-lb. bombs and napalm as an F-4 Phantom pilot.
Yet if they believe the war in Vietnam was fought for the wrong reasons, Sharkey and his buddies contend the Iraq war is being fought the wrong way - with far too many restrictions. Almost wistfully, they speak of zipping out over the Southeast Asian jungles with little more than a map and a mission to draw enemy fire.
"In that war there were jungle rules, and you could do what you had to," Sharkey says. "Now you have a lot of staff people in front of computer screens micromanaging things. They are control freaks - but by doing that they essentially lose control."
It's a frustration shared by many long-timers - and some younger troops - who complain that today's military imposes an overload of paperwork, regulations, and politically driven cautiousness.
"Everyone's trying to sanitize war too much, to make it bloodless," says Chief Warrant Officer George Huseman, a UC-35 Cessna pilot from Dallas. "Our guards have seen people setting up rockets but by the time they get permission to fire, the rockets have already gone off," he says.
Red-tape hampers missions and dampens initiative, some veterans contend, inadvertently creating new risks. Stringent rules aimed at divvying up the use of air space, for example, force some pilots to fly at higher altitudes where they are more easily targeted by insurgents with surface-to-air missiles. "We basically ignore them and fly where we need to fly," Sharkey says, adding, "What are they going to do, send me home?"
Indeed, with thousands of hours airborne - compared with mere hundreds for the average active-duty pilot - the experienced guardsmen know that whatever they lack in muscle mass and youthful bravado, they make up for with well-honed flying skills.