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.
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.
"I've got 7,000 hours of flight time. When you've flown so much, you don't think about things, you feel them," says Col. Bradly MacNealy, a Mississippi Delta catfish farmer and commander of the 2,300-strong brigade. A hodgepodge of guard and reserve units from 24 states, such as the "Voodoo" Black Hawk battalion from Louisiana and the "Sky King" Chinook company from Hawaii, it's the first National Guard aviation brigade in history to deploy to a combat zone, Colonel MacNealy says.
Such experience means the guardsmen are generally more skilled at flying in darkness and clouds and over featureless terrain where pilots must rely on instruments rather than visual clues to navigate, he says. And by varying routes and maneuvering around enemy fire, the brigade has maintained a stellar safety record: Out of some two dozen aircraft downed since the Iraq war began, the Catfish have lost none.
"We've had a lot of close calls," says MacNealy after shinning down the tail section of his 20-year-old Black Hawk, which needed a shove to get the rear rotor blade moving.
With such solid accomplishments, they bristle at any suggestion they are "weekend warriors" inferior to their active-duty counterparts, and resent existing discrepancies in pay, retirement, and benefits. "We don't have the same benefits, but we take the same bullet," says Chief Warrant Officer Bob Percy, a C-12 pilot and LAPD policeman from Los Alamitos, Calif.
"What are a bunch of old [men] like us doing over here anyway?" asks Chief Percy in exasperation, saying he and other reservists and guardsmen cannot draw retirement benefits until they turn 60 - unlike active duty soldiers who earn retirement after 20 years of service.
For that reason, many active duty soldiers retire in their forties, while many guardsmen stay on into their fifties - or even extend until the age of 62, as Sharkey did.
Why do they do it? "I have a bond with the people I worked with. If they're going somewhere, you don't want them going without you," explains Sharkey, a retired Aloha Airlines pilot who joined the Hawaii guard nearly a quarter century ago.
Chief Warrant Officer Don Clayton, a cattle farmer from Collierville, Tenn., who was shot down three times in his OH-6 over Vietnam, agrees. "They're my kids, and I want to take care of them," he says of the younger men he mentors. More mellow and sagacious, he says, older pilots tend to ask "what if - instead of running headlong into a booby trap."
The Catfish regale each other with the same folksy jibing you'd hear from veterans around the shuffleboard at a VFW post. "I get all the old man jokes.... I feel like granddaddy," says Chief Clayton.
Still, while they've relinquished a bit of their egos, they haven't lost their pride. "I feel honored to be here," says Chief Warrant Officer Tom Walker, a Sherpa pilot from Albany, Ga. "I feel even if we have gray hair, or no hair, we still have something to contribute."