Speech to the Cadets

Mark Welsh

Not long ago I was asked to give a presentation on personal lessons learned from my experiences in combat during Operation DESERT STORM. So, I sat down and spent about an hour and a half just thinking and thinking and thinking … what can I put on this list—what great lessons have I learned and want to pass onto future generations? When I finished, I only had about 15 items, and I realized that none of them were lessons learned, not one of them. Every one of them was a person, or an event, or just a feeling I had. But I’ve never forgotten them and never will. And those are the things I want to talk to you about today. It’s important, before I start, for you to remember that every kind of combat is different. Aerial combat happens at about a thousand miles an hour of closure. It’s hot fire and cold steel; it’s instant death and big destruction; it happens like this (snaps fingers) and it’s over. Ground combat’s not that way, as you can imagine. Those of you who’ve heard infantry soldiers talk about it know it’s kinda endless time, and soaking fear, and big noises and darkness. It’s a different game. And you need different training to do it, and different types of people to handle it well and to provide leadership in that environment. But it doesn’t matter how many people you have standing beside you in the trenches, or how many people you have flying beside you in formation—combat, especially your first combat, is an intensely personal experience. Today, I’ll tell you some of the things I remember.

You don’t have to see this picture very well—it’s an F-16 parked on a ramp with a helmet on the canopy rail. One week before the DESERT STORM air campaign actually started we were flying missions to northern Saudi Arabia to practice dropping simulated bombs at night on targets in the desert, so those of us who didn’t routinely fly night missions would be ready if the war started. On this particular night, after we’d “destroyed” our target, we hit a post-strike tanker and headed back to our base almost 400 miles away. We climbed up to about 42,000 feet, put the auto-pilot on and I leaned back in that 30º tilt-back seat and just kinda stared at nature. It was a gorgeous night. The moon was big and full and directly overhead, and I remember thinking, “I can’t believe how bright the desert moon is.” And out around the horizon, something I’d never seen before and haven’t seen again to this day, was a halo. A beautiful, huge white halo that went all the way around the moon, completely unbroken. I talked to my wingman later, and he said he did the same thing I did—we just stared at that thing all the way home, thinking, “I can’t believe how beautiful this is.” It’s one of those moments you have flying airplanes. I’ll never forget that halo…

I also won’t forget that when I landed that night my assistant operations officer met me at the bottom of the ladder and said, “Boss, we lost an airplane.”

The name on the canopy rail in that picture belongs to a young captain named Mike, who’d joined us in the desert only two weeks earlier because he’d stayed back in Utah to get married. He and his wife had been married for two weeks when he told her that he had to go to war and join the boys. He’d just finished his three-ride local checkout and was on his second night ride. We think that somehow he got a light on the ground confused with his flight lead’s rotating beacon and tried to rejoin on it as he headed for the tanker. Mike hit the ground going over 600 miles an hour, 60º nose-low, inverted and in full afterburner. He died relaxed. You know, I don’t think “dying relaxed” was good news to his wife when I called and spoke to her after we’d confirmed he was in that smoking hole, or to his Mom and Dad when I called them. I won’t forget those phone calls …. or that great young American who, like so many before him, died in the company of warriors, in a place where warriors were called, at a time when warriors were needed most. I’ll never forget Mike ….

And I’ll never forget sitting at his memorial service two days later, looking at this airplane with his name on the canopy rail, the helmet with his name on the visor cover, his spare G-suit hanging under the wing, and his crew chief saluting the jet, while bagpipes played “Amazing Grace” in the background. Every fighter pilot on base was wearing these big stupid sunglasses so nobody would know they were bawlin’ their eyes out. I won’t forget staring at that airplane thinking, “How many more of these are we going to have when the war starts?”

The night before the war actually did start, our wing commander told the squadron commanders that we were “kicking it off tomorrow morning.” So we gathered our squadrons together at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon and gave most of them the first briefing they’d seen on our previously-classified Day 1 mission. Then I did what I thought was a real “commanderly” thing. I told them all to go back to their rooms and write a letter to their family. And I told them that before I gave them their aircraft tail number in the morning, they had to hand me their letter, so I could ensure it was delivered if they didn’t come back. In that letter, I wanted them to shed all of the emotional baggage you take with you into combat—I didn’t tell my wife this; I didn’t do that; I didn’t hug my daughter; I didn’t tell my son I loved him; I didn’t call my parents …. I told them they didn’t fly until I got that letter. Which shut ‘em all up for the first time since I’d known them! They headed out the door, and I was feeling pretty proud of myself and patting myself on the back when my ops officer came up to me and said, “What a great idea!” I nodded knowingly, and he added, “By the way, you can give me your letter before I give you your tail number in the morning.” Now, if you haven’t had the pleasure of sitting down and thinking about your family the night before you think you may die; if you haven’t tried to tell your children that you’re sorry you won’t be there to see their next ballet recital or watch them play little league baseball, or high school football, or graduate from college, or meet their future spouse, or get to know your grandkids; or if you haven’t had the pleasure of telling your parents and brothers and sisters what they mean to you; or tried to tell your wife how the sun rises and sets in her eyes; and tried to do it all on a piece of paper, at midnight, 9,000 miles away from home, then you haven’t lived. I’d recommend it. I won’t forget writing that letter ….

This is a picture of the base where we were stationed. The whole thing is about two miles long and about a mile wide. You can see the main runway, a parallel taxiway, and on the left side of the picture there’s a road that ran the whole length of the base. In the upper left corner is where the tents and hooches were for the officers, and about halfway down the field is where the tent city was. That next morning we got up about 1:30 a.m., because we had a 2:15 briefing, All my guys met in the chow hall and we had breakfast, then we jumped in cars to drive to our mass briefing, which was down here at the lower left-hand corner of this slide. As we drove down that parallel road, two things happened. The first was that the night fighters from the 421st Fighter Squadron lit their afterburners as part of the first launch of the Gulf War. And at 20-second intervals as we traveled down that road, they lifted off going the other way, one at a time. They each accelerated to about 400 miles an hour, pulled the nose straight up and climbed to avoid possible SAMs at the end of the runway; pulled the engine out of afterburner, and disappeared. And I suddenly realized that this was the first time I’d ever seen airplanes take off with no lights on—they were “blacked out” for combat. It was pretty sobering. And then halfway down this road, one of the guys in the car with me says, “Boss, look at this,” and he points out the right side of the car. And on the right side of that road were thousands of people. The entire population of our tent city had come out of their tents when that first afterburner lit, and they were standing along this road. They were in uniforms, they had just gotten off work; they were wearing jeans; they were wearing cutoffs; they were wearing underwear, pajamas—everything. Not one of them was talking. They were just watching those airplanes take off; they knew what was going on. The other thing that I noticed immediately was that all of them were somehow in contact with the person next to them … every single one of them. They were holding hands, or holding an arm, or had their arm around someone’s shoulders or their hand on someone’s back, or they were just leaning on each other. These were people who didn’t even know each other. But they were all Americans; they were all warriors; and they were all part of the cause. I will never, ever forget their faces coming into those headlights, then fading out. They’re burned into my memory.

Later that morning, after our mission briefing, we went to the life support trailer where my squadron kept all our flying gear. All 24 airplanes were flying, so 24 of my guys were going, and I was lucky enough to be the mission commander for this first one. Now, anybody who’s been in a fighter squadron, or any kind of flying squadron, knows that Life Support, as you’re getting ready to go, is a pretty raucous place. You’re giving people grief; you’re arguing about who’s better at whatever—something’s going on all the time. It’s fun. This morning, there wasn’t a sound. I got dressed listening to nothing but the whisper of zippers as people pulled on flight gear. I walked out of the trailer and left the door open so the light from inside shined out in a little pool around the trailer steps. The rest of the base was blacked out, and we were under camouflaged netting and couldn’t see anything outside this trailer. As my guys came down the steps I shook each one of their hands and just nodded at ‘em; nobody said anything. I watched as, one by one, they turned and disappeared into the black. And as each one left, I wondered if he’d be coming back that afternoon … we didn’t really know what to expect from this war. When the last one had gone, Master Sergeant Ray Uris, who ran my life support shop and had been standing in the doorway watching this act, walked to the bottom of the steps, shook my hand, and watched me disappear. I’ll never forget watching their backs disappear in the dark ….

One of those backs belonged to an incredibly talented young weapons officer named Scott, probably the best fighter pilot in our wing at the time. About the second week of the war we flew a mission against the nuclear power plant south of Baghdad. Scott was one of the flight leads that day. It was easily the toughest mission my squadron flew during the war because the Iraqis defended the area south of Baghdad, and they really defended the nuclear power plant. From about 25 miles to the target, till we got to the power plant, the pilots on that mission will tell you they saw 50 to 100 SAMs in the air. I remember screaming and cussing to myself all the way to the target, until it came time to roll in—at which point your training takes over and you kinda go quiet—until you drop your bombs, and you start screaming and cussing again. This was scary. Scott’s wingman got hit as we came off target. An SA-3 exploded underneath his airplane and blew off his fuel tanks. It put about 100 holes in the airplane–70 of them through the engine and engine compartment, which isn’t good in a single engine F-16. For the next 2½ hours Scott escorted him to several different emergency bases because the weather had rolled in and closed some of them and they couldn’t get him on the ground. While his wingman struggled with the crippled jet, Scott worked emergency tanker diverts to get them gas; coordinated with AWACS for clearance to the next divert field; arranged safe passage through air base defenses; and kept assuring his wingman that he was gonna make it. He was phenomenal; he helped save this guy’s life. So he landed about 2 hours after the rest of us did. When I heard he was on the ground, I left my debrief to see how things had gone with his wingman. It was dark by this time. And as I walked out to the life support trailer, I came around a corner under that darkened out camouflage netting and ran into something. And then realized it was Scott. He was leaning against a bunch of sandbags, just holding onto them with both hands, and shaking like a leaf. He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t talk, he couldn’t do anything. All he could do was stand there and shake. The guy had nothing left. All his adrenaline was gone. He’d given everything he had to give that day. As I’m trying to figure out what the heck to do with Scott, the door to the life support trailer opened and a young, 19-year-old life support technician named Shawn walked out, looked at what was going on, and said, “Boss, I know you’ve got stuff to do. I’ll take care of him.” And I said, “Well, let me help you get him inside.” And he said, “Boss, you’ve got stuff to do. I’ll take care of him.” So I left. I saw Shawn helping Scott up the steps to the life support trailer as I went around the corner. About 5 hours later, I left the next day’s mission planning cell and went to see how Scott was doing. When I came around the corner of his tent there was Shawn, sitting in the sand in front of the tent shakin’ like a leaf, ‘cause he’s still wearing just the BDU pants and T-shirt he had on in life support. This was January in the desert, folks; it was cold outside! I said, “Shawn, what are you doing here?” and he said, “Sir, the major finally got to sleep. I was afraid that he might wake up, and if he does, I wanna make sure I let him know everything’s okay.” You’ll meet lots of Shawns in the Air Force; I’ll never forget this one ….

This is a Catholic priest–Father John. Father John was our squadron chaplain. The first day of DESERT STORM, I got to my jet and standing right in front of the nose of the jet was Father John. At first I thought he was a crew chief until I got close enough to see who he was. Now, Father John was popular with us because he was the first guy to buy you a whiskey; the first guy to light up a cigar; the first guy to start a party, and the last guy to leave. He also would’ve been the first one to wade into Hell in his BVDs to pull you out, if he had to. We knew Father John real well; he fit in great with a fighter squadron. Anyway, as I got to the airplane, Father John just said, “Hey, I thought you might like a blessing before you go.” I immediately hated myself, because I consider myself fairly comfortable in my religion, and I’d never thought of that—too many other, wrong priorities on my mind at the time. So I knelt down on the cement right there in front of the jet, and Father John gave me a blessing. And then I finished the preflight on my airplane. As I’m getting ready to climb up the ladder I noticed all these guys running toward me out of the darkness. They were all my other pilots who had seen this and were coming over to get Father John to bless them. So he did. And when everybody came back safe from the first sortie we kinda decided “That’s it, Father John has to bless everybody … can’t change that.” It didn’t matter if you were Jewish or Baptist or Islamic—it just didn’t matter. Father John gave the blessing for the 4th Fighter Squadron. The amazing thing was that it didn’t matter whether you flew at 2 in the afternoon or 2 in the morning—Father John was there. Later on, talking to Colonel Tom Rackley, the commander of the 421st Fighter Squadron, I found out that Father John did the same for his guys. I don’t know how he did it, but he did. Every time I landed from a combat sortie–every single time—my canopy would open, I’d shake hands with my hero and crew chief, TSgt Manny Villa, then I’d climb down the ladder; and at the bottom of the ladder was Father John, to bless me and welcome me home.

When I came back from DESERT STORM I ended up alone—different story—but I ended up as a single ship returning to Hill AFB. And when I pulled into the parking spot there, these are the folks who were waiting for me. Now, my squadron had been home for three days before I got there, and down at the far end you’ll recognize Father John. That’s my wife Betty, and a couple of my kids, and a couple of friends who were with them. I’d written Betty and told her about Father John and his blessings. You want to know how cool she is? When the airplane stopped and the canopy came up, Manny Villa climbed the ladder and shook my hand, and I climbed down to the bottom of the ladder, and Betty told Father John, “You first.” Father John walked over and blessed me and welcomed me home … then Betty and I did some serious groping!

A year and a half later, Father John dropped dead of a massive heart attack. Too much whiskey, too many cigars, too many parties, I guess. By the week after he died, 16 of the 28 pilots who flew in my squadron during DESERT STORM had contacted his family in Stockton, California. They called from Korea; they called from Europe; they called from Australia; they called from all over the United States—to tell his family about Father John, and to bless him, and ask God to welcome him home. I’ll never forget Father John ….

This is a picture of ammunition storage bunkers in northwestern Iraq. They’re not real significant, except there’s a guy I want to tell you about who had something to do with the holes in them. His name’s Ed. Ed left for the desert with his wife Jill pregnant with their first child. This was a story repeated throughout DESERT STORM in all the services and throughout history in the military. Obviously he couldn’t go home for the birth. Late one night, my exec woke me up in my hooch and told me I had a phone call in the command post. So I got dressed and sprinted over there. It was my wife, and she said, “Mark, I’m at the hospital with Jill. She’s in labor and is having problems. Is there any way we can get Ed on the phone with her?” So we went and rousted Ed and brought him down to the command center. My wife had worked out an arrangement with the hospital so that when Ed walked in and sat down, I handed him the phone and he was talking to Jill, who’s in the middle of a really bad labor. As he held the phone with one hand and talked to his wife, I sat in a chair in front of him and held his other hand (which is something neither of us has ever admitted publicly before). I could see the happiness in his eyes every time she spoke to him. And I could see the worry and pain in his eyes every time another contraction started and he heard her gasp. And I felt him squeeze my hand every time he could hear her scream. And … I saw him smile when he heard his son Nate cry for the first time, from 9,000 miles away. I’ll never forget that smile ….

Twelve hours after Ed hung up that phone, he was part of an F-16 strike package that hit those ammunition storage bunkers. It was the best battle damage assessment we had in our squadron during the war. They hit every target, and a lot of them, as you saw on that photo, dang near dead center. Ed went from caring, concerned, loving father and husband, to intense, indomitable warrior in just 12 hours. Only in combat folks. I’ll never forget watching the transformation ….

One of the most important things about combat is sound. Anybody who’s been there will tell you that things you hear are the things you remember the longest. I want to tell you about two things I heard that I’ll never forget. The first one was during one of our missions up north in the Baghdad area. An F-16 from another unit was hit by a surface-to-air missile. We listened to him and his flight lead talk about his airplane falling apart as he tried to make it to the border so rescue forces could get to him. He’d come on the radio every now and then and talk about the oil pressure dropping, and vibrations increasing … and his flight lead would encourage him to stick with it, “We can get there, we can get there.” This went on for about 12-14 minutes. Until finally he said, “Oil pressure just went to zero,” and then, “My engine quit,” then, “That’s all I got—I’m outta here.” Now, we couldn’t see him. I’m not exactly sure where they were. But I am sure there wasn’t another sound on that radio … and the silence was deafening. I’ll never forget those 14 minutes ….

The other unforgettable thing I heard came after the ground war had started. An F-16 was shot down in the middle of the retreating Republican Guard, and I mean right in the middle of them. A call went out from AWACS for any aircraft with ordnance remaining and the fuel to get to where the pilot was down, in case they needed ‘em for SARCAP. A lot of people responded, but the first one I really paid attention to was an Army Chinook helicopter pilot, who came on the radio and said, “Look, I’ve got this much gas, here’s my location, I can be there in that many minutes, give me his coordinates–I can pick him up.” Now, everybody knew where the Republican Guard was, and everybody knew the downed pilot was right in the middle of them. You gotta remember a Chinook is about the size of a double-decker London bus with props on it. And it doesn’t have guns! We kid around a lot about interservice rivalries, but I guarantee you I would follow that Army helicopter pilot into combat … and I’ll never forget her voice ….

This is the Highway of Death. You guys have seen pictures of it before. This road leads north out of Basra; it was the main retreat route for the Republican Guard and they got cut off, right about where the black smoke from the oil well fires went over the Euphrates River Valley. Everywhere south of there it looked like this. It’s not a new picture, but I’ll tell you what’s significant about it. I killed people here. Me. This combat is an intensely personal thing, folks; I think I mentioned that. I’m sure I’d killed people before during the war, but this time I saw ’em. I saw the vehicles moving before the bombs hit. I saw soldiers firing up at me, then running as I dropped my bombs to make sure they wouldn’t get away. War is a horrible, horrible, horrible thing. There is nothing good about it. But it is sometimes necessary. And so somebody better be good at it. I am. You better be. I won’t forget the Highway of Death ….

On my trip home from the Gulf, I flew with the 421st Squadron on the way to the east coast of the United States. The first U.S. air traffic control site that we talked to was Boston Center. Tom Rackley’s check-in with them was something along the lines of, “Boston Center, Widow Flight, 24 F-16s comin’ home.” And the air traffic controller responded, “Welcome home, Widow.” And then at regular intervals for the next 5 or 6 minutes, every airliner on that frequency checked in and said something. “Welcome back.” “Good job.” “Great to have you home.” “God bless you, Widow.”

About 10 minutes after that, I got my first glimpse of the U.S. coastline—it was the coast of Massachusetts. And I sat in my cockpit and I sang “America the Beautiful” to myself. I’ll never forget how bad it sounded …or how proud I was when it was over ….

Take a look at this flag, folks. Those white stripes represent the integrity that you cherish here at the Air Force Academy and that you better carry with you into our Air Force. Those stars carry the courage of all the people who have gone before you; they belong to you now. And that red is for Mike, and for Father John, and for the millions more like ‘em who died serving this great country. In the not too distant future, one of you is going to be standing up here talking about your experiences in combat to the Classes of 2015, or ‘16, or ‘17. And you’re going to be talking about the USAFA Classes of 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003. This is who you are. And this is what you face in the United States Air Force. If you’re not ready for it, let me know and I’ll help you find another line of work. You are damn good…you need to get better. All these people I just talked about are counting on it.