Robert served in the Air Force as a Navigator aboard a C-130. He deployed three times. During his deployments, he flew missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also participated in a number of humanitarian missions in relief of the earthquakes in Japan and Haiti.
Interview conducted on May 10, 2017 over the phone
Present: Richard Hayden and Robert Fletcher
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Robert Fletcher: Robert Fletcher.
RH: What branch of the military did you serve in and what years?
RF: I was in the United States Air Force, commissioned in 2006. I got out in 2013.
RH: Alright. What was your rank when you got out?
RF: Captain. [O3]
RH: What was your MOS?
RF: My primary duty was C-130 navigator. That was my main job, being a navigator on C-130s.
RH: What were some of your units?
RF: My first unit that I was in was the 562nd Training Squadron. That’s where I went through navigator training. After that I left and was assigned to the 36th Airlift Squadron in Yakota Air Force base. That’s in Japan, right north of Tokyo. Once I left there I moved to Arkansas and I was in the 61st Airlift Squadron in Little Rock, Arkansas. Those were my main units. While I was deployed I was part of the 737th Squadron out of Kuwait and the second assignment was with the 386th out of Afghanistan. I was there for about two months.
RH: Perfect. Alright, great. What motivated you to join the military?
RF: [laughs] Honestly, this is going to sound silly but I watched Top Gun, decided I wanted to fly airplanes and kind of just grew up thinking that the Air Force was the best way to get into the cockpit. That’s really what it was. Part of it was also, to a lesser extent, I knew there was camaraderie. I’m one of the only people in my family that’s been in the military, especially in an officer role, but it was mostly just the drive to want to fly airplanes. That was really what it was.
RH: Did you go to ROTC or the academy? How did you get your commission?
RF: I was ROTC at Utah State University.
RH: How did you pick the MOS that you did?
RF: So in the Air Force to get selected for a flying role, you have three different opportunities. It’s kind of a funny story, actually. The first one, you can either be a pilot, a navigator or and ABM – Air Battle Manager. You kind of have three options if you want to get a rated position. I applied for a rated position and they basically take your background from high school, your grades in college, your physical fitness test scores and they have this thing called a PCSM score which is like playing a little arcade game but they’re measuring your hand/eye coordination, your skills, your reaction times and things like that. They mush them all together to spit out a score and you are rated against everyone else going for one so I ended up getting a pilot slot. I had it for a little bit but I went in for my medical and my blood pressure was high so I had to get a waiver to get cleared. But by the time my waiver came through, they gave my pilot spot away so I ended up becoming a navigator. [laughs]
RH: How did your family feel about your decision?
RF: Honestly, they were one hundred percent supportive. My dad actually grew up taking me – we lived in Oklahoma City – to Tinker Air Force Base and we watched airplanes take off from a really young age. They were really supportive of my decision to join the military. I think everybody thought it was a great idea and a good fit for me so they had no problems at all.
RH: Alright. Good to go. So let me ask you this. Where were you on September 11th?
RF: [laughs] Actually it’s funny. The first time I heard about it happening, I was walking up the stairs in high school. I was a senior in high school at the time and a girlfriend – she wasn’t my girlfriend – but a friend who was a young lady came up and said, “Did you hear about the two planes hitting the World Trade Center?” And I said, “No, I hadn’t.” I walked into my class – I was taking calculus at the time – and our teacher, instead of teaching us a lesson, we ended up turning on the TV and watching the live footage.
I was a little bit nervous because my dad was in New York at the time and I actually think he was flying that day so I was kind of scared about hearing what happened to my dad. They ended up cancelling school for the day and everybody went home. We basically just followed the news all day. But I was in calculus class and it was my senior year in high school.
RH: You said you grew up in Oklahoma?
RF: I lived in Oklahoma until I was seven. When I was seven we moved to Salt Lake City, Utah so that actually happened in Utah.
RH: Got it. Did your dad make it home that day? What happened?
RF: He was fine. He flew out, I guess, before it happened and was able to land sometime after it had happened. They didn’t ground him and make him land immediately. He made it back to Utah but I didn’t find out he was home until I got home from school. He was there when I got back.
RH: Did he know what was happening? Did they tell everybody that was on the flight?
RF: I don’t think so. I think he found out when he landed. While he was in the air, he had no idea.
RH: OK. So you went through ROTC. What is the training like afterwards to get your commission?
RF: ROTC is like a four year program. Your first couple of years you’re the lower class of it so you’re basically learning the fundamentals of being in the military. They teach you how to march, they teach you how the rank system works. They teach you, basically, how to follow orders and work together as a team. Between your sophomore and junior years you go to field training which, for me, was four weeks. I was in Tyndall Air Force Base down in Panama City, Florida. There it’s kind of like an abbreviated version of boot camp where they physically mess with you and try to break you down and build you back up.
Once you leave there you go onto your junior and senior years in ROCT where you take on leadership roles in ROTC. It’s kind of cool because you get one leadership laboratory a week on Thursdays. Then you’d have coursework that you would take with ROTC – three days a week just one class. It’s really nice because I got to have a college experience while, at the same time, earning my commission and joining the military in a way that was wonderful.
But outside of ROTC, that was kind of the majority of the military training that we had. I didn’t do anything outside of that. We just got our commission straight out of there.
RH: Do you feel like in ROTC you really got that good basis of training for deployment?
RF: To a degree. They kind of laid the foundation for later training. While I was in ROTC they taught us how to start fires. We got a few different courses for SERE training which is Search, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. It teaches you how to avoid capture if you’re shot down in enemy territory. We didn’t get a really in-depth training for that but we did get some good foundational service-level training in ROTC that kind of helps get you ready. I got the bulk of my getting ready to deploy training while on active duty.
RH: Let’s go ahead and talk about active duty. You said your first command was the 562nd Training Squadron, correct?
RF: Yes. That’s basic Navigator training. It was me and a bunch of other people going through Navigator training together.
RH: Got it. What was that like?
RF: It was fun and strenuous all at the same time. I made a lot of great friends there. Strangely enough, I met somebody who wasn’t my second cousin but was a distant relative of mine. I had no idea he existed. Turns out he was in my class of thirteen people so it was kind of a small world scenario there.
It was a strong course load. The instructors were great. We would basically go to class every day from seven or eight in the morning until five or six o’clock at night. We would get one or two simulators a week and we would fly once or twice a week as well. It was kind of like drinking through a fire hose at first but, after a while when it clicked, it made sense. It was a lot of fun.
RH: Nice. Could you explain for somebody who doesn’t know – myself included – anything about navigation or flying, what does a navigator do?
RF: [laughs] Honestly, it’s a little different for every airplane so I’ll just tell you what we did on a C-130. My primary job was to program the flight computer so I set in the courses and the different variables – the things that you would need to put in to plan the mission and make it go off according to what it was supposed to do. We were in charge of mission planning. We were the ones to pick the routes of flight to coordinate the times that you would get in and get out. Things like that. Also, we were in charge of weather avoidance. We had the weather radar back at our station so we were the ones when any time there were thunderstorms, we would be guiding the pilots through the thunderstorms. We were in charge of the defensive systems so if you ever got shot at it was your job to make sure that the systems were operating properly. We were in charge of most of the communication that was command and control. We didn’t do a lot of the air traffic stuff that pilots do in any airplane. Any command and control and communication was done by us.
And then as you go to be an older navigator, you were in charge of a lot of big formation missions. You would be in charge of missions that could be anywhere from thirty different airplanes flying in formation. You were in charge of the whole thing, making sure that you were on time everywhere you were going. We were in charge of air drops so any time that we would toss out troops or cargo outside of the back of airplanes, the navigator is the one running the show making sure they land on target where they are supposed to land. It’s kind of a quick summary. It was a fun job. [laughs]
RH: Good to go. Did you serve in Iraq, Afghanistan or both?
RF: I did both.
RH: How many times did you deploy?
RF: I deployed three times. Each deployment was four months.
RH: How many times to Iraq and how many times to Afghanistan?
RF: It was really kind of a two-and-a-halfer. My first two deployments were both to Kuwait but we operated primarily in Iraq in the [Persian] Gulf. And then my third deployment we were also stationed in Kuwait but I spent two months of that deployment in Kabul, Afghanistan. I spent half a tour there. Mainly we flew over Afghanistan and some of the surrounding countries.
RH: Do you remember, what were the dates of those three deployments?
RF: Let’s see. The first one was summer of 2009. The second one would have been fall of 2010 and the last one was early part of the year 2012.
RH: Alright. Let’s start with the first deployment. What was the mission of your unit?
RF: C-130s are cargo airplanes so the bulk majority of the things we were doing were moving troops and cargo. We would take people into combat, we would pull people out of combat. That was probably the primary purpose of the mission. Secondary things we were doing would be USO flights. We were flying celebrities and bands and whoever around. We also did a lot of the human remains missions. Every time that we had to send a fallen comrade home, we would get that mission a lot. The bulk majority of it was moving troops and supplies.
RH: For that first deployment, what was it like the night before you deployed?
RF: [laughs] Well, I was nervous. The cool part about being a C-130 navigator is that it’s not like you’re out of country and then you’re right in country. They do a little warm up for you by letting you fly your airplane from Japan all the way to Iraq. I got a few days of flying in-between and, once you get there, you kind of land there and you’re in it. I was nervous but I was excited at the same time because I knew I was going to get to go. My only job at that point was to fly. You go do these missions and focus on those and you didn’t have to deal with all the other stuff that you did at your home station. So it was good.
But at the same time I was nervous. I had never been in combat before so I was excited and a little nervous at the same time, to say the least. [laughs]
RH: Most of the missions that you flew were between Iraq and Kuwait transporting, correct?
RF: Yeah, most of them. We did a few missions outside of Kuwait and Iraq. We’d fly to Qatar and the UAE and Bahrain. We even went down and did some missions in Africa. We spent some time in Kenya and Uganda. I think Saudi Arabia and then, of course, we went and did a few runs out to Afghanistan and places like that. But the bulk of the missions were in to Iraq and down into the Gulf a little bit.
RH: Got it. If you could, walk me through a typical troop transport flight from Kuwait into Iraq.
RF: [laughs] OK. So we’d wake up anywhere between 3:30 in the morning until 10:00. It just depends on which mission you’re on. You basically wake up, you’d have about twenty minutes to get dressed and you’d jump on the bus to go over and get breakfast at the chow hall real quick. You got about thirty minutes to do that. Jump on the bus which will take you down to your squadron building. While there we would get our stuff ready. We’d get our night vision goggles, our helmets and our cooler where our water is and our lunch is. We would spend about an hour prepping for the mission so we would get your weather briefing, get your intelligence briefing to know if there were any threats in the area. Then we would spend a little bit of time doing some flight planning. We wanted to know which routes we were going to fly.
Then we’d go out to the plane. We would spend an hour or two getting the plane ready. You’d program all your computers. The pilots would be checking flight controls. The engineers would be checking all the systems for the planes and then we would load up and we’d go fly the mission.
On a normal day you would maybe stop in Baghdad, drop off cargo there, pick up new cargo, fly maybe up to Mosul or wherever and do the same thing, fly back to Baghdad and then fly back to Kuwait. That usually took anywhere from eight to fifteen hours on a given day. Then we’d land and clean up the plane, come back in, debrief and then we’d go home. Then go to sleep and do it all again the next day. [laughs]
RH: Got it. Were you guys always flying the same plane or did you switch planes?
RF: No. There’s anywhere – I don’t know the exact amount – there’s probably, depending on the size of the squadron, there’s around eight to fifteen, twenty planes there and you just fly whichever ones are ready. The plane would come home and need to do some maintenance time or it’d have to re-gas up. They would always have planes rotating so there would always one available for a crew was it ready to go fly.
RH: Got it. Alright. Good to go. What are some of the notable events that occurred during that first deployment?
RF: I got to meet Robin Williams. That was cool. I got to meet John McCain. I got to meet the Oakland Raiders cheerleaders. [RH laughs]
It was kind of cool because I got to do that Africa mission which was kind of rare. We took some Navy Seabees from Kuwait down to Uganda, dropped them off, picked up some more and went to Comoros which is just north of Madagascar. They were building, I think, a school or something down there. But when we landed in Uganda, one of the engine’s tailpipes shattered and had a big crack in it. So we did a little investigating and it turns out the engine was bad so we ended up having to wait there for about a week for a C-17 to bring down a spare engine, change the engine on the plane, take off and finish the mission.
It was kind of cool because I got to spend a week in Mombasa, Kenya during a deployment. We got to go on a safari and stayed in a really nice hotel. It was kind of cool. That was probably the highlight of that trip but, outside of that, we’d fly those missions into Iraq every day and it was hot. [laughs] It was fun. We’d come back and it was great being with the crew. We’d play Halo and Modern Warfare and video games. It was just a fun deployment, you know? I got to know all those guys really closely and it was a lot of fun.
RH: Nice. So aside from the Uganda mission, are there any missions on that deployment that are particularly memorable?
RF: Maybe nothing that really stuck out. It was pretty routine. But I can tell you some of my favorite moments just from the flying part. At night when you’ve got your NVGs on and you’re flying at eighteen or twenty thousand feet and the sky is clear, you’ve got a pretty great view. There’s not a lot of light pollution in Iraq. You get a pretty great view of the stars. I always remember being able to see the Milky Way on your NVGs. It’s just really peaceful and kind of a cool moment to be able do every time we had a night mission.
Outside of that we had some fun landings at some pretty rough airports. On that Kenya mission, we were flying into this place where we had to do a low pass over the airfield to scare all the baboons off the runway so we didn’t run them over when we landed. [RH laughs]
The missions themselves were routine. Most of the good memories were of sharing time with my crew and my friends that were there.
RH: When you flew into Iraq, did you have to do combat landings?
RF: A few. Most of the places we went to were controlled and behind the fence so you weren’t really in any danger about getting in trouble when you landed there. Good news about flying an airplane is you know, pretty much, around where you’re landing whether or not there’s trouble and, if there is, you just take off and you go around. You just go somewhere else.
When you land in a combat area, you want to spend as little time as possible within the range of AK-47s and other small arms. Of all the landings there, we would do these penetration defenses or fly in pretty fast and would just slow down at the last second to be able to land. It was always kind of a fun combat landing. [laughs]
RH: That’s it for the first deployment Let’s move onto the second deployment. Was the second deployment a lot of the same or were there some unique circumstances?
RF: The missions were all going to be pretty much similar. Honestly, it was pretty similar to the first deployment. Got to meet some other, different people and got to visit some new countries I hadn’t been to but outside of that, it was much of the same as the first one. I had a great time with my crew. I had a lot of fun people on that deployment. Again, the camaraderie was always the best part. But nothing really of note, I guess.
RH: What was your crew like on that second deployment? You said they were great.
RF: Without using names, the aircraft commander was this tall Swedish guy who basically had a huge smile and was a really great guy. He was our pilot in command, the aircraft commander. I had two different copilots. They switch you out halfway as a co-pilot to work some ground duties. My first co-pilot was a good friend of mine. He’s a big Ohio State fan so I had to give him shit for that. The second co-pilot was another cool guy. We all got along pretty well. I had an engineer who was probably the most stubborn of anybody on the crew. If anybody would have been in the Marines, kind of like a TI, it’d have been him, for sure. But he was good at his job and he kept us safe every day so I can’t really complain. Then I had some great loadmasters who were in charge of the back. Everybody came from all different walks of life. We had the big, tall Swedish pilot. He was from San Francisco. He was kind of cool – I don’t know how to explain it. Everybody was different and that was the best part. Everybody brought a different perspective to all the conversations we would have. It was a lot of fun.
RH: Nice. Were there any particularly memorable missions on that deployment or any that stuck out?
RF: It’s tough to say. We had one guy who was getting arrested on the plane. That was interesting.
RH: Really? What was this about?
RF: Well, I didn’t really know the full scoop of it and security forces didn’t tell us but we were about thirty minutes from landing and we got a message that said, “When you guys land, park in this specific spot. We need to arrest somebody that you’re carrying.” When we landed, security forces were waiting on us and they just came on and arrested him right off the plane.
RH: Oh God.
RF: Yeah. [laughs]
RH: Was he a US service member?
RF: I don’t really know for sure. I think so. I think he was trying to hitch a ride out of town and desert but that’s just what I heard through the grapevine. I really don’t know the circumstances surrounding his arrest.
Other cool things we did, we were in Kurdistan for a day and I got to go off base and hike up in the Hindu Kush mountain range. I saw some cool waterfalls. We got to have dinner in this local Kurdish family’s house. I did some shopping so that was kind of fun. I got to meet some of the locals so that was kind of neat but outside of that it was just kind of the same stuff, routine missions that we flew here and there on that deployment.
RH: Let me ask you this and this can be for all three deployments. One of the most solemn events in the military is when somebody dies, transporting them home. What were the human remains missions like?
RF: They were hard. Every time you would show up to fly, you would see the manifest of what you were carrying. If you saw that you were moving human remains, you knew it was going to be an emotional flight. It’s never easy taking somebody home. In those circumstances it’s not a fun mission to do but at the same time you’re very honored to do it.
I can tell you one story that was probably the hardest one of them all. We were carrying home a husband who was actually serving at the same time with his wife. They were deployed at the same time. We carried him home with her, basically, leaning over his coffin that he was in and very upset the whole flight. It was something we took very seriously and any time we would have to do one of those missions we would park the plane, turn off the engines, roll out the red carpet treatment. They would bring the remains on and we would always salute and be very respectful. We treated that mission with the highest regard, almost as if they were more important than carrying the president of the United States. They would get the same exact honor and respect when we would carry them. It was a tough mission, for sure, but we were happy to be able to take them home to their families.
RH: Good to go. You said that you got to visit with the Kurds for a little bit. Did you have much interaction with the Iraqis?
RF: Not particularly. I went to Erbil once or twice. The only interaction I had with them was the guys who were working on the ramp to help load and unload cargo and things like that but I never really spent much time talking on a personal level with any of them.
RH: Got it. For each of your deployments – maybe the answer will be different for each – what was the most challenging period of the deployment: the beginning, the middle or the end?
RF: It’s probably a little different for each deployment but at the same time there are always hard parts that are the same. For me on the first deployment, the hardest part was probably the last month and a half. When you first get there you’re gung-ho. You’re excited to be doing something and putting your skills to use but after about two and a half months of doing the same thing every day, it kind of got old. It’s hard because you have to fight complacency. You don’t want to get to the point where you’re being dangerous on the airplane because if you let your guard down, you can put your crew in unsafe situations.
But it started setting in missing your family and things like that. It’s hard to say because I know Army guys and Navy guys and everybody else do much longer deployment that we did – I never did a full year deployment – but it was still pretty challenging at times, dealing with missing your family members and getting kind of lost in the monotony. So I’ll say the first deployment the hardest time was probably the last month and a half.
Second deployment the hardest time was right smack dab in the middle. My wife – we had just kind of become boyfriend/girlfriend and we had been together for probably a year and a half at this point. It was the first deployment I had done where I had a significant other. She never dated a military guy before so it was hard on the relationship to not see each other for that long – especially when we had been together at that point for a year and a half.
And the last deployment, honestly the hardest part was the day I arrived. Getting in the country and thinking oh man, here we go again. I remember on the bus on the way just sitting there thinking in that I can’t believe I’m here again. It really stinks. [both laugh] But it ended up being my favorite deployment of the three.
RH: So let’s move into that deployment then. How was that deployment? Was it different at all from the first two deployments?
RF: Yeah, it was. So the first two deployments when I was stationed in Japan, we had a lot of worldwide missions. We were doing some cool stuff in Guam and some really fun stuff in Thailand and other places. They were only required to send one crew to the desert or maybe two crews every so often. So my first two deployments I didn’t really know anybody while I was there except for my crew. My last deployment – this is when I deployed from Little Rock, Arkansas – we deployed as an entire squadron so I went out there with sixty or seventy people that I knew. All the crews that were there were our friends. Even the one or two crews from Japan that were there were my friends that I knew from before so I knew, literally, everybody. We would spend all of our off time playing volleyball or going to the gym or playing poker or doing other activities like eat chow and smoke cigars together.
It was just a much more fun deal too also because it was a different environment. The environment in the Middle East was a lot different at that time. Obama had just ended combat operations in Iraq, literally, a week before I got there. When I got there, I remember walking to fly and all of the missions at that point had been going down into the Gulf or maybe going to Afghanistan. I sat down and they were like, “You’re going to Iraq.” And I said, “How’s that? Combat’s over.” They were like, “Yeah, combat’s over. Here’s your flak jacket and your helmet. You’re going to Baghdad.” I was on the first mission back into Iraq after the end of the combat – after the official end of combat that Obama had announced. So that was kind of funny.
But they didn’t call them combat missions at that point. We were supporting something else. It was a lot different too because we knew if we had gotten shot down, for the search and rescue teams would have been a lot harder to get there and it would have taken a lot longer. So you’re kind of at a different place at that point. They’d shut down half of the country at that point so all your help was a lot further away.
RH: Interesting. So on the third deployment you said you started out in Kuwait and then you went to Kabul for the second half, right?
RF: Yes. It wasn’t really the second half. It was kind of like the middle half. I spent the second and third quarters out there, if you will. Basically they were redeploying some F-16s out there so we were flying in support of that. We tried to move all the gear that this F-16 squadron needed out there. It wasn’t a full two months. I don’t remember the exact amount of time I was there. But while we were there we were flying between every airfield in Afghanistan.
Probably the one or two scary things that happened during that time, I don’t know if you remember back in 2012, I know it hit the news, but the person who was operating the burn pit at Bagram burned the Korans that had been confiscated from the prison?
RH: I remember that.
RF: I was there when that happened. I’ve been on bases before when they’ve been shelled with artillery but never like that. It was pretty intense. They had riots outside the front gate, people ready to storm in. We were on call pretty much the whole night, just shell after shell after shell landed in and one of them actually hit the internet line which was about fifty feet from the tent I was staying in. It was pretty close. I happened to be talking to my wife at the time and then all of a sudden I told her, “I have to go,” and then she hears an explosion and the internet cut out. I had no way of contacting her for like three days so she thought I was dead for three days.
So anyways, after all that happened, nobody ended up getting hurt in that attack. The only person that got hurt tripped on a rock and sprained his ankle. Luckily nobody got hurt that day. But taking off the next morning we were all pretty nervous that we were going to get shot at leaving because there were still crowds outside the gate and everybody was pretty fired up. But luckily we were heading back to Kuwait that next day so it happened the day before we left.
RH: Alright. Was there any difference flying into or over Iraq versus flying into or over Afghanistan?
RF: Yeah man. Each place is totally different, actually. The biggest difference is the terrain. Afghanistan is so much more mountainous thank Iraq is. Iraq is so flat. You never got any threats as you’re flying around out there because you’re eighteen thousand feet higher than the point below you. But in Afghanistan, in the C-130 when you’ve got all your cargo on board and you’re full of gas, you’re only flying two thousand feet over the peaks. They can reach out and get to you if they’re standing on any of those peaks. The other scary part is that if you lose an engine, our three engine performance is not good enough to keep us above the ground. So your pucker factor is a little higher out there and the amount of drone traffic and friendly traffic that was out there was a lot higher so you were just always on your guard making sure you’re steering clear of anything that might hit you.
But the flying out there was more fun, if you will. Flying in Iraq felt like you were flying in America. Everything was controlled, there was always somebody talking to you on the radio. It just felt like a more kind of foundational air traffic control. In Afghanistan, it was a little bit more cowboy. We had our assigned routes and we knew where we were supposed to be but you’re still trying to coordinate to not be in the same airspace as people who were launching artillery or who were shooting in gunfights. We were all trying to steer clear of those hostile areas as much as possible so you’re always busier. [laughs]
RH: While you were flying, were you ever shot at or did you ever receive fire?
RF: I saw a lot of fire going on. As you’re flying around you can always see the gunfire on your NVGs. Now I can’t really confirm or deny whether I’ve been shot at but we’ve got a couple of stories. One that I can share with you is we were taking off out of Baghdad and as we were turning out, there were these two Apaches sitting there waiting for us to go so they could cross our flight path to get to the other side. And as we turn, our missile warning system went off and as I look over, the Apaches are spitting flares out. We’re spitting flares out and if we did get shot at then, it would have been behind us so nobody would have seen it. But as we were taking off out of there, our loadmaster looked back and said that the Apaches were just blasting whatever this rooftop was that might have shot at us but who knows? [laughs]
But it wasn’t very common, if you will. Out of the whole time I was there, all three deployments, maybe twice but it’s really not a common occurrence for an airplane to get shot at. Honestly, if they did, we probably would never have known.
RH: Alright. Good to go. So you talked a little bit about this when you talked about flying at night with your NVGs, what were some of the nicest moments when you were in the air? That could be the most peaceful moments or just some of the nicest parts of flying.
RF: Hmm. OK. I’ve gotten a lot of really great views that I know no one else has seen. I’ve flown directly over Mount Fuji. I’ve flown directly over Mount Kilimanjaro. I’ve just been really lucky. I think that probably my favorite, most serene moments were at night – those nights I was telling you about on the NVGs – looking up at the stars and seeing the crystal clear view of the Milky Way which you can never see hanging out here or anywhere else.
A lot of my favorite moments were taking people home. We would always turn on the PA system and blast AC/DC or Led Zeppelin to pump those guys up. It was just always fun watching troops, as we’re carrying them back out of combat, fully geared up and sitting on these cargo nets super uncomfortable, but they’re all so happy to be able to be going home. It was always just a treat to see them leaving. They all want to take pictures with you. We’d always announce when we exited the combat zone and everybody would erupt in laughter and cheering. That was always a special moment when you got to do that for somebody.
This is a whole other story but in Japan, every Christmas the squadron out there would go down to Guam and the citizens of Guam would collect different things throughout the year like blankets and toys and all these medical supplies. They would basically pile this stuff up throughout the year and then right around Christmas time, our squadron would come down from Japan. We’d stage out of Guam and we would go air drop all these different toys and things like that to all the islands out in Micronesia – the Chuuk Islands, the Yap Islands – all those little islands out there. These people were cut off from any other supplies. They had to wait for their boat to come by every so often.
It was always so fun because we would kind of throw the rulebook out the window. Nobody’s under any pressure. You’re not getting graded by instructors or evaluators. You’re just going out there to have a good time. We would take parachutes, pack up these toys and supplies and we’d air drop cool things to these people for who it was a special treat to get that every year. It was always a lot of fun.
RH: This is a question for all three of the deployments. While you were deployed, did you have any transformative or significant events that informed your deployment?
RF: Nothing that’s coming to mind to be honest. That moment where we carried that guy who was killed and his wife. That was a moment that I’ll never forget. Did it change me as a person? A little bit. It was very surreal and it almost felt like it wasn’t happening. It was really sad for her and I was just very dedicated to getting her home. I think about that moment every once in a while. It comes up every so often and when I’m sitting here thinking about woe is me and how bad my life is now, I can go back to that and know it can always get worse. Count your blessings. Live your life to the fullest because you never know what can happen.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Before we move onto post-deployment and post-military life, is there anything about the deployments that we left out that you would like to address?
RF: [laughs] Does it have to be deployments?
RH: Just the deployments. I’ll ask a final wrap-up question too but just for the deployments, is there anything that we left out that you would like to address?
RF: Really the bottom line for me is deployments were hard because you were away from your family, you were away from your loved ones and your friends who were all back home but they were always very rewarding because you would make some really great friends you’d become so close to these people that you were spending your entire time with. You fly with them. You sleep in the same room as them. You share a bathroom. You spend, literally, every moment of your day with these people and if you didn’t get along with them, it would be really hard. I was so lucky that I had some really great people to go on deployments with who A) were very good at their jobs – skilled pilots, really smart engineers, great loadmasters – but B) they were also a lot of fun to hang out with outside of your regular duties. We could spend literally every moment of our time together and get along really well. So I was just very lucky to always have that and never had a beef with anybody.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Can you talk a little bit about your post-deployment experiences coming home from the deployments?
RF: Yeah, sure. My first deployment I was still single at the time. It was kind of fun then because we actually got to fly our airplane home. We got to go stop in Diego Garcia out in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We got to spend a night there. We went through Thailand on the way home and then we got back to Japan. Reintegrating wasn’t too bad because they give you two weeks off – the Air Force does – after a deployment so you can spend that two weeks really kind of doing whatever you want – catching up on sleep or going out and seeing the town. My mom and dad flew in those first two weeks and we went and saw Tokyo. Then after two weeks you’re kind of back to your job on base and the operations desk with rescheduling.
The second deployment coming home, at that point I had a girlfriend who is my future wife. Then it was really exciting because I knew she was at home waiting on me. I knew she was excited to see me so we came home and celebrated and had a really great time.
My third deployment coming home, she was my wife and this is back into Little Rock this time instead of Japan. I came home and she was there waiting on me.
RH: Good to go. How did civilians react to you throughout the whole process?
RF: Honestly, most people were always pretty supportive. Any time you’d be filling up my tank of gas, I’d have people buy my tank of gas before. I’ve had people buy my lunch or my dinner before because I’m eating lunch in uniform. I’ve had one or two instances where I’ve run into hostile people but for the most part, everybody seemed to be very supportive of me or any of my colleagues or friends who were in the military. We really haven’t heard any issues. Of course, I left Tokyo and moved to Arkansas. Everybody’s supportive there and now I live in Texas. Texas is great for veterans and they take really good care of us. I would say most civilians have been pretty great.
RH: Good to go. So you got out in 2013, correct?
RF: 2013. Yes.
RH: How has your military experience shaped your life since you got out?
RF: Well I’ve learned a lot, I’ll tell you. This is a fun fact for Navigators – there’s not really a job outside of the military for us. Basically, a GPS does our job in the civilian world. [laughs] There’s no air drop, really. So for me the transition was a little bit challenging. What’s a career field for a Navigator? By the way, I have a history degree out of college so my kind of go-to choices were to be a history teacher or maybe go back to school or kind of get into a career. I had no clue what I wanted to do. My wife was working at the time but whatever I did I wanted to match my salary. That was kind of my goal was to match my salary.
So I got out and the first job I took was for a military placement firm. I thought that’d be a pretty logical transition. It’s basically a recruiting firm. Let’s say that Flying J or whoever is hiring. I’d go look on their job boards, find positions that make sense for military members and then I’d call them and try to get them to hire military people. That was kind of my job straight out of the military. I did that for about a year.
I transitioned from there into kind of an account management/sales role with HomeAway, the vacation rentals website. I worked there for about a year and a half, managing some portfolios of accounts there. And then my wife had been working at this company here in Austin that does online reputation management and a few other cool online type services. She loved her job and was always talking about how great the company was so one day I was like, “I guess I’ll check it out.” I did and now I work for them. [laughs] It’s kind of been my path out of the military.
RH: Nice. Good to go. Do you still communicate with anyone from your unit?
RF: Oh yeah. My best friend here in Texas who is a coworker of mine at my current company, I met him the second week I was in Japan so I’ve known him for a long time. I see him just about every day at work and then even a lot of the weekends his wife and my wife hang out. I talk to my military friends pretty much all the time. I’m very close with a lot of them.
RH: Alright good to go. I have a couple of questions about Iraq and Afghanistan’s current state. How do you feel about the rise of ISIS and the current direction that Iraq is taking?
RF: Honestly, ISIS is probably one of the worst groups of people that have ever walked the Earth, in my opinion. I don’t say that lightly. I say that because I’m a big history buff. I love history. I was a history major in college. It really, really upsets me when they’re going around destroying all these ancient sites from biblical times and really bringing back sharia law. It doesn’t make sense to me and it’s hard for me to comprehend the fact that they think they can go around and just murder innocent people. It really stinks that they are even in existence. I wish that they would go away. [laughs]
RH: Just in the news in the last couple days the Pentagon is now thinking about increasing the number of troops to Afghanistan. We don’t know if it’s going to happen yet but how do you feel about the current situation in Afghanistan?
RF: Well, I wish there wasn’t a situation in Afghanistan. It’s really a shame to have been in the war this long but that’s the toughest question to answer. How do I feel about it? I wish it wasn’t a thing. I wish that Afghanistan was a peaceful country that we could go visit and take a vacation to, if that’s what we wanted to do. But I understand that bad people exist in this world and if they are directly threatening our freedom and our right to live, then clearly we need to defends ourselves. For me, without being super political, hopefully there’s an end in sight. Hopefully this war will come to a peaceful end for everybody and at that point there’s not any more innocent bloodshed and troops and people in the American military can finally come home to their families safely.
RH: Alright. Good to go. I have a couple of spiritual questions for you. Has deploying affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
RF: I’m not a super religious person. I grew up Southern Baptist but kind of became more non-denominational as I have gotten older. Where I’m at now, I believe there’s a God and I believe in the afterlife and things like that but spiritually speaking, deploying has probably made me a more spiritual person than if I hadn’t gone.
I always carried a bible with me when I flew. I’ve had the same bible with me from the day I started training to the day I left. I still have it with me. That being said, I don’t read it very often but when you see certain things like people living in these horrible conditions and you see fallen soldiers and you see all these terrible things that can happen to people, it really makes me hope that when somebody moves on from this life, they are in a better place. I think that seeing death that close makes me more spiritual because it makes me want to believe that there is an afterlife, there is a place for these people where they’re happy and they’re looking down on us. It’s definitely eye-opening and when you’re sitting alone in your NVGs looking up at the sky and you see the Milky Way, there’s just something spiritual about it. It brings you peace.
RH: Good to go. Has deploying changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
RF: No, I guess. I know life and death are both the same. Growing up, we live in this great country where you don’t really face death every day and you don’t really face the possibility of dying. The only way you can, really, is by pretty extreme diseases and car wrecks that will kill you as far as you know.
Being over there and seeing it happen does make it a lot more tangible. I never felt this feeling of invulnerability over there that I felt prior to being deployed. I’ve never been put in a life-threatening situation before deploying and I think it really kind of opens your eyes. You are vulnerable. You need to take care of yourself. You need to live. It just shows you tangible proof that people die. Don’t be stupid. [laughs]
RH: Alright. Good to go. We’re going to switch it up a little bit. We touched on this a little bit but what is your happiest memory of the entire time you served?
RF: Hmm. Happiest memory? Man, that’s tough. There’s a lot. I have a lot of great memories.
RH: A couple of them, then.
RF: OK. Honestly, strictly flying-speaking. I have a couple of missions that stick out that were my favorites and neither one of them were deployed. One was that Christmas drop that I was telling you about earlier – delivering supplies to all the little islands out in Micronesia and places.
But I also had one where we went down to Vietnam. We call them “repat” missions – repatriotization. Basically any time somebody would discover human remains in Vietnam that belonged to US service members, we would send a team down there and they would go excavate and we would be able to bring them home as well. Those were always really cool missions. I think one of my happiest missions was one of those. The first one I ever did, we were able to repatriate this soldier whose family had never heard from him again, from back in the Vietnam war. That made me really happy.
Then I also got to do a really cool mission when it was election season back in 2012. I got to go fly President Obama’s limo around. They call it a deployment but really it was two weeks where stayed in Delaware – no, actually we were in Newark – but we only flew one or two missions. We kind of got a free trip so it was fun. We got to go see New York City and DC and Atlantic City. It was a good time. [laughs] I had a really fun crew, in particular.
RH: Alright. While you guys were flying, what did you guys eat on these missions?
RF: [laughs] It’s different. If you’re deployed we’d have these flight meals so they would usually consist of some sandwich or you could get a salad or maybe a bowl of cereal and then it would come with a snack so you would get potato chips or you would get a candy bar and then whatever soda or drink you want. They had plenty of water. We had these whip-its which were little Red Bulls, Coke, Diet Pepsi. Things like that. It was pretty standard, what you imagined a snack would be for a sack lunch. When you were flying out of a home station, you would just go eat whatever you want and bring it with you. So I would stop at Jimmy John’s and get a sandwich or maybe Subway. It’s just whatever you can pack under your table and eat when you got a second. It’s whatever you can fit in a sack lunch. That’s usually what we’d eat. [laughs]
The pork sandwiches. We had a toaster oven in the plane so I would always order ten bottles of Buffalo Wild Wings sauce and I would use that as my spicy condiment that I would put on every sandwich that I would eat in the desert because they all tasted like cardboard but they tasted great with wing sauce on them. [laughs]
RH: That’s cool. What was the best chow hall stateside, the best chow hall in Iraq and the best chow hall worldwide? When I say worldwide, I mean US bases worldwide.
RF: OK. Hmm. Probably the best chow hall stateside that I ever had, I want to say probably the chow hall in Little Rock. I didn’t eat there very often but they always had pretty tasty food every time I went in there.
But that doesn’t even compare to the chow hall in Iraq at Balad. Before they shut Balad down, that chow hall was great. They had super tasty food there and I never got sick of it so that was always kind of the determining factor.
And then the chow hall in Afghanistan was delicious – the main one there. It always had great food. I could get a burger pretty easy that was not bad. Probably the overall winner would be Balad in Iraq.
RH: Then worldwide, which one?
RF: I’d say Balad, Iraq, when it was open. It’s closed now. Their chow hall was great.
RH: Good to go. What is the funniest story you have?
RF: Jeez. Funniest story. Man. One that’s popping into my head. I’m sure this isn’t the funniest but I always thought this was hilarious. One of my co-pilots when we were stationed in Kuwait, he was a big runner. He was out running one day and we always had this loop that looped around the flight line. I think it was about eight miles from start to finish. He got about halfway and had to use the restroom but of course there were no restrooms around so he kind of squatted and did his business. Meanwhile, he was right the approach of the runway so he’s sitting there squatting and all these planes are flying over him laughing at him. Of course he didn’t have any toilet paper so he had to use a sock and he ran back with no sock on. [RH laughs] He came back and his foot was covered in blisters and he told us the story. We were all just kind of rolling. That’s one. I’ve got tons of funny stories. Maybe in a more private setting I can tell you some really good ones. [laughs] Maybe I shouldn’t disclose on here.
RH: Last couple of questions. What are some of the common misconceptions that the average American might have about the conflicts?
RF: Everybody in America, all they know is what they see on the news. Depending on what news channel you’re watching, you’re going to get a different story each way. The biggest thing I can always say is take what you hear on the news with a grain of salt. Make sure you’re trying to, as best you can, collect facts before you make any judgments because things happen while you’re deployed and either get super spun out of control or end up being told in not correct types of ways. I think the big misperception is a lot of people will take the media for truth when it’s not always truthful. So that’s one.
It’s not all fun and games. It’s a pretty somber experience a lot of times. There are a lot of hard things going on and I think a lot of people that aren’t in the military or close to people in the military don’t really realize how much of a mental toll being deployed takes on a person. I’ve got friends who did much more challenging and rigorous deployments than I did and they’ve got PTSD and mental issues. There’s just a lot of outside exposure that the average person just doesn’t even realize is a thing until they know somebody who served or may have heard stories like this. A lot of people don’t really understand. Hollywood sometimes does an OK job but for the most part they miss a lot of the little stuff. It’s just a lot harder being deployed than a lot of people realize, especially for long periods when you’re away from your family.
Let’s see, what else. Misperceptions. We’re not all warmongers. I know a lot of people in the military and nobody’s out there looking to kill people. We saw in the C-130 squadrons that we don’t think people getting murdered is a glamorous job. For us, we believe in our country and we believe in our mission and we just go out and do our job every day.
And then veterans at home, I think the general population needs better awareness of how they’re doing and I think a lot of veterans need help. Hopefully people can help them, I guess.
RH: If you could communicate something to young airmen who will be fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?
RF: I actually had somebody tell me this before my commission. He said, “You’re going to have some of the best times and your life and you’re going to have some of the worst times in your life. You just have to figure out how to play the cards you’re dealt and how to manage through them.” For our future airmen out there if you’re listening, thank you for your service. I wish you the very best of luck and hold your head high and be proud of what you do.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Before I ask my last question, is there anything that I left out that you would like to address?
RF: Yeah, sure. I told you a lot of cool stories but I think that one thing I was involved in that the media kind of mess up is the whole tsunami in Japan situation. I won’t tell you the whole story. I was pretty heavily involved in that. I was working in scheduling at the time and our squadron commander was out of town and the commander above him was out of town so when the tsunami hit, most of our squadron was missing. We only had a skeleton crew at the time and we just happened to have crews ready to fly. Within twelve hours of that tsunami hitting Japan, we had crews in the air flying missions into Sendai, into Fukushima and the different areas where people really needed some help.
It was really exciting for me because I was kind of the heart of that operation. I got to schedule the crews and plan the mission. I really kind of quarterbacked that whole humanitarian relief effort and it really held a special place for me to be able to do something like that and to help people in need.
I guess it’s really important to think about, too – a common misperception that you asked me about a minute ago – the military isn’t just out there killing people. They’re not just out there fighting wars all the time. They’re also doing a lot of good things. So for me in the C-130 squadron, I got to help with flood relief in Pakistan when Pakistan was overrun with floods. I got to help with the tsunami relief in Japan. Our crews got to go help in Haiti when Haiti got annihilated by that hurricane. There’re so many good things on the C-130 side that they’re out there doing. I just want to make sure that people don’t forget that and it’s not getting lost in the shuffle that these really great missions are happening that aren’t involving killing but they’re actually involving humanitarian type stuff. People are doing great things.
RH: Got it. Good to go. So my last question, and you may actually have just answered it, during your entire service, what specific accomplishment are you most proud of?
RF: Oh yeah. Easy. It was that. It was the earthquake relief [after the tsunami in Japan]. I know in my heart, deep down, I played an integral part of that. It was probably the single greatest achievement of my military career, knowing that what I was doing there was saving lives and making a difference. I was in a very direct role where I got to talk to senior-level White House officials and generals. It was really my plan in action to do all that stuff. It was my vision, my plan and we, as a squadron, executed it flawlessly and it worked out very well. So I was very proud of that.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Anything else before we wrap it up?
RF: No, Rich. I don’t think so. It’s been a pleasure talking to you and I’ll be talking to you soon.
RH: Thank you!