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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT

Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.

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January 26, 2005

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Monday, April 14

Pilot's mission: seeing how his job fits into war's big picture

By Gordon Trowbridge | Air Force Times

FROM A FORWARD AIR BASE, Persian Gulf region - Thousands of U.S. troops have seen no more of the war against Iraq than the view through a gunsight.

Snort wants to know the big scheme of things.

``It's important for me to see how what I'm doing fits in the big picture - to see how your one sortie does matter,'' said the Air Force lieutenant colonel, F-16 fighter pilot, Louisville, Ky., native and serious student of the art of war. ``Some guys don't care as much, but for me it's comforting to know where I fit into the whole big picture.''

Snort - who like most U.S. pilots here prefers to be identified only by his radio call sign and rank - is operations officer for the 524th Fighter Squadron from Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., deployed to an air base just south of the Iraqi border. A veteran of the first Persian Gulf War, he's a graduate of the Air Force Academy and the Air Force's School of Advanced Airpower Studies, a sort of Harvard of air war.

He can wax philosophical about military theorists from Clausewitz (18th century Prussian) to Warden (Gulf War I American). For those in the know: Yes, Snort buys Clausewicz's concept of war as politics by other means; and, no, he doesn't think Warden's five concentric rings are the last word in air war.

This is no ``Top Gun'' Tom Cruise. It's the fighter pilot as intellectual - the guy who can pull off putting ``Snort'' and ``intellectual'' in the same sentence.

``He's a student,'' said an A-10 attack jet pilot whose radio call sign is Major Hootie and who flew in Snort's squadron during the first Gulf War. ``We kid him about all this studying of military history. If there's `fighter pilot serious,' he takes it to an extra level of serious.''

More than three weeks into the Iraq war, Snort had flown the 100th combat mission of his career - 19 in this war, 40 during Operation Desert Storm, the rest in missions monitoring the no-fly zone in southern Iraq.

One of only a handful of pilots in his squadron who had flown wartime missions, his job as the squadron's second in command was to get his fellow pilots, as well as himself, ready for war.

``I was convinced from last June that this was going to happen,'' he said. ``Since then I've been telling these guys, `You must assume in your heart that this is going to happen.' ... What was kind of surprising to me is how easy it was to get back into it.''

His first combat memories are vivid - flying A-10s, the Air Force's premier plane for supporting ground troops. On his first mission, he read a letter from his wife as his plane was being fueled, too distracted by the tension of oncoming combat to remember the words.

``There's a thousand things you can screw up,'' he said. ``The adrenaline is definitely flowing. There's a certain sense of calm, relief, when you land back at your base - but it's short-lived, because you know you've gotta go back.''

In that war, Snort's A-10 squadron concentrated on Iraqi formations in Kuwait and southern Iraq. This time, he and his fellow F-16 pilots have ranged as far north as Mosul and have done everything from provide firepower to friendly ground troops to fly strategic missions striking ``regime targets'' - military-speak for buildings and belongings of Saddam Hussein and his leadership circle. On one cloudless night several days into the conflict, he flew three consecutive missions over the center of Baghdad.

``It was, `OK, we're finally going downtown,' '' he said. ``Ever since Vietnam, when our forefathers were flying missions over Hanoi, there's been something special about `going downtown.' Zipping in there, you're thinking, `Wow, this is the big one.' ''

The well-lighted streets were familiar from aerial photos the pilots had practically memorized in the weeks leading up to war.

``I knew the layout of the city, exactly where I was. It was surreal, seeing everything for the first time, yet knowing it so well. And then we were dropping, striking at the very heart of the Baath regime.''

Proud as he is of what he and his squadron have done - and he leaves no doubt whatsoever of his belief that the war is a just one - Snort clearly hopes this war is his last.

He is scheduled later this year to take over his first command, a one-year tour leading an F-16 squadron at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea.

``The one thing I've always made a goal in my Air Force career is to be a squadron commander,'' he said.

But this husband and father quickly points out that his goals extend outside the military - and back to his hometown of Louisville, Ky.

``I always tell people I consider myself on an extended vacation from Louisville,'' he said.

He tries to visit two or three times a year - a goal that's been hard to meet since Sept. 11, 2001. On Saturday, he made no secret of his disappointment that Thunder over Louisville, an annual part of the buildup to the Kentucky Derby, was going on that night without him.

``I love that city,'' he said. ``No matter what, I want to go back there and make some sort of contribution.''