Sunday, April 25, 2004


Journalist and former Marine P.T. Brent, left, laughs with Brig. Gen. Jerry McAbee at an unidentified Mideast location. McAbee is commandant of Kaneohe Marine Corps Base Hawaii.

From Kaneohe
to the Mideast

P.T. Brent, former Marine and the Star-Bulletin's Mideast correspondent, talked with Brig. Gen. Jerry McAbee, deputy commanding general of Marine Forces Pacific and commanding general of Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe, in an exclusive interview while traveling with Marines in Afghanistan, Qatar and Bahrain.

SOMEWHERE IN AFGHANISTAN >> "For those who have fought for it, life has a special flavor the protected will never know."

Those few words, written by an anonymous Marine and taken from a combat ration box in Vietnam, express the motivation of the Marines in Afghanistan who are fighting a global war on terrorism. The Marine Expeditionary Unit is comprised of a fleet of Navy ships, aircraft and a battalion of more than 1,000 Marines.

The general's duties take him from his home at Kaneohe Marine Corps Base to Afghanistan, Iraq and the network of countries that supply America with resources to the war effort. He carries his own gear, lines up last for chow and makes sure all his troops are taken care of before accepting something for himself. He is well respected by his troops and shows a genuine empathy for the young Americans about to shove off for war.

The McAbees are a proud Marine family. The general's father served with the Corps in World War II and Korea; his brother served in Vietnam. McAbee served with Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during Desert Storm. McAbee says simply: "What better honor than to wear the uniform of the U.S. Marines for 35 years?"

Star-Bulletin: How are we training the Iraqis to fend for themselves?

Brig. Gen. McAbee: The new Iraqi army is established; so is the Iraqi civil defense and the Iraqi police, all carefully selected postwar. They appear to have taken the mission seriously, and many have died fighting these extremists.

S-B: What is your forecast for Iraq during the next five years?

McAbee: Iraq is a rich country. They have educated people and resources -- the second largest supply of oil in the world, a fine infrastructure, good roads and ample lakes, rivers and water for agriculture. All this represents a bright future, based on us keeping our resolve to provide security for this country, which is so rich in history and culture. Two of the original wonders of the world are in Iraq.

S-B: Is the cost in lives and resources too high?

McAbee: America's military has always fought outside America. They do this to defend our way of life. (Fighting outside the U.S. during) World War II was to prevent direct invasion. This global war (against terrorism) is to keep our way of life for our grandchildren and future generations. What we do here will define life in America for the next 50 years. Our young Marines know this and our Corps pledged to accomplish these goals.

We must stamp out poverty, ignorance and hatred. We need to help them have jobs, education and religious freedoms. Our Marines have sacrificed lives and limbs to make sure we now stand over here and not on our shores. It is a long investment. Americans well know that freedom is not free.

Appeasing these people who attack our way of life is a poor investment. Churchill once said, "An appeaser is one who feeds the crocodile, hoping it will eat him last."

S-B: How are we doing in Iraq?

McAbee: The vast majority of Iraqi people just want the same thing we desire -- jobs, religious freedom, to raise their families peacefully and to be happy. A few people -- foreign mercenaries, thugs, people who hate democracy or in some cases just hate Westerners -- hope to alter our resolve through terrorism. Most them are just self-seeking opportunists who wish for coalition forces to give up.

S-B: How is life today for Iraqis?

McAbee: All resources that serve the public are superior today to pre-war conditions: schools, hospitals, irrigation systems, agriculture, natural gas and oil at a record of 2.5 million barrels per day ...

S-B: What will be the ultimate outcome of this war?

McAbee: Our actions will define our American way of life for the next 50 years. We must stay the course.

The crew of an Air Force C-130 poses for a quick photograph before taking off under heavy fire from the former Balad Airfield in Iraq.

‘Our Texas Air Force’
and a few Hail Marys

Ground control to a U.S. Air Force Hercules C-130: Sir, Condition Red -- the field is under attack again. Advise taxi to bunker and evacuate the aircraft.

Captain: Request 14 Right for takeoff.

Tower: Alpha, bravo, delta and foxtrot sectors all under fire.

Copilot: Sir, tracer rounds at delta end of field.

Tower: Cannot comply, sir, unless you declare take-off critical.

Captain: Runway 14 Right, now.

Tech Sergeant (in the hold with 36 passengers): Sir, rockets to rear of aircraft hitting.

Tower: Can you lift off before intersection delta?

Captain: Affirmative your last.

Tower: I am going to get a lot of s^#* over this ...

Copilot: (Starts reading a take-off checklist rapidly.)

Captain: Keep moving, Liz.

(Pilot holds brakes, then full power and a rapid climb to altitude.)

Crew chief: Sir, two rockets over our tail section, flares deploying.

Captain: Tower need to avoid search chopper in the area.

Tower: Chopper 17, stay below two hundred feet.

Navigator: Have him at two o'clock.

Finally, a dramatic lift-off under heavy fire at Balad Airfield, Iraq, with this correspondent riveted to the cockpit jump seat. My headset is locked onto a gripping real-life radio show. My helmet bag has a notebook and a pen light; my hands are buried deep, noting the radio dialogue in the blacked-out cockpit. And, as one Marine put it, I can say a Hail Mary in 2.9 seconds.

Departure was from Balad, the giant airfield and once Saddam's pride. Now called Anaconda by the U.S. Army, which uses it as an enormous supply and distribution center for the Iraq theater. For better than two weeks it has been hit by live fire, most of it highly inaccurate. Its convoys are returning with KIAs and WIAs (killed and wounded in action). The highways belong to the Mahdi private army, which controls it with mortars, RPGs, IED (improvised explosive devices) and small-arms fire.

The darkened C-130 climbs to 29,000 feet with only covert upper lights showing. The Hercules banks over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers on the edge of Baghdad and heads south safely with Marines, soldiers and National Guardsmen heading home after a year in Iraq via the Kuwait relocation base.

Capt. Ed Schindler, on furlough from American Airlines in Dallas, and his Texas National Guard crew have been in theater flying Marines and supplies in and out of Iraq and Afghan- istan for 13 months now.

And what a crew it is. Tom Clancy could not have created a more competent and take-charge group of aviators. Lockheed-Martin builds these Hercules C-130s to perform combat take-offs and execute critical landings in zones under fire. They had to medevac some wounded Marines during the last mission. The navigator, Captain Gary Kerr, spotted the chopper and kept them out of zones under fire, in unison with Tech Sgt. Anne Witcher, also a commercial pilot back in the U.S.A. The cargo crew, Tech Sgts. Blyane Leach and Ken Shartzer, kept the passengers advised and spotted incoming rockets.

George Bush, another Texas National Guard aviator, would have been proud of this crew from Crome 22 Texas. (Perhaps they have more time in service than their commander in chief.)

The C-130 banked in an Arabian moonlit night filled with stars, picked up a heading of 129 magnetic and flew over a brilliantly illuminated string of wells in oil-rich southern Iraq, then followed a bright Kuwait highway to a safe haven.

The team of Air Force, Marines and other branches have one common denominator: They are all American patriots who want to bring a better life to some people in a faraway land.

-- P.T. Brent


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