Ground troops face a great deal of stress in combat, no doubt about that. Air crews have it much easier. It is all very impersonal. It is as if one gets into a “flying office” goes to work and then comes home. There are only a few moments of excitement, stress, and tension. And one never personally experiences the extent of what happened. You make a pass and drop your bombs and see the explosions. If there is no returned fire or missiles shot, it’s as if there were no other people involved.
I flew many combat missions during the war, most of them with about 6-9,000 pounds of bombs and several guided missiles, which is in itself inherently dangerous. That itself is something I never thought about when I was a much younger man. In looking back at the letters it seems that there were only a few instances when I almost bought the farm due to ground fire or mechanical problems. But when you are in the midst of it, you simply don’t think about it.
The World War I British poet Siegfried Sassoon has described combat this way: “Soldiers are citizens of death’s gray land, Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.” When I flew combat missions over Vietnam, as I sat in the cockpit, I entered a place that, for me, was where time ceased to exist. In combat there is only the moment at hand to focus on. For me that is what the poet meant.
I think back on it now, 40 years ago. In those days, we fighter jocks would never have even begun to have exercised any sort of introspection about this. We knew we were the elite of the Air Force. How else could we get up each day and strap on an F4 and go into combat. I was a warrior. I was lucky in that I came back, many were not.
When I taught history at the Air Force Academy I would take at the end of the term 8 mm movies into my classes that I had taken from the back seat of the F-4 and show them to my students. I wanted the cadets to understand that they had taken a special path. That they too might be called upon to give up themselves and be placed in harms way. Perhaps that was my way of dealing with combat at the time. To make them more aware of what they might face.
Military men and women, whether serving in the Mexican and Civil Wars, or with Washington securing the independence of our nation, or being in Vietnam or Afghanistan set themselves apart. They move out of the comfort zone of home, family and community, subject themselves to trials and dangers that few who have not been there can imagine or understand. It is a calling and it is a sacrifice.
When I flew combat I never thought about this; now I know it to be the truth.
For other thoughts on Thailand and the war see