It was an amicable divorce. We’d been together for decades, supported each other during rough patches, applauded each other during the good times. The two of us had separated about seven years before. It was just time we went our separate ways.
The United States Air Force formally became its own branch of the military on 18 September 1947, by order of then-President Harry S. Truman. Until then, it had been a component of the United States Army. In 1907, it was born as the Aeronautical Division of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. At the beginning of WWII, it was designated as the U.S. Army Air Forces. It lost nearly 68,000 airmen during the war, so yeah, they earned the right to be independent.
Like most divorcees, the Air Force celebrated its new independence by living large. It has the reputation of having the best living quarters, the best food, and the best work environment. Whereas Army personnel eat and sleep outdoors when on temporary assignment or training, airmen are put up in hotels. As I’m typing this, I can’t help but think how stupid I was not to join the Air Force.
Well, I know why: I was gung ho when I joined the military. All those years of watching war movies and TV shows about combat had brainwashed me. This is one of the reasons I don’t watch television.
This is a conversation I had recently with a member of my high school senior class. He had gone into the Air Force after graduation. I’d always thought of him as being more intelligent than myself. I was spot on:
Me: So, in basic training, you had to crawl around in the mud like I had to, right?
Me: With pyrotechnics exploding around you?
Me. Underneath barbed wire? PLEASE TELL ME THERE WAS BARBED WIRE!
Once the Air Force became its own branch of the military, it played by its own rules. When I was a National Guard company commander, I had sent 3 of my soldiers to receive advanced training on some new hi-tech radios. The training was being conducted at a National Guard training base in Arkansas. The other attendees were all Air National Guardsman (a Reserve component of USAF) from Oregon. Everyone in the class was to live in old WWII barracks during the duration of the course.
One of my soldiers overheard a phone call between the sergeant in charge of the airmen and his commanding officer back in Oregon:
“Sir, they told us we have to stay in these decrepit WWII barracks. They’re giving us these Army blankets. These conditions are scandalous!”
Apparently, his commander agreed, because the Air National Guardsmen got back on their plane, and went home. Since they made up the bulk of the trainees, the class was canceled, and my soldiers-who thought the barracks were just fine- came home, too.
In Iraq, my operations center window looked out over the runway. What I saw out there daily scared the crap out of me. One morning, I was at a meeting concerning airport operations. For 45 minutes, I listened while Army and Air Force officers gushed about how the 2 components were coordinating seamlessly, and the communication between the two had never been better, blah, blah, blah.
I felt that I had to say something. Up until then, I was content to keep quiet and not make waves. But I was in a combat zone, and I figured that the worst thing they could do to me was send me home. The colonel running the meeting asked if anyone had any questions or comments. I raised my hand.
“Sir, I doubt that the Army and the Air Force are really talking to each other. Because if they were, I wouldn’t see Army soldiers in HUMVEEs taking shortcuts across the runway, while Air Force cargo jets are preparing for takeoff. With all due respect, of course.”
“OK, Major. Got it!”
That same day, the game of Army-Air Force Frogger stopped.
A few years later, I was talking to a woman in my hometown. She told me that her son was being deployed to Iraq. I tried to reassure her that he’d be fine.
“Trust me, nobody builds bases like Americans”, I told her.
Not even 3 months later, I heard someone ask her how her son was doing. “Oh, he’s home now.” I immediately thought the worst; something bad had happened, and he’d been wounded. “Oh, wow. I’m sorry. He’s young. He’ll make a full recovery.”
“Oh, no! Nothing happened,” she said. He was asked if he wanted to go home.”
They asked him if he wanted to go home…
“Seriously. They asked him if he wanted to go home?”
“Oh, yeah. They asked a lot of people. They sent over too many to begin with.”
I stared at her. “Not to beat a dead horse, but they fucking asked him if wanted to go home?! It’s a safe bet that I never had that conversation with my superiors. Wait! What branch is he?”
She laughed, “Well, the Air Force. Obviously.”
About halfway through my deployment, the insurgency had really ramped up in Iraq, and the security situation was really bad. Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of all forces in Iraq, issued a directive that no one was allowed to leave Iraq until they were there for a year. He needed as many “boots on the ground” as possible. We weren’t happy with that, but considering how bad the situation really was, I felt he had no choice. It was the only way to stabilize the country.
So, everyone was resigned to staying. Except the Air Force. I mentioned earlier that they do things differently. Well, deployment is one of those things. The entire Air Force chain of command in Iraq told General Sanchez, “Nah, we’d rather not.”
“But I’m giving you a direct order!”
“With all due respect, General, the longest deployment we serve is 5 months. So, we’re not staying here for a full year.”
“Next year ain’t looking too good, either. Can I finish my ice cream? Thanks!”
General Sanchez took his case directly to General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was the highest-ranking member of the military in the United States. He was also an Air Force General.
“Rick”, he told General Sanchez. “The Air Force doesn’t deploy for a year. That’s not how we work. You should have known better than that.”
“Sir! I need as many personnel as I can get!”
“Rick, people in Hell need ice cream. By the way, mine’s melting. Could you drop the subject? Thanks!”
My brother-in-law served in the Air National Guard. One day, his commander told him, “Mark, you’re going to Afghanistan in 3 months.” “Sir”, Mark said. “My wife fell on the ice, and hurt her knee. She’ll be undergoing surgery around that time.”
“Oh, Mark. That’s awful. You’re not going to Afghanistan, then. Hope she heals fast!”
Of course, even if you are living high on the hog, your creature comforts don’t amount to a hill of beans if you’re under fire. In Iraq, I was deployed to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP). It was just after the U.S. invasion in the Spring of 2003. The U.S. Army occupied the eastern side of the airport, while the Air Force was on the west. They weren’t alone out there: at night, the insurgents would fire mortars and rockets into the base perimeter. They impacted almost always among the Air Force buildings.
We would hear the explosions and sirens off to the West, and see flames and emergency vehicles, and I would no longer be jealous of the Air Force and their 4 Star war food, ice cream, and air conditioning. They were in a terrible position out there. In combat, just like in real estate, there are 3 things that are most important:
Location, location, location.
Here’s a pretty good illustration of the differences between the services: