Sunday, September 28, 2008
Pilots describe fear of parachuting into Iraq after their fighter failed, crashed
By Rohan Sullivan, Associated Press, 4/2/03
ABOARD THE USS KITTY HAWK -- The two Americans bailed out of a failing F-14 Tomcat fighter jet in the Iraqi desert, and when rescuers asked if they could walk, they didn't hesitate.
"I can run, just point me in the right direction," replied one crew member, a lieutenant commander nicknamed Gordo.
Gordo, the plane's radar intercept operator, and its pilot, a lieutenant who goes by Vinny, returned to their base on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk on Wednesday after a frightening night behind enemy lines and a dramatic rescue.
Their F-14A Tomcat strike fighter -- a versatile supersonic plane that dates from the late 1960s and is among the Navy's oldest -- crashed into the desert in southern Iraq during a bombing mission at 1:50 a.m., after mechanical failures left one engine dead and the other slowly starving of fuel.
It was the first confirmed report of a U.S. fighter going down in Iraq during the war, but it was the third Navy plane to be lost to accidents or mechanical problems in 24 hours. Pilots ejected safely from the other two planes as well.
Rear Adm. Matthew G. Moffit, commander of the Kitty Hawk battle group, said extra stress on pilots or the plane from the intensified U.S. bombing campaign was unlikely to have caused Wednesday's crash. Unless an investigation points to a problem that may occur in other planes, he said, the F-14s will keep flying strike missions over Iraq.
Vinny and Gordo -- who asked that they be identified by their radio call signs instead of their names because they fear being identified from media reports if they are ever captured -- were on a mission that has become routine for U.S. fighter pilots in Iraq. Take off, fly into a strike zone and wait for commanders to assign targets -- usually dug-in Republican Guard artillery, equipment or command posts just south of Baghdad -- then attack them with laser-guided bombs.
Having dropped their bombs, Vinny and Gordo were preparing to rendezvous with a tanker plane that would give them the fuel they needed to return to base. Vinny noticed a problem with the left-side engine.
Like rebooting a computer, the pilot shut down the engine, then tried to fire it up again, but it wouldn't restart.
So the pair began making adjustments to equipment on board to reroute the fuel from a tank feeding the left engine to the right engine, which would let them fly safely to meet the tanker and, eventually, into friendly territory.
But the transfer system failed as well, setting in motion an ominous countdown. The men watched the right engine's fuel gauge tick down to empty as they rocketed south.
"We pretty much knew it was coming," said Vinny, 32, from Virginia. Sitting in the pilot's front seat, Vinny read out the dwindling numbers on the fuel gauge to Gordo, sitting in the radio and radar controller's seat immediately behind.
"I was just counting down, letting him know the fuel remaining," he said. "At the point we got down to about 200 pounds (of fuel), the right engine started to come down, the starter kind of hiccuped."
That's when they knew: "It's time to go," Vinny said. "Gordo called `Eject, eject, eject!' and pulled the handle."
The cockpit canopy exploded off and the two men were flung violently into the air.
"It was a surreal experience, changing the warmth and comfort of the cockpit to a violent wind blast ... then hanging off a parachute and floating down over Iraq," said Gordo, 39, from Georgia.
Hanging beneath their parachutes, they saw their multimillion-dollar fighter crash to earth and explode. There were few other lights and, thankfully, none of the flashes in the sky that meant anti-aircraft fire, which they had seen earlier in the mission.
Gordo said his initial feelings about having to eject were anger and disbelief -- "You can't believe it's happening to you" -- which quickly turned to fear.
"Once I was on the ground, I started shaking," he said. "It was not a very friendly place to be."
The Tomcats routinely travel in pairs or with F/A-18 Hornets, the other main carrier-based strike plane. On Wednesday, another Tomcat was alongside the aviators in trouble, watched them go down and quickly radioed their position to helicopter teams on standby in Kuwait.
The second Tomcat then patrolled overhead, talking to the downed aviators via radio gear they carried with them when they ejected, reassuring them that help was on the way.
Moffit, the battle group commander on the Kitty Hawk, said the rescue team reached the downed pilots "fairly quickly." For Gordo, it couldn't have been fast enough.
Asked how long they spent on the ground in Iraq, he said, "I don't know. It seemed like forever, I know that."
When the rescue crew first found them, they quizzed Vinny and Gordo about who they were to "make sure there was nothing funny going on," before helping them to the helicopter, Gordo said.
Apart from an abrasion on his left hand, Gordo said he and Vinny were uninjured. The men said they would take some medical leave, but were ready to fly again whenever needed.
"We'll go tomorrow if they let us," Gordo said. "We feel fine, but discretion is the better part of valor, so we will hang low for a little while before we get back in the game."
Thursday, September 18, 2008
By CHELSEA J. CARTER, AP Military Affairs Writer 2 hours, 53 minutes ago
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. - The mother of a Marine who witnesses say covered a grenade with his body to save comrades in Iraq plans to appeal to Congress to award her son the nation's highest military honor after learning it was denied by Defense Secretary Robert Gates because of questions about his final act.Rosa Peralta said Thursday she made the decision after a Marine general told her that her son, Sgt. , would be awarded the rather than the because the nomination was tainted by reports he was accidentally shot by a fellow Marine shortly before an insurgent lobbed the grenade.
"I'm going to see what can be done, because I'm not satisfied with what they want to do now," she said in Spanish.
President Bush singled out the Marine's actions in a 2005 Memorial Day speech, saying Peralta "understood that America faces dangerous enemies, and he knew the sacrifices required to defeat them."
"The president spoke of him. So how is this now possible that they do this," Rosa Peralta said.
She said she was considering rejecting the Navy Cross, the second-highest award for valor in combat that can be awarded to a Marine. Peralta will be the 24th recipient of the Navy Cross for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I still don't know what I'm going to do," she said.
The question about whether to award Peralta the Medal of Honor centers on whether the mortally wounded Marine, who was shot in the head and upper body, could have intentionally reached for the grenade and covered it with his body.
"There was conflicting evidence in the case of Sgt. Peralta as to whether he could have performed his final acts given the nature of his injuries," said Capt. Beci Brenton, spokeswoman for Navy Secretary Donald Winter.
The initial recommendation that he receive the Medal of Honor went through reviews by the Marine Corps, U.S. Central Command, the Department of the Navy and ultimately up to Defense Secretary Gates, Brenton said.
After all the evidence was scrutinized, officials determined that it "did not meet the exact standard necessary to support the Medal of Honor," she said.
But Rosa Peralta said she was led to believe her son would get the Medal of Honor in a November 2007 telephone call from an undersecretary of the Navy, who she says told her the nomination was to be forwarded to the White House.
Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said there was a June 2007 Navy recommendation for the Medal of Honor, but it never went to the White House because Gates didn't approve it.
He said that because there was some contradictory evidence, Gates instead took the extra step of asking five other individuals to review the case — a former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, a , a civilian neurosurgeon who is retired from the military and two forensic pathologists who also are military retirees.
The five were given medical reports that had not been available in the initial review. They thoroughly reviewed the case again, including inspecting the evidence and re-enacting the event, Whitman said.
"Each independently recommended to the secretary that the evidence did not support the award of Medal of Honor," he said.
Gates made his decision this month.
A Medal of Honor nomination is typically made by the military, approved by the Department of Defense and conferred by the president. But a nomination can also be made through a special act of Congress and then bestowed by the president on behalf of Congress.
The Medal of Honor comes with about $1,000 a month special pension in addition to other military pensions.
Peralta was shot several times in the face and body during a house-to-house search in Fallujah on Nov. 15, 2004, during some of the fiercest fighting of the war.
According to witness accounts, Peralta lay mortally wounded on the floor of a house and grabbed a grenade lobbed by fleeing insurgents. His body absorbed the blast and he died immediately.
In a rare move, the Marine Corps Thursday released a redacted copy of the Medal of Honor nomination by Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski and an investigative report detailing the "friendly fire" shooting of the sergeant.
The report found sufficient evidence existed to believe that Peralta was probably shot by a fellow Marine and that a gunshot wound to the head and injuries to the head from a grenade caused his death.
The nomination, which relies on witness statements, forensics, bomb fragment analysis and an autopsy, concluded that although Peralta was shot in the head, he made "a conscious, heroic decision to cover the grenade and minimize the effects he knew it would have on the rest of his Marine team."
The nomination details Peralta's actions in the final minutes of his life, with several witnesses recounting how the Marine lay face down and used his arm to pull the grenade to him. It also says a forensic analysis of Peralta's clothing and flak jacket show the grenade was underneath him when it exploded.
Peralta, who was assigned to Hawaii's 1st Battalion,, moved to San Diego from Tijuana as a teenager. He was 25.
Associated Press writers Pauline Jelinek in Washington, D.C., and Thomas Watkins in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Labels: unworthy sacrifice
Subscribe to Posts [Atom]