Goldsboro, N.C. — At precisely 0000 hours Zulu Time, the six Desert Storm veterans toasted those who fought – and fight – in the wild blue.
"To those who flew before us. To those who flew with us. To those who fly after us."
With that, the men emptied their shot glasses of whiskey, marking the exact time when Desert Storm began 20 years ago Sunday night.
3 a.m. Jan. 17, 1991, Baghdad time, which was 7 p.m. Jan. 16 in North Carolina.
The men gathered in the pub of the 336th Rocketeers squadron at the 4th Fighter Wing, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro. After two hours of reminiscing – sometimes laughing at funny stories, other times growing reflective as they remembered lost brothers in arms – they embraced and headed back to civilian lives.
Ironically, the pub was empty, as was the squadron's operational building. The Rocketeers are currently deployed to Afghanistan.
Hanging on the wall were ghostly reminders – the flight crews' mugs each labeled with their "call signs," or nicknames. Each reflects the eclectic mix of names that can reflect an embarrassing incident or humorous gaffe in the past.
Names like "Bluto," "$noop," "Crash," "Torch" and "Scuds." They will remain unused until the Rocketeers return.
Pub filled with war memories
The Rocketeer Six certainly could identify with Scuds. They spent much of Desert Storm hunting Iraqi Scud missiles before they could be launched against Israel or Saudi Arabia.
Each has retired from the U.S. Air Force with more than 20 years of service, some only recently. They chose to live in Goldsboro, from which the Rocketeers deployed to fight in the U.S.-led juggernaut to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein.
David Castillo flew in Desert Storm and went back to war 12 years later for two tours of duty in Afghanistan. Like Castillo, David Sloan, James McCullough and Mark Stevens were also pilots.
David Klinkicht and Brad Freels were weapons systems officers – the "back-seaters" or "wizzos" in the two-man fighter-bombers who could take over as pilots in a heartbeat if required.
Memories of war's risk are inescapable in the pub. It's named "The Hook Poulet Pub" in recognition of two Rocketeers, Pete Hook and Jim Poulet, who were killed when their Strike Eagle crashed in a training accident before the war began.
Directly under the sign bearing the pub's name is drawing of the F-15E in in which Mark McDonnell and Thomas Granith died in Afghanistan when the fighter-bomber struck a mountain.
Hanging next to the drawing is a "blood chit" recovered from the crash site. Adorned with an American flag, the chit offers in several languages rewards for protection of downed U.S. flight crews.
"Freedom," a sign says, "is never free."
Crew won Silver Stars
Sloan, call sign "Stoney," retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 2001. In 1991, he was a lieutenant colonel who flew 39 combat missions in Desert Storm. He and his wizzo, Capt. Joseph "Wildcat" Justice, earned the only Silver Stars – the U.S. military's third-highest honor behind the Medal of Honor and Distinguished Service Cross – awarded the 4th Wing.
Ironically, the pair violated standing orders against flying below 10,000 feet in winning the medals. In pitch black skies, they flew just off the ground and at high speed to ward off Iraqi armored forces attempting to attack a U.S. Special Forces unit in western Iraq. The Special Forces were on a "scud hunt" and called for help.
The mission ended after more than eight hours as Sloan refueled his Strike Eagle from a tanker and stayed close to the Special Forces until they were evacuated safety by helicopter.
"You could see guys running across the ground to the helicopters through the (forward-looking infrared radar)," Sloan recalled. "That was pretty neat."
Sloan now crosses the country as a motivational speaker and works as a financial adviser. His memories of Desert Storm are vivid, and he admits that he is surprised the U.S. remains mired in the Middle East two decades later. Be he declined to criticize the military, saying, "I don't know what I don't know."
Desert Storm was not a war fought in vain in Sloan's view.
"I do have a great deal of confidence in the future," he said. "Someday, Iraq will be a shining light of freedom, and lot of that will have to do with what started in Desert Storm."
Recalling initial raids
Castillo was among the 22 F-15E pilots who flew on the opening raids of Desert Storm. After hitting a fixed Scud site near the Syrian border, he had one mission left: "Go has fast as you can go as low as you can go" for base back in Saudi Arabia.
He laughs as he recalls his 38 combat missions now, but they weren't a laughing matter then.
The two F-15E squadrons from Seymour Johnson escaped unharmed in the first hours of Desert Storm. But later that same day, after darkness fell, the Strike Eagle flown by Lt. Col. Donnie Holland and Maj. Thomas Koritz – the wing's flight surgeon – was shot down near Basra. Both men were killed.
Two facilities at Seymour Johnson are now named in their honor.
McCullough, who earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for Valor by bombing a power plant transformer yard on that raid, remembered vividly that no one knew Holland and Griffith were down.
"We started doing radio checks on our way home," he said quietly. "Donnie and Tom weren't there."
Castillo remembers the first day of combat as "surreal" and said "I don't even think I slept that day."
After surviving the war, which ended with Iraq's defeat 42 days later, Castillo hardly expected to go back to war again in the Middle East. But he did slow twice – in Afghanistan as part of the Global War on Terror.
"To me, it made sense," he said of the Afghanistan war. "Unfortunately, people are impatient. Everybody wants a drive-through burger solution. It will take 20 to 30 years to build that country.
"Look at Japan and Germany after World War II," he continued. "We rebuilt their economies, and we're still there today."
Flying with Chiefs
Klinkicht, call sign "Klink," earned a Distinguished Flying Cross along with his pilot, Jim "Red" Barron, for taking out a missile site and flew 40 combat missions. He retired after 20 years, but his memories stay fresh with the help of a huge scrapbook his wife kept during the war.
"I couldn't even spell Oman when we deployed," he remembered with a laugh.
Klink and Red volunteered to join the Chiefs, who deployed first to Saudi Arabia and then to Oman in August 1990, shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait. The Chiefs didn't have enough air crews to fill out the 24-aircraft squadron.
"We went knocking on the door," Klinkicht said with a smile. "We didn't want to miss anything."
Now the regional president of the Air Force Association for the Carolinas and Georgia, Klinkicht said he's glad to this day that Hussein "wasn't too smart."
"If he had invaded Saudi Arabia right after he conquered Iraq, he would have taken the world's biggest oil fields," he said. "There really was nothing in his way. If he had done that, it would have been a whole different ballgame."
For at least several years, American men and women in the Armed Forces can expect to be deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Personnel are killed or wounded in action almost daily, and the 4th Wing veterans know the sky can turn wild in the flash of a missile exhaust. Two F-15E crews from the Chiefs were killed over Iraq in April 2003.
All volunteers, the men and women who now fly with the Rocketeers can't miss another sign in the pub that warns about the risks that come with their chosen profession:
"Call Sign. First, when called, your duty is to kill people and break things. Be ready. Second, the people you attack will do everything in their power to kill you. Don't be a martyr."