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Conversation: Air Force

April 3, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TOM BEARDEN: The Air Force’s F- 15E strike eagles operate around the clock, in all kinds of weather. The basic F-15 is a single seat fighter designed to shoot down enemy aircraft. The E-model is a two seat variant designed to attack ground targets with precision-guided weapons. F-15s are a major part of the coalition air armada that central command credits with destroying two Republican Guard armored divisions defending Baghdad. Airman First Class Shannon Murphy and Major J.D.– he doesn’t want us to use his last name for security reasons– are stationed at an undisclosed base in Middle East. Murphy works in the command center, keeping track of every aircraft. J.D. is a weapons systems officer. He controls the strike eagle’s weapons from the back seat.

TOM BEARDEN: What kind of targets have you been hitting?

MAJOR “J.D.”: The targets vary. Sometimes, the first couple nights, were command and control, headquarters-type buildings, leadership, weapons of mass destruction. Concentrating more on the forward troops, like the Republican Guard, targeting tanks, artillery, triple-a pieces, armored personnel carriers, anything we can find, basically, out in the open. It’s more of a threat to the army than it is to us, but obviously we want to take those parties out.

TOM BEARDEN: Using pretty much all precision weapons?

MAJOR “J.D.”: Almost exclusively precision- guided munitions. In fact, I haven’t employed anything that’s not been precision yet.

TOM BEARDEN: How much does weather affect your operation?

MAJOR “J.D.”: At times it does. Our aircraft is an all-weather aircraft. We’re capable of delivering weapons through weather, but it does hamper some of our capabilities. It has an effect. The last couple of days the weather has been a lot better, and we’ve been able to push it up a little bit. The sandstorms played havoc, but I think it pretty much played havoc with the bad guys, too, so we’re on track.

TOM BEARDEN: How much risk are you at when you do these missions?

MAJOR “J.D.”: It varies. Sometimes some of the targets are a little bit more defended than some of the others. If you go to Baghdad, obviously that’s a little bit higher threat. I was at Baghdad the first night, and there was quite a bit of fireworks there, more than I’d ever seen before, even including Desert Storm. But other targets aren’t quite as defended, some of the targets a bit further south. However, there are some vital targets down there, and obviously you can see what the army and the marines are having to go through, and we’re trying to help them as much as possible.

TOM BEARDEN: I’m surprised you saw so much flak over Baghdad, because the TV pictures this time are very different than last time.

MAJOR “J.D.”: Right. The TV really doesn’t do it justice because you can’t see the entire panoramic view like you can looking out the cockpit. I know the first night of desert storm, the triple-a was a little bit heavier, but this time it was a little bit more intense because it was a little bit lower level, lower altitude. But it seemed to me there were a lot more air bursts, a lot more SAM tracks, not as much air activity, haven’t seen a lot of that, but the triple-a was pretty thick.

TOM BEARDEN: SAMS is the acronym for surface-to-air missiles.

TOM BEARDEN: Did you think that the SAMS were under guidance, because there been some question about whether or not their control facilities have been knocked out.

MAJOR “J.D.”: It varies. Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s not, and we just have to deal with that with certain tactics in the way we go about that.

TOM BEARDEN: You think about getting shot down?

MAJOR “J.D.”: Oh, sure. Everybody does. But you don’t let it stick in your mind. You’ve got too many other things to worry about. You’ve got a wing man to worry about, you’ve got a flight lead to worry about, you’ve got the mission to worry about. You’ve got CDE, which is a big, big deal for us, making sure we’re not hitting the wrong target, or hitting something we’re not supposed to.

TOM BEARDEN: CDE means…?

MAJOR “J.D.”: Collateral damage estimate, making sure that the target we’re supposed to hit is not too close to a hospital or mosque or anything like that. You have too many things to worry about to let it bother you while you’re in the air. It’s usually on the ground you start thinking about it.

TOM BEARDEN: When you’re on the ground, do you think about possibly being a POW?

MAJOR “J.D.”: Sure, especially when you see some of the things we saw last week on TV. It worries you a little bit, but the training kicks in and takes over.

TOM BEARDEN: How long is a typical mission? How long will you be up in the air, refueling? Is there a typical mission, I guess is the better question.

MAJOR “J.D.”: No, there’s not. They vary quite a bit. Some of the sorties we’ve flown have been up to ten hours long, depending on what you’re doing, and other sorties have been as short as two and a half, three hours.

TOM BEARDEN: Ten hours is along time to sit in that seat, isn’t it?

MAJOR “J.D.”: Yes, sir, it is.

TOM BEARDEN: Major J.D. Is a veteran of several deployments to the region. But this is Airman Murphy’s first. She says being separated from her husband is tough.

AIRMAN SHANNON MURPHY: I’ve been married for eight months today. My husband’s also in the service. He’s in Jacobabad, Pakistan, right now.

TOM BEARDEN: Do you get to talk to him very often?

AIRMAN SHANNON MURPHY: No. It is hard, but e-mail is nice. Thank god for technology. But he does e-mail when he can.

TOM BEARDEN: Do you worry about each other’s safety?

AIRMAN SHANNON MURPHY: Yes, but knowing what I know, I feel pretty safe over here, and I know he’s safe over there. Honestly, I’m more concerned about just getting this stuff done, because this is our ticket home. So once we get those guys up and back and our job’s done, and we can go home and worry about that later, but right now it’s just really intense with the job and the mission and everything else surrounding it, really.

TOM BEARDEN: Have you seen the television coverage of the demonstrations, the antiwar demonstrations worldwide, and if you have, what’s your reaction to them?

AIRMAN SHANNON MURPHY: I’ve seen a couple, and they obviously upset me to some degree, and at the same time it’s what we’re defending. I mean, we can do that in our country; we don’t have to hide it. You know, they televise it, for God’s sake, so they put it over TV and radio, any way they can. And that’s what we’re pretty much here to defend, so it doesn’t get taken away from us. I don’t like it, but I have to support their views as well as mine.

TOM BEARDEN: In some small sense, though, do you feel, perhaps, personally betrayed?

AIRMAN SHANNON MURPHY: It depends. Everybody’s got their own point of view. I mean, I have mine. I don’t know about betrayed. That’s kind of a harsh word, but it’s just kind of sad. I don’t think they really know what’s going on. I don’t think they really understand our motivation and our mission.

TOM BEARDEN: Both Murphy and J.D. Say the 9/11 attacks are a big reason they’re willing to be here, despite the hardships.

AIRMAN SHANNON MURPHY: I’m stationed in Japan, and it was nighttime, and I watched it, and it puts a whole different sense into what you’re doing and how, you know, a person as small as you is part of something so big, and making a difference. It’s really quite amazing.

TOM BEARDEN: How about you?

MAJOR “J.D.”: Absolutely. Sept. 11, I wound up flying what they call a noble eagle sortie now, combat air patrol over Atlanta for about six hours, and my only really regret is that I didn’t get a chance to bomb Afghanistan. I’m happy to be here.

TOM BEARDEN: Do either of you make the connection between 9/11 and the Iraq conflict itself?

MAJOR “J.D.”: I do.

TOM BEARDEN: Why do you make the connection?

MAJOR “J.D.”: Mostly because of the weapons of mass destruction potential. What was demonstrated on Sept. 11, what basically terrorists are capable of, if they were ever able to put their hands on a weapon like that, what happened on Sept. 11 would basically be multiplied potentially tenfold. So were here to eliminate that.

TOM BEARDEN: Murphy was scheduled to go home this month, but both airmen have been notified that they’ll be stationed in the region until the war is over.