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By the People… Two worlds collide in the Persian Gulf

By By Craig Ziemba/Special to The Star
March 28, 2001
Craig Ziemba lives in Meridian and works at Naval Air Station Meridian and Key Field's Air
National Guard base. He wrote a cover story for the recent "Profile 2001: By the People" edition. Ziemba has written a book based on his journals, portions of which will be published in The Meridian Star in coming weeks.
It is Oct. 18, 1996. Tonight we flew around on night vision goggles at 200 feet with our lights out, thumping fishing boats and doing practice Maverick missile attacks on oil tankers.
I wonder what these fishermen must think. Imagine quietly drifting in the Persian Gulf fishing by the light of a lantern just like your ancestors have for centuries and suddenly having an A-6 Intruder scream out of the darkness overhead with a deafening roar and then disappear again into the night. Two worlds collide.
On my flight earlier in the day, we raged around the desert at sand dune height scattering sheep and camels all over the place. One of the guys on camelback would've scored pretty high in the professional rodeo, I believe. Teefus (so nicknamed because "He's got some big teef"), my bombardier, thoroughly enjoyed the show from the right seat.
In the movies, pilots have cool callsigns like Viper or Iceman, but in the real world our nicknames typically are some derogatory play on our names. Just ask "AIDS" Sanchez or "Paps" Mears. Anyway, I figured I might as well have fun today, because tomorrow I have the duty.
Pulling 24-hour duty
In most fleet squadrons, like ours, "the duty" is a 24-hour, high-visibility ordeal where the best you can hope for is just to break even. From 7 a.m. until the last plane on deck, usually around 1 a.m., the duty officer sits at the Ready Room desk handling all of the administrative garbage necessary to fly off the ship.
He must calculate the weight of each aircraft to be launched, hand out pistols, ammunition and secret materials necessary for sorties over hostile territory, answer the phone a few hundred times and keep constant tabs on the status of all of the jets to ensure that all of the squadron's sorties are flown. In short, it stinks.
I'll never forget my first morning with the duty as a young ensign at VT-19 in Meridian. I worked half an hour before the first brief, made sure the schedule was posted and then proceeded with the most important job of the duty officer making coffee and popcorn.
Just as I was pouring water into the commercial coffee maker, a Marine major with a notorious temper walked into the room. I didn't know that the coffee would begin coming out the instant I poured water into the machine, and before I could get the pot under the spout, coffee splattered all over my khaki uniform and the floor.
l tried to keep my cool and quickly clean up the mess while the major stood there watching me with his arms crossed, and then I smelled something burning the popcorn! Black smoke began pouring out of the popcorn maker and filled the ready room. The major began screaming that anyone too stupid to make coffee wasn't cut out to fly jets, etc., etc., etc. He was probably right, but it's too late to do anything about it now.
On the USS Enterprise
It is Dec. 21, 1996. We finally have begun the long, slow trip across the Atlantic home. There's not much flying to be done, so a bunch of us walk up to the bow every night to try to see the green flash at sunset. I thought it was one of the many hoaxes perpetrated on naive young sailors until I saw it a few times myself.
On clear nights, right at the instant the sun sets over water, there is a brief fluorescent green flash that lasts about a hundredth of a second. Someone onboard had an article from a professor at Johns Hopkins explaining the physics of how light bends over the horizon causing this phenomenon. It was way over our heads, so we read it gravely and emitted a few thoughtful "Hmms…" and "Oh, I sees…"
Anytime I'm up on the flight deck, I love to see the Stars and Stripes flying over the Enterprise. Here in the middle of the ocean floats not only the most powerful war machine in history, but also a little piece of America ready to defend freedom around the world.
It's love of country
It has been rightfully said that preachers don't give freedom of religion, orators don't give freedom of speech, and writers don't give freedom of the press. In the end it is the soldier who gives up his own freedom, and sometimes his life, that guarantees the liberty the rest often take for granted. And I'm honored to serve with these guys.
The average age of the flight deck crew is 19, and these sailors routinely work 14 to 16 hour days with no breaks. There's only one shift. They are covered in jet fuel, grease and salt spray, and work in an environment where they must dodge airplanes, exhaust and arresting wires. A moment's inattention can get them killed.
They don't do it for the money there isn't any. They do it out of love of country and love of adventure. They are the same breed of Americans that fought at Yorktown, Gettysburg, Normandy and Yankee Station, and I'm proud of them.