Through Darkest Iraq with Gun and Cobra

A month of war through the night-vision goggles of a Marine AH-1W SuperCobra pilot.

CH-46Es glow in a view through night-vision goggles aboard the flight deck of the USS Saipan. (James Cox)
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DAILY JOURNAL: DURING THE WAR WITH IRAQ, I kept an informal journal of my experiences for my family. Sometimes I didn’t write for days, either because of the tempo of operations, or because of the sheer boredom. Some of the events that I wrote about rated one or two words—enough to jog my memory later. Others took a paragraph to capture. My method was haphazard: As I had thoughts, I wrote them down. The recollections are based solely on my perspective. My point of view was that of a U.S. Marine, assigned to serve as a helicopter squadron operations officer, flight leader, and AH-1W SuperCobra pilot. The following account is based on that journal.

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On March 18, 2003, two days prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, my unit—Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 269, which consisted of 18 AH-1W SuperCobras (we call them Snakes), nine UH-1N Hueys, and 323 Marines out of Jacksonville, North Carolina—moved about half of our aircraft into Kuwait from the USS Saipan, an amphibious assault ship that was our home at sea. I was designated the division leader for a four-Snake flight that was tasked with destroying three Iraqi border posts. We moved ashore so we could react more quickly to the rapidly changing and confusing timeline for the coming battle’s opening phases.

I had never been so nervous as I was flying off the boat that day. This was my first combat mission, and as we flew across the teal waters of the Persian Gulf toward Kuwait, I thought about my children. I feared them being left fatherless, and I begged God for strength.

For two days at a clandestine airfield inside Kuwait, we went through the details of our mission, studied target photos, and rehearsed. My copilot, Kujo, sat on his cot for hours on end with his eyes closed, pantomiming the hand and finger movements he would use to fire the Cobra’s missiles. Even the lightest breeze stirred up a lot of powdery sand in this arid area, and in winds of 10 knots or more, visibility was quickly down to almost nothing.

On the morning of March 20, 2003, rumors circulated that the Coalition had begun combat operations with missile strikes. It all seemed dream-like, but reality hit as I was walking to my tent. There was a loud roar from the sky, and I looked up. The noise got louder, and I saw a missile flash past the camp—a Chinese-made Iraqi Seersucker heading toward Kuwait City. The air raid sirens began to growl, and we spent the whole day running back and forth between the tents and our bunkers while wearing chemical suits and gas masks. The tension was draining me, and I still had a mission to fly.

The missile scare added to the confusion of sporadic communication and conflicting information. We’d been planning all along to launch the attack at night, when the Iraqis couldn’t see us. But maintenance crews needed time to prepare the aircraft, and ordnance needed to be loaded. We sat in a tent with a radio close by and our Cobras only about 100 yards away. No less than five times we got an order—“GO RIGHT NOW!”—only to have it canceled. On a couple of occasions, we started out to the aircraft with our gear, and once we even strapped in and started to crank engines. My stomach was tied in knots all day long, but around dinnertime we finally got the word to launch, and this time it stuck.

The winds had been picking up all day, and visibility was down to less than a half-mile. My flight was supposed to lead the others out of the airfield, but in the confusion, another flight departed ahead of us. Panicky radio calls were made so that we wouldn’t have a midair collision. At some point, we flipped down our night-vision goggles. The NVGs amplify even extremely low ambient light, but with reduced visibility and no moon, it was the darkest night I’d ever flown in.

I’d been a Marine for almost 15 years. I’d been flying Cobras since 1990, and I had over 2,500 flight hours and over 600 NVG hours. But this was dark.

Seat-cushion-clenched-in-your-butt dark. The desert was devoid of detail, and I had no depth perception. Imagine scuba diving in a pool of mud—no sense of up or down or of motion relative to anything. Visibility was about a quarter of a mile, and we couldn’t see obstacles until we were right on top of them. I just missed a 100-foot radio tower. I could feel the panic welling in my throat as my inner ear seemed to tumble with vertigo.

Eventually we slowed to about 50 mph, just groping along, like driving a car in thick fog. We hadn’t even met the enemy and the mission was already nerve-wracking.

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