WASHINGTON — For a dozen years, the 55th Wing's RC-135 jets out of Offutt Air Force Base had been flying missions to keep a watchful eye on Iraq.
But in mid-March 2003, the atmosphere changed.
Now-retired Air Force Maj. Scott Hackney, 52, recalls how he and others climbing aboard those reconnaissance flights “sanitized” their uniforms in case the plane went down. They removed identifying badges, shoved photos of their kids into plastic bags.
“When you start taking things out of your wallet and putting them in a plastic bag for when you get back, that tells you that this is a different kind of mission,” Hackney said.
They knew that hundreds of warplanes and cruise missiles would rain hell on Iraq as U.S. forces invaded.
Debate will continue over the merits of the war that cost Americans more than $800 billion and the lives of nearly 4,500 U.S. military personnel, but for many who were in the thick of the fight that began 10 years ago today, the politics are beside the point. They focus more on what they accomplished, those they served alongside and the ones who didn't make it back.
“There's an awful lot of Iraqis that are free today that weren't free 10 years ago,” Hackney said. “It was the task the president gave us. And that's our job.”
A decade later, Hackney still has his own little piece of “shock and awe” on display in his west Omaha living room — a flag he took with him on the first night of those heavy bombings.
He remembers the high tempo of round-the-clock missions that continued for weeks, the challenge of protecting planes from the ravages of sandstorms.
“We take loving care of these jets, but they're not spring chickens,” he said.
Mostly, he takes pride that they never missed a mission because a plane or crew wasn't in shape to fly — and in the importance of the intelligence they gathered.
“That information saves lives,” he said.
Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Kevin G. Range, 36, deployed to Iraq twice and remembers the pain of being away from his family. His daughter was born while he was deployed and was nearly 3 months old the first time he saw her, when he climbed off the plane back home.
“It was difficult,” Range said.
His first deployment was spent helping establish a detention facility, the second assisting Iraqi police. That included getting them basic things — vehicle parts, uniforms, ammunition. The biggest problems involved keeping the police supplied with fuel and electricity.
Range now is superintendent of security for the headquarters of U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt. He still talks three times a week with the best friend he made on that second deployment, and he will see him at the end of the month, when they take their annual memorial ruck march for a fallen brother-in-arms.
Maj. Shane York, 43, a Nebraska National Guardsman who now lives in Hickman, Neb., recalls watching the start of the Iraq War on television while on a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.
It wouldn't be long before he would be deployed to Iraq as part of Troop A, First Squadron of the 167th Cavalry of the Nebraska National Guard. The Nebraskans endured more than 1,600 missions outside their base on the western edge of Ramadi, Iraq.
On one of those missions, the Nebraskans were providing security for a team that was clearing IEDs. A single shot was fired as he was headed back to his Humvee, and York was struck in the shoulder.
He still carries the bullet in his billfold. It's part good-luck charm, part symbol of how fortunate he was to walk away. It's also an acknowledgment of those who weren't so lucky.
“It reminds me of a lot of people that are no longer with us anymore,” he said.
Despite the ambushes, the long missions and the roadside bombs, he describes his Iraq deployment as one of the best years of his life. He said he's never been more proud.
“What we did at the time was the right thing to do,” he said. “Saddam Hussein had been a problem for a long time. He was causing problems for our own interests in the area, and I think what we did was the right thing to do based on what we knew.
“And, as time went on, public opinions change.”
He said he thinks our relationship with Iraq is better today than it once was. “Time will tell if the investment was worth what we put into it,” he said. “As of right now, we're at a point where we don't hear much bad coming out of that area of the world anymore, so maybe it was.”
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