11/25/07 — A firsthand look at war

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A firsthand look at war

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on November 25, 2007 2:02 AM

Troy Pate will not soon forget the wounded young American he met at a hospital in Afghanistan.

He can still feel the weight of the body armor he donned at a U.S. air base somewhere in the desert.

But the Goldsboro retiree would rather tell you about his new perspective on a fight the Air Force -- and particularly, the 4th Fighter Wing -- has been in for 17 years now.

You just have to see it to believe it, he said.

And along with other members of the Air Force Chief of Staff's Civic Leader Corps, that is just what he did earlier this month.

"You read about war, you hear about war, but it's nothing like what you think," Pate said. "It's real. You're in it. You're seeing it happen -- seeing history made."

Eight of the group's 10 days in the desert were spent in theater.

Hospital tours, meetings with top officials and interactions with the deployed were the focal points.

"The trip, it was designed to increase our awareness," Pate said. "They invite groups, in this case us, to take a look at different parts of the Air Force -- to show us how air power is being applied."

And that meant a stop at Bagram Air Base -- current home of the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base's 336th Fighter Squadron.

Pate said he looked forward to seeing some of his hometown heroes in action.

"They are having fun over there," he said. "These guys have trained to do this, and they want to go do it."

Unfortunately, at least during the time he was at their base, they could not. The trip had fallen in the middle of grounding orders for all Air Force F-15s.

"They were upbeat except for the fact that they couldn't fly," Pate said. "You could tell they wanted to get back up there."

So instead of looking on as one "Rocketeer" crew after another headed to battle, he simply enjoyed their company -- sharing stories from back home in Wayne County, taking down messages he offered to bring back to particular family members and friends of the squadron.

"It was great to see those guys, and you could tell they were happy to see a familiar face," he said. "It could've been me or anybody else from home. You could just see the smiles on their faces. I think it was great for them that somebody from our base was included."

But the stop at Bagram was more than just a chance to meet and greet.

Pate said he also got to learn about the Russian-built base and conditions the deployed face every day.

Rocket and mortar attacks hit sparsely, but were a threat nonetheless.

A portion of the base was off limits due to land mines buried there years ago.

And then there was the "powdery dust" covering everything, including the 336th's fleet of F-15Es.

But the "amazing part," for Pate anyway, was the spirit of the men and women enduring those conditions.

"We saw nothing but these guys believing in what we're doing," he said.

"To be there and watch these guys, I don't know the word to use. These guys are just professionals. The whole thing, I don't know how to say it, it gave me a totally different perspective than what we hear and read in the news."

So did the group's next stop, a hospital in Southwest Asia.

Pate could tell you about a young troop he met there who had been wounded by an Improvised Explosive Device in the same explosion that killed one of his comrades.

"He said the guy beside him just disappeared. There was nothing left of him," Pate recalls. "But he re-enlisted from that hospital bed."

He could describe another young man, one from Michigan -- raring to get back into the fight despite enemy fire that blew a hole through his arm.

"Nice looking young man," Pate said. "He had been shot through the arm ... and he was talking like he couldn't wait to get back in the battle. That's the spirit I'm talking about."

So those are the stories he will carry with him -- not ones "sensationalized" in television news pieces.

And if you had been there in that hospital, you would feel the same way, he said.

"I think the (mainstream media) are looking for the spectacular. I think there are many, many stories over there not being told," Pate said. "I don't think the American public really knows the extent of what is going on over there. I don't think they understand that the job is being done.

"If they had been there with me, I think they would see it the same way I do," he added. "You can't be there and see what these guys are doing and not understand -- that look of determination on their faces that tells you they are going to get the job done no matter what."

The last stop on their tour was another "eye-opener" -- the command center at a classified location from which air power is requested and supplied.

The group was given a look at giant maps of Iraq and "exactly what was going on," even if they could not share it with anyone back home.

And for Pate, it was a perfect addition to what had been a non-stop learning experience.

"This was just a really revealing part of what war is all about. They are dead serious. The Air Force's job is to fly, fight and win, and that's what they are doing," he said. "One thing I learned over there, you know, we hear a lot about boots on the ground. But the Air Force, they keep those boots on the ground. They keep them safe.

"You would not believe the spirit in those guys," he added. "I appreciate more what they are doing. I mean, I already knew they were doing a great job, but not to the extent that I saw. It was a real honor to be included."