Prince Harry learns why 4th is first
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on March 12, 2008 2:12 PM
A call comes in from somewhere in the desert.
A Joint Tactical Air Controller on the ground in Afghanistan's Helmand province needs air support.
He and his comrades are taking fire from a trench line.
Hundreds of miles away, Capt. Ben Donberg can hear the gunshots.
He is the command pilot on the other end of that call.
His F-15E Strike Eagle and another, both assets of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base's 4th Fighter Wing, are on their way -- "very, very fast."
Back on the ground, "WIDOW 67" waits.
He is talking to the Air Force captain.
His voice is muffled only by the sound of insurgent fire.
Just another JTAC in need of some assistance, Donberg assumes.
"It was just a standard troops-in-contact call, and we checked in with him," he said. "He's got a British accent, but that wasn't at all unusual because we were working with the British a lot over there."
Donberg had no idea that the man behind that call sign was third in line to the British throne.
But the truth is, had he, it would not have altered his response.
His role as an American pilot is to protect and support Allied forces on the ground.
All of them.
This time, it just happened to be Prince Harry.
"He was taking fire from a trench line and was using surveillance to try to find (the insurgents)," Donberg said. "In that terrain, it can be pretty tough to dig them out."
But failure on the part of the JTAC is not an option.
In fact, without the location of the insurgents and other information, the pilots in the sky are powerless to act.
"When we check in with that JTAC, first he gives you an overview of what's happening on the ground ... where the friendlies are, who they are taking fire from and other variables that might be included in the fight," Donberg said. "We then check in and say, 'This is what we can offer you. These are the weapons we have, that kind of thing.'"
Luckily for the prince and his men, Harry is good at what he does, Donberg said.
"His proficiency level and his skill level were just extraordinarily high," Donberg said. "In fact, everybody in that sortie, all four of us, once we got down, we all commented on the proficiency and the skill he was providing us."
Donberg and his wingman, Capt. Jonathan Bess, returned the favor with some precision of their own.
"It was a weapons employment," Donberg said. "We had three strikes going in to basically take out all the enemy within that trench line."
Looking back on that mission, knowing now that "WIDOW 67" was, in fact, royalty, strikes Donberg as "interesting."
After all, the Helmand province is no "cake walk."
In fact, the south of the country is one of the more dangerous areas to be a ground troop, he said.
So what exactly was Prince Harry doing in that firefight?
The same thing Donberg was doing in the air, he says -- fighting to protect a newly liberated country's freedom.
"The fact that he was down in this location, this forward operating base, where it's not the safest spot in Afghanistan by a long shot, it tells you something about him," Donberg said. "I mean, he was actually down there in the fight."
The prince and his unit survived that encounter with the help of an F-15E fleet that is always just a call away -- just as many other "boots on the ground" have been protected and "enabled" by those constantly patrolling the skies over a country on the mend.
4th Fighter Wing Vice Commander Col. Dan Debree held the same position with the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing at Afghanistan's Bagram Air Base when that call came in from "WIDOW 67."
"Eliminating that threat for those troops on the ground, air power allows us to do that," he said. "The bottom line over there in Afghanistan is that air power is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Those aircraft enable the ground forces out there to fight this fight."
They might be performing convoy clearing, an escort service or simply a show of force.
But whatever the mission, they answer that call.
"What we provide is a lot of ordnance and we get there fast," DeBree said. "And when we get there, we can make a lot of noise to hopefully scare them off, or might even drop a weapon if we have to."
And if there are more JTACs out there like Prince Harry, he feels confident that each bomb dropped will serve its purpose alone and avoid inflicting collateral damage.
"This campaign we are doing right now in Afghanistan is the most disciplined and precise air campaign I have ever seen," the colonel said. "We are, to the letter, making sure that civilians are out of harm's way and that friendlies are out of harm's way before a weapon comes off that jet."
And more importantly, they are making sure that employment of weapons is a last resort -- as it was in the case of "WIDOW 67" and his unit.
Only then, DeBree said, can they succeed in the real mission.
"Basically, it comes down to three pillars, three missions we are trying to accomplish in Afghanistan. First, we are trying to establish security because it's a prerequisite for the other two. That's the shooting part," he said. "But in my opinion, and I'm quoting dead British generals right now, 'The shooting part of a counter-insurgency is only about 25 percent of it. The other 75 percent is (governance of 34 provinces and development of sound infrastructure)."
"It's a tough game for sure, but it's all about security first, governance and development," Debree added. "And then, hopefully, the governance and development are strong enough and the Afghan Army is strong enough that they can take care of themselves."
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