Fort Irwin

September 28th, 2021

The Fort Irwin National Training Center is deep in the Mojave Desert. It is about 37 miles from Barstow. California, which means it’s 37 miles from nowhere. To get to the nearest real city, you have to drive two hours to San Bernadino. To get to the Pacific Ocean, you need four hours of windshield time. I was at Fort Irwin in February of 1986 for training. I don’t remember much from that time period, probably because I don’t want to remember it. However, I might as well write about the highlights of those weeks in the desert.

I have to back up a bit. To properly tell this story I need to begin at West Point in the spring of 1980. I was getting ready to graduate and become a second lieutenant. At that time all the members of my class had to choose their branch. Branch selection was based on class rank. People at the top of the class could pick whatever branch they liked. The folks on the bottom got to go Infantry.

1980 was the first year that a graduate could go to Flight School immediately after completely the officer basic course for whatever branch they had chosen. At that time, there was no such thing as an Aviation branch in the Army. The graduate who wanted to go directly to Flight School needed to pick an unrelated branch in the Army, usually one of the combat arms. The idea was to sleepwalk through the basic course, and then become a pilot.

Also in 1980, there was a total of four slots available in Military Intelligence for prospective pilots. Those went fast. I got the last slot, and I went into MI prior to going to Fort Rucker to learn how to fly. I spent several months at Fort Huachuca, AZ, studying PHOTINT (photo intelligence) before I was sent to Fort Rucker. If for some reason, Flight School did not work out for me, I would have gone back to the MI branch fulltime.

I had a classmate who was (and is) a good friend. He also planned on becoming a helicopter pilot. He was higher in class rank than I was, so he could have snagged that coveted Military Intelligence slot. But he didn’t do that. Instead, for reasons that were never made clear to me, he chose to go Infantry.

Before any of us could be accepted into Flight School, we had to have a flight physical. I think we had an initial physical while still at West Point, but then we had to undergo another physical prior to beginning classes at Fort Rucker. My physical was a nerve wracking experience. The doctor needed me to “valsalva”, that is, clear my ears. Pilots had to be able to equalize the air pressure between the outside environment and inner ear canal. Well, I couldn’t do it. I had scarring from childhood ear infections, and I couldn’t get my ears to pop. After multiple attempts, I finally got an ear to make a pitiful pop, and the physician reluctantly signed off on my medical exam. I came very close to not ever becoming a pilot.

My friend failed his exam. They determined that his vision was not good enough. It was good enough to pass the first exam, but not the second go around. The Army didn’t know what to do with him at first. He got a position working at the Fort Ricker golf course. He went to work every day in his Izod shirt and chinos. His life as a golf pro went on like that for months.

Then the letter came. My friend and I shared an apartment off post. He came back one day pissed off. He went directly to the refrigerator and made himself a rather strong Black Russian. I asked him what was wrong. He tossed me an envelope. Inside was a copy of his PCS orders. I looked at it.

He was going to Fort Irwin, as an Infantry officer.

I asked him where Fort Irwin was, and he exploded.

Eventually, after we had numerous Black Russians, he explained where Fort Irwin was, and what they did there. He would be part of the OPFOR (Opposing Forces) for training troops that were rotated in from posts all over the U.S. In practical terms, he was becoming a faux Soviet officer for three years at one of the most isolated duty stations on earth.

Over the following years, we would write to each other. My friend’s letters were often bitter and sarcastic. My impression from reading the letters was that there wasn’t fucking thing to do at Fort Irwin except work. So, everybody stationed there got really good at being the OPFOR. They knew all the terrain. They knew all the ways to win. When other units came to Fort Irwin to join the wargames in the big sandbox, the locals were ready for them, and they were playing for keeps.

Fast forward to late 1985. The 7th Infantry Division at Fort Ord was chosen to train at Fort Irwin. That meant that I finally got to go there.

We spent months preparing for the move to the National Train Center (NTC). The Infantry was getting all pumped up for the trip. They were absolutely convinced that they were going to kick some ass. I was not so sure about that. It didn’t matter, we were all going there anyway.

We flew the fifteen Black Hawks in our company from Fort Ord to the NTC. We planned to make a grand entrance. We were going to go in as a flight of fifteen, Apocalypse Now-style. It went well at first. We looked good. I was in Chalk 5 behind four other aircraft. I watched the first helicopter slowly approach the ground.

Then it disappeared into a cloud of brown dust.

Oh fuck.

Chalk 2 did the same thing, as did Chalk 3. Now the rest of us had no idea where any of these three Black Hawks had landed. We could see nothing, and it is considered bad form to land on top of another aircraft’s rotor system. So, it was everyman and woman for themselves. We each peeled off and found a piece of level ground. We planted our helicopters, and turned off the engines. Like fools, we had flown with doors open. Everything, I mean everything, was covered with dust and sand.

We set up our operations tent next to the only Joshua tree available. We got ready to do our thing: transporting troops and equipment. Everybody was preparing to show the folks at Fort Irwin what the 7th ID could do.

The first day of the war came. Once again, our operation was carefully planned. We were ready. The show started promptly at 6:00 AM. We cranked the engines. The rotors started to turn.

We all got a radio call:

“It’s done. Shut them all down.”

“WHAT?!”

“It’s done. We lost. Shut the aircraft down.”

My watch said, “6:06.”

Fuck.

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