The War in Iraq at Five Years: The View from Travis Air Force Base

March 18th, 2008 - by admin

Carl Nolte / San Francisco Chronicle – 2008-03-18 01:03:25

The War in Iraq at Five Years:
At a Milestone, Bay Area Finds it Hard to Face War.
But at Travis Air Force Base, what goes on in Iraq and Afghanistan is a daily, deadly reality

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, California (March 16, 2008) — The war in Iraq has gone on for five years now, but there is almost no sign of it in the Bay Area, a region where 7 million people live.

There is a hillside full of crosses near the BART station in Lafayette, and the occasional war protest in Berkeley or San Francisco makes the papers and the television news. The only uniforms anybody sees on the streets are cops, or off-duty security guards.

People are worried about a recession, or gasoline prices. It is springtime and the hills are green. The war is far away and out of sight.

Michael Myatt, a retired Marine Corps general, remembers a sign he saw just outside the Camp Pendleton Marine base not long ago: “The Marines are at war. America is at the mall.” Yet the war is a presence in the Bay Area, like an underground river, like a storm just off the coast, like a deadly illness that will not go away.

The Bay Area has a reputation for being a hotbed of anti-war sentiment, the legendary “Left Coast” where all the politicians are liberals and all the citizens are activists.

It is also the home of Travis Air Force Base, one of the country’s largest with a direct role in Iraq, and a place where anti-war protesters plan to mark the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war with parades and demonstrations.

But mostly, Bay Area people seem to have put the war in the back of their minds. They are not indifferent about the war. They just don’t want to think about it.

“I saw a young man in a cross between a gurney and a wheelchair the other day,” said Nancy Fox, a Marin County consultant. “I thought maybe he was a casualty of the war. It was so painful to see him that I looked away.

“Have I marched against the war? Have I written the president? Yes. I don’t know how to grapple with it. So I look away.”

Nearly five years ago, March 20, 2003, on the day after American planes bombed Baghdad and American missiles mounted a failed “surgical strike” to kill Saddam Hussein, thousands and thousands of Bay Area people marched in protest against the war.

They came from all over; San Francisco’s hotels were full. One of the protesters was Gen. Myatt’s own daughter. Others brought small children so they could see history as it happened.

The protests got out of hand. Mobs surged up Fremont and Harrison streets in San Francisco, trying to shut down the Bay Bridge. Police read the riot act; 2,150 people were arrested in three days of protests in San Francisco.

They did not stop the war. It has gone on for five long years. In that time, the city has changed. Fremont and Harrison Streets, the top of Rincon Hill, where the protesters tried to stop the war, are now the site of a 64-story condo tower.

Richard Becker, national coordinator for the ANSWER coalition, which has organized many of the anti-war protests, has an office upstairs in an old building in San Francisco’s Mission District, where he and his associates are planning a big demonstration in San Francisco on Wednesday, the fifth anniversary.

There are posters and signs all over his office. “End the War NOW!”

Becker’s father served in World War II – and this war has lasted longer than his father’s war.

Becker is no wild-eyed radical; he is bald, middle-aged, with glasses. He has studied the Middle East, and can cite the British experience in Iraq nearly 80 years ago.

He believes the war in Iraq and the projection of American power around the world are deeply wrong. American involvement in Iraq, he says, is “an enormous disaster.”

Becker says people are hoping the presidential election will mean the end of the war, but he doesn’t buy that. “Powerful forces who have influence on the election have no intention of leaving Iraq. They will not leave until they are forced out.”

He believes one way to force change is to demonstrate. San Francisco “is absolutely against the war,” he says, “No question about that.”

He does not know, and won’t speculate, as to how many will turn out Wednesday. “It will depend on the dynamic, when people get together and say, ‘Hey, we have to do something.’ ”

Berkeley Style
In Berkeley, meanwhile, the demonstrations have been going on for months, as Code Pink has been trying to close a downtown office aimed at recruiting Marine officer candidates.

To mark the fifth anniversary of the war, they mounted a 24-hour vigil for five days last week.

“I have been protesting for five years,” said Joi Zanne, who was out in front of the Marine office on a cloudy Tuesday afternoon. “Because of the people killed, raped or tortured in my name. I am tired of that.

“And people like you and you,” she said, pointing at passers-by, “are coming out here and saying ‘No!’ ”

“People come here to demonstrate because we can’t do anything else to stop it,” said Asher Wolfe.

The protest – and the Marine recruiting office – are in a downtown shopping district, with a French bistro and a Japanese restaurant across the street, and a bridal shop next door. The scene of the vigil is quiet, most of the time, as if it were a play staged too many times.

Many of the passers-by decline the pink handbills the protesters hand out. There is a sign that urges motorists to honk for peace, but few do.

Sometimes the pedestrians argue with the Code Pink protesters.

Brian Webb, who works in a nearby bank, says he thinks the demonstrations are counterproductive. He says to the protesters: “You’re preaching to the choir.”

In the window of the recruiting office, the Marines have a sign: “Serving our country at the tip of the spear.”

Travis Air Force Base
But the tip of the spear, at least in the Bay Area, is really 40 or so miles up I-80, at Travis Air Force Base, just outside Fairfield.

There are 10,600 active duty and reserve personnel stationed at Travis. There is a $193 million hospital with 3,662 rooms and more than 2,000 personnel assigned. Travis Air Force base is the biggest employer in Solano County. The Air Force says it pumps $1.4 billion a year into the local economy.

It is a crisp, clean, efficient military base, very much involved with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is part of the air mobility command – “The Best of the Best,” they call themselves. The planes based at Travis – tankers, cargo planes, provide the means to project American power far and wide.

“We can go anywhere in the world in 24 hours,” said Col. Steven Arquiette, commander of the 60th Air Mobility Wing. “We have a direct impact” on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, he says.

Travis people – Arquiette calls them “folks” – have transported thousands of personnel and tons of equipment in 13,961 sorties in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, as the military calls the war.

Arquiette’s planes are able to refuel warplanes in the air, keeping air support and pressure on the enemy. They can do airdrops to isolated units, provide personnel to help in combat operations.

Another unit – the 615th Contingency Response Wing – is one of three in the United States kept on alert to be able to build a complete airfield anywhere in the world. They require only 12 hours’ notice.

Travis units also operate medical evacuation planes. “If they can get a casualty to a hospital or medical facility in two or three hours, they have a 98 percent chance of survival,” Arquiette says. It is a record of survival of the wounded unmatched in any war.

While others talk in general about war and the wounded, Travis personnel have been there.

“I love this mission,” said Lt. Col. Lenora Cook, a medevac nurse. “When you look into the eyes of that injured soldier or Marine and they look at you and thank you.”

What are the wounded like? “They are very, very young,” said Lt. Col. Nancy Mikulin, another flight nurse. “They don’t say very much. If they are Marines, another Marine stays with them. They are very close.

“They don’t say anything about wanting to go home. They want to go back. They are very committed, very, very committed.”

Missing Everything
A commitment is also necessary for those who stay behind. More than half of the personnel in the Air Force are married, and when one spouse is deployed overseas, the other stays behind.

Debra Carmody’s husband, Ed, a chief master sergeant, is serving as a loadmaster on planes in an area she will only describe as “southwest Asia.” He left in February, and, Debra says, “will be gone for five months or so.” The couple have four children; the eldest is 24, the youngest is 9. The 9-year-old was only a baby the first time her father went overseas.

One of the Carmody girls, Elizabeth, is a junior in high school, looking forward to one of those special rites of passage – her first prom.

Her father won’t be there to see his daughter on prom night. “It is one of those big moments. He’ll hate to miss it,” said Debra. “But that is the nature of the job.”

Airman 1st Class Joshua Esparza and his wife, Ashley, brought their 18-month-old son, Gabriel, to the Airman and Family Readiness Center, which assists Travis families, the other day on an errand. They watched the little boy play in the hall, running around, talking, smiling. Esparza is in a unit that can be deployed anytime, on a few hours notice.

He is 23, she is 21. Esparza knows that watching his first son grow up is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. But he knows that one day soon, he will be deployed.

“When you are gone, especially when they are young like this, you miss seeing them grow. You miss everything,” he said.

Fifty members of the military from the Bay Area have been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. That is not a big number for a region of 7 million people; unless, of course, one of the dead is a member of your family.

Just off the elevator on one of the upper floors at the Marines Memorial Club in downtown San Francisco is a Tribute Memorial Wall; black marble with names engraved in gold. They are the names of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were about 2,400 when the wall was dedicated two years ago. Now there are just over 4,000 names.

Sometimes, family members come to the club to see the wall; they reach out to touch the names of the dead, as if to remember them in life. “One thing I have learned is that they lie when they say time heals,” said Michael Myatt, the retired Marine major general who is chief executive of the club. “It never heals.”

The wall of the dead is not open to the public; the Marines Memorial is a private club. Sometimes, when a nearby facility is rented out for a private party, the wall is sealed off by a curtain.

But the wall is always there, just out of sight, like the war.

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