This excerpt comes from Leadership from 30,000 Feet: Attributes of Effective Leaders as told by Five Air Force Generals, an anthology by Two Blue Aces’ contributors. To read the rest of this story and many others like it you can purchase your own copy on Amazon!
Title: Missile Impact
Author: Tom "Honez" Jones
On March 20, 2003, the first day of the war in Iraq, our warning system blared throughout my command center. Iraqi missiles were incoming—and fast.
Although we’d practiced this specific scenario dozens of times before the war had begun, I still wasn’t prepared for the real-world shock of the alarm and what it actually signified. We were under attack. In ten minutes or less, our center could be decimated. Or chemical weapons could be dispersed. The risks were life-and-death—something that even consistent training can never quite prepare you for.
As a wing commander, I was in the command center trying to keep track of the hundreds of sorties being flown on the first day of Operation Iraqi Freedom, including the massive efforts to support our units. My mind was heavily preoccupied when the sirens blared.
Then, adding to the noise and instant chaos, our phones rang. My higher headquarters, located in Saudi Arabia, was calling to confirm the launch. As I answered the phone, I looked at the two young enlisted controllers who sat alongside me. Despite their training for this exact moment, they looked terrified.
A screen flashed the time to impact as three minutes and counting.
As calmly as I could, I instructed them to don their protective chemical warfare gear. This was policy since we never knew if an incoming missile had chemical warfare capabilities. It was better to be momentarily inconvenienced by putting on the restrictive equipment than to be wrong.
The men did as they were instructed while I sounded the alarm throughout the rest of the base.
The screen flashed one minute and counting.
In the chaos of that moment, I tried to put my gear on while continuing to answer phones and direct the rest of the battle staff. I wasn’t totally successful. I’d only managed to place my gas mask over my head—the most important part, in my opinion—and one more article of protective gear before our countdown timer reached zero.
The siren stopped.
So did all sound within the command center.
We didn’t hear or feel an explosion, meaning that the missile had impacted some distance away from us. Our space-based tracking system displayed its best approximation of the missile’s landing, but the missile’s short time in flight made it impossible to receive a location with pinpoint accuracy. The missile had appeared to detonate about ten miles away from us.
After ascertaining that no chemical elements were in play, I ordered our men to remove their chem gear. By that point, the two controllers had composed themselves. For the remainder of that harrowing shift and throughout the rest of Operation Iraqi Freedom, which would include several more missile attacks, they provided superb support. In fact, they maintained perfect control and composure for all subsequent attacks.