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The start of war: an attack pilot's call

Thursday 4:30 a.m.

The attack pilot's call comes at 4:30 a.m. He's asleep, but his bunkmate answers the phone. There are three airmen bunking in this trailer. It's about the size of a one-bedroom apartment.

"Tell him he's 'stepping' in 25 minutes," says the squad commander. In military-speak, that means there's a mission.

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The beam of a flashlight wakes the pilot. He has only one thought: Time to go.

The pilot's call sign is "Slappy," and for all intents and purposes, it is also his name. All pilots have these call signs, which are used to identify pilots in the air, and all journalists must use them, according to Pentagon restrictions. He's an Air Force captain with the 75th Fighting Tigers, based out of Pope Air Force Base, in Fayetteville, N.C.

Slappy has less than half an hour to report for duty. Fortunately, he went to bed early - right about the time his fellow pilots on the base's airfield (called the "flight line") were told to start Operation Iraqi Freedom.

He shaves, and brushes his teeth, but there's no time for a shower. A dash of baby powder will have to do, he decides, and he zips into his flight suit. Since he will be flying into hostile territory, patches bearing his call sign, his rank, his squadron, and his name have been removed from his uniform. They sit in a wooden cabinet, along with his wedding ring, cell phone, and wallet.

"We will sleep better knowing that you're defending freedom for us,' teases his bunkmate "Tag," who turns to go back to sleep in his bunk. "Make sure you shut the light off when you leave."

4:55 a.m.

When he reports for duty, Slappy hears the news that the first air strike in the war has begun.

But there's no time to absorb any of that. He goes into his pre-flight briefing with 'Cooter', an Air Force captain and lead pilot on the mission. Slappy is his wingman.

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Cooter runs through a checklist of topics: intelligence reports, flight paths, radio frequencies, and targeting. After 30 minutes, they leave for the flight line. They finish the final briefing points in the backseat of a Ford F-350 pickup on the way there.

Once on the flight line, Slappy walks around the A-10, a US attack plane built decades ago. Designed for close air support of ground forces, it is equipped with a huge gun, a 30mm Gau-8/A Gatling. It can fire 3,900 rounds per minute. The nose of his plane is painted with shark's teeth, as are all the planes that fly with the 75th.

Once his inspection is complete, he climbs into the cockpit, carrying bottled water and Powerbars. At 6:17, he taxis to the runway. Neal, the crew maintenance chief, watches him from the tarmac, and pumps his fists in the air. Slappy does the same inside the jet.

Before he goes on a mission, Slappy says he has to focus. "You have to be able to compartmentalize," he says, "to be able to say 'OK, right now my task is this'."

In a few short minutes, he and Cooter shoot over the Iraqi border. He says a short prayer.

"God be with us and keep us safe."

8:45 a.m.

The mission lasts two and a half hours. The target is identified and destroyed. Slappy tells his crew chief the plane flew 'Code 1' - no technical difficulties. He and Cooter compare notes on the mission during the ride back to base.

Later, Slappy sees a report about the mission on TV. "Hey, that was us," he says.

10:15 a.m.

Since the chow hall won't start serving lunch until 11, Slappy does a load of laundry in the trailer next to his. He has just come back to his room when Fox News reports alarms in Kuwait City.

If it's going off there, it'll be going off here, he thinks. He heads for his protective gear as the base alarm sounds and he hears: "Alarm Red! MOPP level 4! Take cover immediately."

As carefully as his nerves allow, he puts on his gas mask and checks the seal. Then he dons his chem-bio suit, overboots, and protective gloves. Finally, he puts on a helmet and flak jacket. He sits in a chair and watches as the Fox News correspondent in Kuwait City put on his gas mask. "It was kind of surreal ... looking at him and he's looking at me."

1:15 p.m.

Both of his flight suits are in the laundry, so Slappy heads to lunch in civilian clothes: black gym shorts, a squadron T-shirt, and Reeboks. When he gets to the chow hall, he meets up with pilots from his squadron, who tease him about his dress.

The chow hall is unusually empty. Trays with half-eaten food lay scattered on tables from the Alarm Red. As Slappy heads up to get food, the alarm sounds again.

Everyone dives under the tables. As they wait for the announcement of either "Incoming" or "All clear," the pilots talk about their missions. Slappy envisions himself up in his A-10 "dropping metal" on the missile launchers.

The meal, when it is finally served, is the usual: brown lumps of meat on white rice.

Slappy, Tag, and their bunkmate "Doogie" walk back to their quarters and watch news. Slappy's anxious for the big push to get this over. Or, maybe the first bombs actually got Hussein.

5 p.m.

On the way to dinner, the alarm sounds a third time. Doogie puts his gear on before diving into the bunker. Slappy regrets making the opposite choice. The bunkers are about 5 feet by 5 feet, and although the length varies, quarters are still tight.

After the "All clear," Slappy heads to the chow hall, picks up chicken nuggets and a mango juice box to go, and heads back to the trailer.

Doogie and Tag flip between news and the movie, "We Were Soldiers." Slappy take an hour-long nap.

The alarm sounds a fourth time that evening.

At about 10, Slappy slings his gas mask holster over his bunk post, leaves his bio suit in a pile on the floor, and climbs up into his bunk.

While he was deployed in Afghanistan, Slappy, the father of three, made a pact with his middle son. "I'll make a deal with you: I'll pray for you each night if you'll keep me in your prayers," he says.

"In an e-mail a couple of weeks later, he said he was keeping his promise. So we kind of kept that going for this mission."

Family reunions, however, lie in the future. The war can only be lived one day at a time.

As for this day he says, "I thought it was a good day. I flew."

Editor's note: csmonitor.com reporter Ben Arnoldy is on assignment in Kuwait as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the expected invasion of Iraq. His reporting is collected in the web special project Assignment: Kuwait (http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/).


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