COMMENTARY: From Iniakuk Lake to Afghanistan

Rex Gray with his son Ben. They had just finished Ben's first solo flight in the little green airplane they call "The Champ." Photo courtesy of Rex Gray.

Alaska Air National Guard troops are getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan. Rex Gray is a parent of one of those citizen soldiers. His son Ben is heading off on his first deployment. In this commentary, Rex reflects on what the experience means to him.

He’s leaving for Afghanistan- heading to a Forward Operating Base. To fly a Pavehawk – A Blackhawk helicopter modified to rescue downed Airmen, Marines in tight spots, and who knows what else. He loves to fly.

His first airplane ride was in a Grumman Widgeon to Iniakuk Lake, in the Brooks Range. He was six months old. Sitting on his mother’s lap, he tried to wrap his little fingers around the control yoke. After landing he burped up his milk – but was still all smiles. That was 28 years ago.

He spent a lot his growing up time in little airplanes sitting beside me – old enough to hold the control wheel he would keep the wings level, or sometimes just look out the window. It was no surprise when he turned 15 he wanted to learn to fly.

Flying in Alaska is wonderful but risky. Some of my pilot friends have died here. If he was going to be a pilot I wanted to make sure he could recognize and deal with the risk. He is my son. I would be his flight instructor. I wanted make sure he knew everything he needed to know to give the him the best odds of surviving. We did spins, practiced landings in big crosswinds, flew in bad weather – intentionally. Sure we had the traditional father – teenage son conflicts but he learned, and before I knew it he was 17 and a private pilot.

“It’ll be fine,” he said. “I checked the weather.”

I watched him fly up the Mantanuska River Valley in that little green airplane we had spent so many hours in together. A towering thunderstorm over Sutton was trying to block the valley and his route.

“No worries, he’s been well trained,” I told myself.

Seems just like yesterday – a teenage pilot off to see another teenager living in the Wrangells. She is now his wife, and is also saying goodbye.

Almost 200 men and women are deploying. Most are citizen soldiers – or weekend warriors. They are helicopter pilots, C-130 pilots, PJs or para rescue-men, mechanics, crew chiefs, gunners, and support personnel. Their business is saving people. Last year 104 to be exact.

They’re our neighbors, co-workers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, sons, and daughters – willing to do their duty half way around the world, in a hostile environment. They will be gone 120 days.

I taught him everything I knew about flying and risk management in that little green airplane, the Champ. I didn’t teach him how to avoid enemy fire in a low flying helicopter. He assured me the Air Force has.

In 120 days my son and all the others will return home safely. I’m looking forward to that day when we can go fly the little green airplane together again. I’m sure he’ll have lot to teach me.

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