Being the wife of a military member isn’t easy. Helpless, overwhelmed and frustrated is how I feel on some ordinary days – not to mention during deployments. As I’m trying to prepare dinner for my rambunctious 13-month-old daughter during “unhappy hour” – generally 5-6 p.m. – I have to reason with myself that doing things alone in a marriage sometimes just comes with the territory. Whether Grace is crying because I wouldn’t let her record random programs on the DVR, or casually throwing her cheesy puffs on the floor, it’s still hard to not resent my husband’s absence. However, I do know servicemembers are required to do just that: serve. And, when I’m able to remind myself of the reasons my husband does what he does, I realize there’s a bigger purpose beyond my everyday inconveniences.
I had the opportunity to peek into my husband’s world March 16 when I joined other spouses of Colorado Air National Guardsmen for a first-hand look at what it means – literally – to lower the boom on the job.
The Colorado National Guard’s Military Spouselift program is designed to help those married to servicemembers gain a better understanding of what goes on when their loved ones don the uniform.
Aboard a Pennsylvania Air National Guard KC-135 Stratotanker, 21 of us – all with noses pressed to the windows – departed Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo., to watch a live, in-flight refueling mission with the Colorado Air National Guard’s F-16 Fighting Falcons.
Newlyweds and veteran military spouses alike gathered at Hangar 909 – a place usually reserved for heart-wrenching goodbyes and happy reunions. However, on this sunny Colorado day, the atmosphere was filled with excitement and the chatter of spouses ready for an experience usually reserved for Airmen.
Around the corner from the main hangar, I gathered with the other passengers in the nostalgically-adorned base operations office. The wood paneling and silver art-deco lettering reminded me of an old train station. We exchanged names, our children’s names and ages, and shared our reserved apprehension and excitement. Some families even waited with small children in the room plastered with maps and framed pictures of airplanes.
This is where I learned that Jackie Vizcarra, a dark-haired, dark-eyed 4-and-a-half-year-old, loves Thomas the Tank Engine ™. She and her 2-year-old sister Rebecca were there to stay with their mom, Yoshina, until her departure.
Tech. Sgt. Juan “Pablo” Vizcarra, a traditional Airman representing the 120th Fighter Squadron’s aircrew flight equipment shop, was happy for his wife to take a peek inside his world. He explained that in 13 years of service, Yoshina never got to experience what he does in the Guard.
He was proud to share his military life with her, and Yoshina was enthusiastic to learn more about her husband’s job. She was equally enthusiastic in anticipation of the flight, saying, “I couldn’t even sleep last night, I was so excited!”
I also spoke with Carla Cowan, mother of three, and wife of Lt. Col. Bruce Cowan, medical operations officer assigned to Joint Force Headquarters-Colorado. We had seen each other at annual holiday parties, but never had the chance to talk. This time, I learned that her 4-year-old son, Owen, is taller than some of the kids in her daughter Emma’s second-grade class.
However, as quickly as we started to share our stories, it was time to prepare for the flight. Chief Master Sgt. Pat Plonski, a boom operator with the 171st Air Refueling Wing, Pennsylvania Air National Guard, out of Pittsburgh, introduced himself to the group.
Wearing a flight suit just like the ones in “Top Gun,” he told the group we would be flying up to 22,000 feet and explained various safety precautions. He said each one of us would get a chance to see the F-16s refueling from the boom operator’s vantage point. He went on to say this plane was designed to refuel B-52 bombers during the Cold War, but they mostly refuel fighter jets now. He also warned us that the plane would be much louder than a commercial aircraft – and a lot less comfortable.
The plane was about the size of a DC-10, with engines almost large enough for an adult to walk through. As I reached the top of the portable staircase, I poked my head inside the cockpit, which was about the size of that “other” bedroom in a college apartment. Seeing the three crewmembers scrunched in there made me think of my grandmother’s oversized ankle trying to fit in to her modestly-sized shoe.
I joined the others, who were exploring the plane, recording its look and smell. The interior looked more like grandma’s attic than the cabin of a plane. It was dark and smelled old. Lining both sides of the aircraft were red, webbed seats. Three large wooden boxes formed barriers between the right and left sides of the aircraft. The padded, olive-drab ceiling and walls looked like the inside of a child’s inflatable playhouse – but far less colorful.
One of the spouses, Jamie Deskins, said, “Even seeing the seats help me better understand my husband’s journey to Iraq. He talked about those seats!” She went on to explain that she and her husband, Senior Airman David Deskins, a jet engine mechanic with the 140th Maintenance Squadron, were newlyweds who married right before his four-month deployment to Iraq last summer. Her eyes still held the sadness of that separation.
As the plane prepared for lift off, I peered through the cockpit door to see the pilot’s view, as if I was watching the scene on the television.
One lucky spouse, Terri Walters, wife of Capt. Kevin Walters of the 140th weather shop, was chosen to ride in the jump seat with the pilots. I asked her if she had ever done this before, and she said, “No, but I hope it will be fun. It beats going to work any day!”
Shortly after takeoff, one of the crewmembers walked by carrying what looked like a small, yellow bagpipe. It was the boom operator reporting for duty. It’s his job to carefully guide the fuel tube, or boom as it is also known, to the thirsty F-16s flying only a few feet below.
Passengers took turns journeying below deck to witness the process up close. When it was my turn, I walked down two steep steps into the back of the plane, clutching the walls like my toddler daughter just learning to walk. A cushioned mat that stretched out parallel to the bottom of the plane was waiting for my arrival. I lay down on my stomach. To my left was the boom operator and to the left of him another passenger lain on a cushion, as well.
In front of the boom operator was a set of knobs and dials, and a joy stick, almost like a miniature version of the cockpit. Another one of the passengers said it best: It looks like a video game.
Out the window to my right, I could see one of the F-16s gracefully leave the gas pump to be quickly replaced by another. The boom was then gently lowered for the incoming jet and I could see the careful and calculated connection between the boom operator and the F-16 pilot below.
On my belly at 22,000 feet and staring at a lethal jet just 10 feet away felt mesmerizing. As Plonski described it, “Once you see it back there it’s like, wow! You look down and see the fighter pilot winking his eye – you’re that close.”
Coolness was the consensus among the passengers, and for me, it was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever had the privilege to experience.
Cheryl Dunston, wife of F-16 pilot Lt. Col. Floyd “Sumo” Dunston, agreed. She explained that when she was offered the opportunity, she didn’t think much of it, but other fighter pilots’ wives told her she had to go.
On this flight, Cheryl saw her husband from a very different perspective. As his plane approached the refueler, Plonski informed her that it was her turn. As she lay on her stomach, the face she saw through the cockpit of the F-16 was her husband’s. The boom operator then handed her the headphones and let her talk to her husband. She simply chit-chatted with him, casually saying, “Hi honey. What are you doing?”
Nearly every spouse I talked to had experienced a deployment, or in some cases multiple deployments, of their military members.
Each one was grateful for the opportunity to go on the flight. They agreed the experience gives you an insight into a piece of their Airman’s world.
In a way, the lowering of the boom isn’t very different from the sacrifices and day-to-day struggles many military spouses experience when their loved ones are away. The boom is that little thing that can keep you going – that kind word, that unspoken love, that tender memory. And sometimes, it’s just remembering that your spouse’s actions serve a higher purpose – one that’s worth the sacrifice.Reminder: Friday, May 7, is the Military Spouse Appreciation Day. Look in next month’s issue to find out what you can do to honor your spouse.