Back to a greater danger

Times Staff Writer

EACH time he receives the order to fly a Black Hawk helicopter over Iraq, U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Hector Echevarria tidies up the personal effects he leaves behind.

Echevarria has completed two yearlong tours of Iraq since 2003, and he is planning a third. He has helped clean out a dead soldier’s messy room before. If he is shot down, “messy” is not how he wants to be remembered.

“People don’t remember you for how you go into a situation,” Echevarria said. “They remember how you went out.”


Perfectionism and fatalism are two traits common in Army helicopter pilots, and both are being sharpened here on this bustling airfield, where hundreds of soldiers, pilots and crew members from the 3rd Infantry Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade are preparing to deploy to Iraq, perhaps by mid-May.

They are packing sand-colored shipping containers, queuing up for new battle gear and hustling from office to office, fulfilling the military’s insatiable appetite for paperwork.

Helicopter pilots are fitting in last-minute training flights, with veterans like Echevarria warning the new ones to take their training seriously -- because the next time it will probably be real.

The mood is businesslike, and seasoned with a disquieting new reality: The skies of Iraq, which were once relatively safe for American helicopters, have suddenly become riskier.

“Each time we go over there it seems like the situation is progressively worse,” Echevarria said.

Echevarria is one of 22 pilots in his company who will fly 10 Black Hawks in Iraq. The versatile helicopters are known as the workhorses of the U.S. military, and they have come to play a vital role in the war. The $5.9-million machines can carry as many as 11 combat troops, and with every flight, they avoid Iraq’s treacherous roads, where improvised bombs remain the No. 1 killer of Americans.


Since January, eight U.S. helicopters have been downed in Iraq, most of them after taking enemy fire, and insurgents have claimed in recent Web postings that they are specifically targeting helicopters. Some news reports have suggested that they have access to a more sophisticated arsenal of shoulder-fired missiles, but military officials are debating whether insurgents have better weapons -- or whether they have simply become better at using their old ones.

The U.S. military has lost a relatively small number of helicopters in Iraq since the war began -- 60, according to the Brookings Institution, compared with more than 5,000 destroyed during the Vietnam War. But Iraqi insurgents, like the Viet Cong, are learning that downing a U.S. helicopter serves as powerful propaganda -- an underdog’s blow against the technical prowess of the American Goliath.

The 400 troops in Echevarria’s battalion are not at liberty to discuss how they plan to adapt to the new threat. They admit they are worried, and that their families are taxed and stressed.

But many remain enthusiastic about a job that promises the thrill of combat and flight. This is the life they chose. In an all-volunteer Army, complaining is as useless as it is counterproductive, as a metal sign in one of the briefing rooms reminds them: “NO PISSY ATTITUDES.”

Echevarria, 34, is a 15-year Army veteran. He was recently accepted to Officer Candidate School, and he thinks there is a chance that could keep him home this time around. But the rules, it seems, are fuzzy. So he carries on as if he is going back.

He learned long ago to avoid dwelling on the hazards of his job. Instead, his anxiety finds its expression in sleep. He dreams he is lost over the vast and featureless desert of Iraq. Or he dreams of flying into a dense cloud bank, unable to tell which way is down.


There is little he can do to shield his wife, Rebeca, and their 14-year-old daughter, Mariah, from the stress of the job.

During his first trip to Iraq, just before Christmas 2003, Rebeca saw on the news that a Black Hawk had crashed in Iraq. A few hours later, a white van appeared at her door. She panicked, thinking it was the Army’s notification team. Didn’t they come in white vans?

She began screaming hysterically before Mariah calmed her down.

“Mom, it’s OK,” Mariah recalled saying. “It’s the FedEx guy.”

Sometimes Echevarria wonders whether the war has forced his daughter to grow up too fast. Sometimes he feels guilty about the two years he has lost with her.

“It really impacts the family a lot,” Mariah says. “Just little things -- like, he’s not there when I come home from school.”

Echevarria has dealt with his mother -- a 59-year-old Puerto Rico native who speaks little English -- by keeping her in the dark.

On his first tour of Iraq, he told her he was in California on a training exercise. On his second tour, she thought he was in Korea. This time, he is considering telling her he is in the Bahamas working with the Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard.


“I hate lying to her,” he said. “But I don’t want her to worry.”

Echevarria grew up poor on the northwest side of Chicago. He signed up for active duty at age 19 after learning that his wife was pregnant.

Since then, the Army has lifted his family into the middle class. It has helped fund a college education he is close to completing, and provided him with the pilot’s life he dreamed of as a child, when he would watch big planes thunder over his house on their way to O’Hare International Airport.

He doesn’t like the prospect of repeat deployments, but he also fears what might happen if American troops pull out.

“It’s going to be chaos,” he said. “It’s going to be like Sudan.”

He wonders, too, when his luck is going to run out.


THE families of helicopter pilots would have enough to worry about even if insurgents weren’t trying to shoot their loved ones out of the sky. Compared to an airplane, a helicopter is a fickle machine that requires constant attention to stay aloft. Pilots like to say that a helicopter is always trying to kill you.

On a recent afternoon in the kitchen of his family’s on-base townhouse, Echevarria showed what it takes to keep a helicopter airborne. In his left hand, he pulled a grill fork up and down. This, he explained, controls the pitch of the rotor, which determines how high the helicopter goes.

Between his knees in his right hand, an upside-down meat tenderizer served as his cyclic control. It works like a joystick, moving the nose of the helicopter up and down, and leaning the body into turns.


Meanwhile, his feet pumped imaginary pedals like a jazz drummer. These, he said, correct the nose’s tendency to move in the opposite direction of the blades.

Some people get the hang of it and some people don’t, Echevarria said -- like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same.

Despite their talents, Black Hawk pilots see themselves as the military’s salt-of-the earth aviators. They don’t tend to get the star treatment of fixed-wing combat pilots: During his second tour of duty, Echevarria was assigned to check IDs at a mess hall when he wasn’t flying.

In Iraq, theirs is a world of dust and sand and heat. Echevarria said the temperatures in the cockpits, which lack air conditioning, can be as high as 140 degrees when they are flying over the desert.

Their missions range from the daring to the mundane. The Black Hawk is primarily a troop carrier, flown by a pair of pilots who are typically joined by two crew chiefs who serve as mechanics and door gunners.

Sometimes the helicopters are used for air assault missions, which may involve landing infantry in hostile terrain amid gunfire. Sometimes the helicopters fly ahead of ground convoys to scout for improvised explosive devices. Sometimes they carry the remains of the dead.


Often they fly a kind of mission that Echevarria likens to a taxi ride. He has personally flown Jalal Talabani, the elected president of Iraq; and Saddam Hussein, its former dictator, before his execution. But more often it’s troops heading to the airport to catch a plane for their two weeks of R&R;, or going to a meeting, or shuttling from one forward-operating base to another.

During Echevarria’s first tour in Iraq, in 2003 and 2004, such flights were usually safe: There were few serious shots fired at his helicopter. When he was earthbound, he tossed candy to children.

He returned to the U.S. in February 2004 with a photo album full of confident American soldiers and smiling Iraqis. He took his wife and his daughter to Disney World, in Florida, on vacation, and realized that they had never experienced what it was like to fly in a helicopter. So he had a civilian pilot take them up for a few minutes over Kissimmee.

“I didn’t like it,” Rebeca said. “It was just that rollercoaster feeling, those butterflies.”

During his second tour, from January 2005 to January 2006, the burden for Echevarria’s family was heavier. The excitement and optimism of the first tour had long passed. In Iraq, the insurgency had grown stronger. More helicopters were being shot at, and shot down.

The only improvements were the creature comforts that came with the extended U.S. presence. This time, instead of sleeping in a tent, he had his own small room. And now he had a supply of Red Bull, the energy drink. He and his fellow pilots loaded cans of the stuff into coolers, buzzing through their hot, 15-hour workdays on jittery caffeine highs.


On his first tour, he thought a lot about helping the Iraqis. On his second tour, he focused mostly on surviving.

“I didn’t want to leave my wife a widow,” he said. “I wanted to see my little girl grow up.”


AS he prepares for his third deployment, one of Echevarria’s biggest worries is the prevalence of the FNGs. It’s one of those unofficial military abbreviations, with “NG” standing for “new guy,” and “F” not fit for print.

During the last deployment, most of the pilots in Echevarria’s company had been there at the onset of the war, gaining valuable combat experience.

This time, there would be six new pilots, fresh out of training from Ft. Rucker, Ala. Flying with novice pilots makes Echevarria nervous. He feels like he is riding in a car with a teenager.

On a recent training exercise, Echevarria was paired up with Warrant Officer Nicholas Johnsen, 26, from Duluth, Minn. The older pilot was patient and thorough in the cockpit, letting Johnsen navigate to a nearby firing range, then letting him fly around the range as crew members practiced firing the M240 door gun.


He called Johnsen “FNG” only once, and without rancor -- and that was when the younger man did not wear his helmet on the range during a break in flight.

Echevarria is a stickler for details and safety precautions. He figures that’s what has kept him alive so far.

Johnsen is tall and rangy, and out of the cockpit he towered over his shorter, broad-shouldered mentor. The younger pilot came from a family with a long history of military service, he said, and he had always wanted to be a warrior.

“No. 1, I don’t want to sit in an office,” Johnsen said, “And No. 2, I want some excitement in my life.”

No. 3: He is single.

“Like, Ech has his family, and I really don’t,” he said. “So I’m rarin’ to go.”

Echevarria remembers feeling that way. He was in pilot school when the planes hit the World Trade Center towers, and he itched to do his part. Besides, for military pilots, it’s feast or famine when it comes to flying. Iraq was a feast.

But Rebeca has had enough. These days, she knows that the notification teams don’t come in a white van. She is aware that the Army’s death notification detail won’t come knocking after 2200 hours -- to ensure that spouses will sleep -- and she’s sick of counting down the minutes every night until 10 o’clock.


A few days ago, Rebeca found an official Army personnel memo -- MILPER MESSAGE NUMBER: 06-128 -- on the Internet and printed it out for her husband. The way she interpreted the document, it meant that her husband didn’t have to go this time.

Echevarria ran it up the chain of command, but he wasn’t particularly hopeful: Right now, he said, the Army needs bodies to fill those cockpits. Last week, he stowed his stuff in one of those big sand-colored shipping containers, expecting the gravity of Iraq to pull him back again.