As a Marine combat veteran, I know the best chance of surviving war for any serviceman or woman is to train hard, train realistically and train often.
That’s why I support the New Mexico Training Range Initiative to expand the airspace for Cannon Air Force Base and the nearby Melrose Bombing Range. It would allow pilots and support crews from here and other bases to fly multiple jet aircraft at supersonic speeds from higher distances. The changes mean their training would more closely mirror today’s air combat battlefields.
War’s pace has one truism: It always becomes more violent and faster with time and technological changes. We’ve seen this demonstrated several times in the last 14 years, in the air and on the ground. For the Air Force, its weapons systems allow pilots and aircrews to gain superiority by making life-taking decisions faster and farther from the actual killing zones. Air superiority lessens losses and enhances the chances of victory.
Therein lies the benefit of intensive, realistic training that the NMTRI would provide.
Aircrew safety increases when jets can get on target faster and farther away from enemy guns. Pilots who destroy battlefield targets, visible only by radars, from 20 and 30 miles away, know this especially.
For the infantryman, whom I relate to since I was a Marine “grunt,” the risks don’t disappear though. As we’ve seen, friendly fire incidents remain a significant danger. Battlefields are foggy and fluid. Emotions not channeled properly can clog judgments and lead to unnecessary tragedies.
For new and experienced warriors, the rote of repetition teaches control of emotions that surface and collide in the mind when death is at hand. When you can channel fear, terror, exhilaration, horror, relief, guilt, anger, and all the other emotions that surface, warriors more often perform the right calculated response in the shortest period of time. Doing things right, quickly, saves lives.
As a new guy in Vietnam I struggled through the chaos of combat in my first few months. The emotions never disappeared but by the time I was in my last major firefight some nine months later, my training and those actual experiences meant I was a far better Marine. I knew when to shoot — and when not to shoot.
Pilots and their crews are no different. In Vietnam I clearly remember looking to the sky behind us during a firefight to see the luminous sheen of a tumbling silver napalm canister dropped from an F-4 fighter jet. The canister was low in the sky and well back of our lines. With hope and fear sticking, in unequal portions, in my throat, I recall muttering the brief but pointed grunt’s prayer — often said when we received artillery, mortar and close air support: “Don’t be short.”
This pilot wasn’t. He hit his target dead on in front of us. The enemy bore the brunt of the terrible heat and flames of the jellied explosive. Resistance immediately lightened.
We were glad about the airstrike for another reason: We wouldn’t have to make a dangerous charge at an entrenched, unseen enemy from across the open field or rice paddy. I suspect the pilot didn’t get shot at as much, if at all, by the same soldiers with their AK-47s.
Another time, during an all-night march, Air Force B-52s dropped strings of 2,000-pound bombs near us. They were so high up the engine sounds were faint yet still frightful. This night you saw neither the planes nor the bombs, which made shrill whistling noises as they circled down to Earth.
Again, “Don’t be short,” was our prayerful refrain.
Thank God, the Arc Light Strike, as it was called, pounded new craters into the land about a click — or 1,000 meters — away. The ground heaved for many seconds and several shards of deadly shrapnel shrilled their frightening tune as they winged by overhead. But we were not harmed, and if any enemy were out there they never attacked us.
These scenes lead me to this conclusion:
Today’s pilots, air crews and ground troops — who are our children, our relatives, our friends and fellow Americans — will serve the United States better, more safely, if the New Mexico Training Range Initiative is approved.
In evaluating public input for the Environmental Impact Statement of NMTRI, the decision-makers should not be shortsighted. They can’t just think about the concerns a few have voiced about possible damage from occasional sonic booms.
I hope they also remember the best environment in war is when you win the fights and have fewer casualties. Repeated training, under the most realistic conditions possible, helps do that.
This initiative merits their support because it provides pilots and aircrews exactly that opportunity.
The next generation of grunts is counting on their split-second support and accuracy.
Ray Sullivan is publisher for Freedom newspapers in Clovis, Portales and Tucumcari. He can be contacted at: