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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Back to a greater danger

A helicopter pilot faces a third tour in Iraq, where eight U.S. choppers have gone down this year. He doesn't dwell on the risk. His family can't help it.

March 27, 2007|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Hunter Army Airfield, Ga. — 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."

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