Kudos to staff writer Michael Hoffman of Air Force Times. Mr. Hoffman--the first reporter to uncover the inadvertent transfer of nuclear weapons between Air Force bases in North Dakota and Louisiana in 2007--has discovered another event the service would rather forget.
It happened almost three years ago, at a remote airfield in Sudan. An Air Force HC-130, normally used to coordinate search-and-rescue missions, was assigned a seemingly routine task. The aircraft (and its eleven man crew) were dispatched from their deployment base in Djibouti, to pick up a U.S. military officer assigned to the U.N. mission in Darfur. The officer's wife was pregnant and had fallen ill; the HC-130 would cover the first leg of his journey home.
But the pick-up mission proved anything but routine. Sudanese soldiers at the crew's destination (Al-Fashir Airfield) were convinced the Americans were there to collect evidence of war crimes, and not retrieve the liaison officer. As Michael Hoffman describes it:
At 8 a.m. under fair conditions, PAT 332 took off from Camp Lemonier and flew 3½ hours to Khartoum. Waiting for them on the ground was a U.S. Embassy representative. An hour later, the plane took off for Al-Fashir.
The HC-130 made its approach to Al-Fashir two hours later. As the wheels touched down, crew members watched as Sudanese soldiers — 50 to 100 feet apart along both sides of the runway — turned and pointed their AK47s at the plane. Also near the airfield were anti-aircraft guns. In the background was a garrison, not shown in the images.
Waiting for the plane were two U.S. military liaisons with six locked duffel bags. One of the men, the crew members assumed, was the father-to-be. They were wrong. The military liaison they had come to pick up was already gone, the men said. He had left five days earlier but needed his bags of equipment and four 9mm pistols.
The crew members loaded the bags and hid the guns in the plane before they checked in with airfield officials, who requested that co-pilots 1st Lt. Timothy Saxton and 1st Lt. John Cuddy deliver their flight plan to the air traffic control tower. Saxton and Cuddy agreed to do as requested but asked if they could keep the plane’s engines running while the officers were driven to the tower because one of the turboprops was hard to start. Their request was denied, and they shut down PAT 332.
After Saxton and Cuddy returned to their aircraft, the HC-130 was cleared for departure. But as the aircraft taxied out, a Sudanese intelligence officer noticed the FLIR ball on the bottom of the aircraft. Concerned that the FLIR had recorded images of bombs being loaded on Sudan's military aircraft at the field--for use against civilian targets in Darfur--a Sudanese intelligence official began barking orders into his cell phone. Seconds later, the HC-130, callsign PAT 332, was ordered to return to the ramp.
Over the hours that followed, the situation grew increasingly tense. A group of Sudanese soldiers surrounded the aircraft. At one point, U.S. military liaison officers--who met the HC-130 when it landed--told the crew they might be arrested and executed. A Sudanese officer also informed the Americans that the crew's two female members would be raped after being taken into custody.
The stand-off continued into the evening, with the crew of PAT 332 caught in the middle. At one point, the radio operator, MSgt Paul Widener, radioed Camp Lemonier in Djibouti and asked if any aircraft had been launched to support them. All aircraft were on the ground, he was told.
Meanwhile, an estimated 150 Sudanese soldiers took up firing positions around the aircraft. The eleven aircrew members (and a six-man security detachment from the Guam National Guard) donned body armor and readied their weapons. But if the Sudanese opened fire with machineguns and RPGs, the Air Force crew stood little chance of survival.
The terrifying ordeal finally ended when a U.S. liaison officer asked to speak with the airfield commander, who demanded payment of a landing fee. He was told the fee had been paid--and didn't ask for proof. With that issue settled, PAT 332 and its crew were finally allowed to leave.
When they returned to Djibouti, the crew faced an equally strange reception. From the Air Force Times account:
A debriefing by an intelligence analyst, psychologist and flight surgeon is standard protocol to reintegrate an airman held hostage. But not even the squadron intelligence officer was waiting when PAT 332 landed because squadron commander Lt. Col. Christopher Austin hadn’t reported the mission as a hostage event to Central Command’s Joint Personnel Recovery Center, which would have put the reintegration process in motion.
An enlisted intelligence specialist had been on the ground at Camp Lemonier and started to debrief the crew members, but an unidentified officer ended the session and ordered everyone to go to bed. They were scheduled to fly a training mission the next day.
The mission left aircrew members with questions about their safety. One worried that his name had been taken by Sudanese intelligence officials and his family was vulnerable. A squadron intelligence officer told him that his name probably had been entered into Sudanese intelligence databases but not to worry about it. The crew member couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
More than 70 days passed before Central Command learned about the mission. None of the documents stated who corrected the report. CentCom intelligence officials tracked down the crew members and National Guardsmen to file a Joint Personnel Recovery Agency report.
The help from Central Command, though, came too late for at least two aircrew members. They now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and are no longer allowed to fly because of their diagnosis. Both list the mission to Al-Fashir as the cause of their symptoms, which include severe anxiety and depression.
To this day, no Air Force official can explain why Lt Col Austin mis-handled the situation so badly--or if higher-ups pressured him to keep the incident quiet. He has not been made available for media interviews.
And, if that's not bad enough, the crew of PAT 332 received a final insult earlier this year. For their cool-headed actions at Al-Fashir, the officers were nominated for Bronze Stars, while enlisted personnel were nominated for Air Force Commendation Medals with the "V" (Valor) device.
But their decorations were down-graded by then Lieutenant General Gary North, the former commander of Air Forces Central Command. A memo from North's office said "justification does not support award recommendation." Instead, the crew of the HC-130 received Air Force Achievement Medals with the Valor device.
Readers will recall that General North is the same flag officer who ran interference for Major Jill Metzger, the Air Force officer who "disappeared" from a mall in Kyrgyzstan in September 2006. When she resurfaced three days later, Metzger claimed that she had been kidnapped. But no evidence to support that theory has ever been found. A number of U.S. law enforcement officials believe that Metzger staged her own disappearance, perhaps to cover-up an AWOL.
According to MilitaryCorruption.com, General North was present when Metzger was "repatriated." Interestingly, he told two Air Force Security Forces specialists (protecting the flightline) to keep what they saw and heard to themselves. He then pressed his personal coin into their hands, in an effort to seal the deal.
North was willing to go to bat for Jill Metzger, a woman who is an abject liar (and worse). But he rejected modest awards for a heroic crew in a dangerous situation that could have easily triggered a war. Someone needs to ask General North how he justifies that double standard.
As you might have heard, North recently received his fourth star. Go figure.