Col. Ché Bolden: Marine Corps F-18 Weapons Systems Officer
Col. Ché Bolden is a Marine Corps veteran who served for 26 years, and credits his time at the US Naval Academy with shaping him into a leader. He went on to become an F-18 Weapons Systems Officer, with multiple combat deployments and service in the Pacific and the Middle East.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today we’ll be hearing from Col. Ché Bolden, a Marine Corps veteran who served for 26 years. While in the Corps, Ché toured as an operations officer for the Office of Defense Cooperation, and led the Marine Corps International Affairs division.
Col. Ché Bolden:
Okay. My name is Che Bolden. I am a retired United States Marine. I retired the rank of Colonel in 2019.
You know, my perspective on military and military service was certainly shaped by my relationship with my father and with those around me as I grew up. I grew up throughout the '70s, early '80s, and the environments that I was in, all of the people... And at that time, it was predominantly men, because that was who was serving at the time. We hadn't opened the doors fully to women and others. But the men that I came across when I was young were just incredibly impressive, the way they comported themselves, the way they treated people, the empathy to match their sternness was something that I thought was really impactful on how I live my life every day. That was the day and age when you couldn't go down the street without somebody calling back to your parents and telling them what you did. It was kind of the ‘it takes a village’ kind of thing.
But everybody I saw that I was looking up to had that one commonality, and that was that they had chosen to take up the cloth of the nation and serve. And so I always knew that at some point I was going to serve myself. I didn't know how I was going to get there. Like many kids, I did the sign wave of, I want to do this, I want to do that. At one point, I thought I was going to be a doctor, another point, I thought I was going to be a lawyer, even an architect. I did always see that I was going to be a fighter pilot, if you will, in there, even though that didn't actually come true. I can talk about that in a bit. But I always saw that, I just didn't know what it meant for me in the long-term.
But growing up in my household, my father's father, my mother's father had all done what they could. Even my uncle on my father's side had served. And so when it came time for me to make the decision, it actually was somewhat of an accident to be quite frank. I only applied to, I think, four schools, and the one school I wanted to go to was the only one of those four schools that turned me down, and so in a fit of depression, I accepted an appointment to the Naval Academy. Now that's probably going to upset some people, because I know a lot of people really try hard to get into that institution. It's a great place to be from, and I don't regret my choice at all, but it wasn't my first choice. Once I got there, it took a little bit of time for me to warm up to the military.
Even though I grew up with a Marine father, he was not the prototypical Marine. He wasn't a harsh disciplinarian. I did not grow up saying yes, sir, no, sir, yes, ma'am, no ma'am, and so the adjustment of when I got to the Naval Academy was a bit of a rude awakening for me. Like most people at the academy, I didn't have any issues in high school. I had been a proverbial star athlete, if you will, and so that kind of helped ease the transition, but when it came to military service, I had no clue what I was getting myself into, because it was nothing of what I had seen. I still looked very admiringly on those who had influenced my decision to go, but that admiration did not translate into an appreciation as I was being woken up at O dark 30, getting yelled at and put into a brace.
So my entire time at the Naval Academy, I continued to kind of think about what I was going to do. And once we got to the midpoint, for those who are familiar, once you take your first class of your second semester... It's called Two for Seven. At that point, you're locked in. So whether you graduate or not, you're still going to do your time in the military. But even then, I knew some of the areas that I thought I wanted to do. I knew I was going to serve, but I only thought I was going to serve for five years. But when it came down to it, there was some issues that I had while I was at the Naval Academy that led me to finish in the top 98% of my class. And that's a joke that I tell all the time that I actually stole from John McCain.
He often said he was in the top 90% of his class. I'm pretty sure I matched him, if not bettered him, by just barely graduating. But what do they call someone who has a diploma from the Naval academy? A graduate. And I wanted to go Marines, but because of my performance academically mainly, I did not get to select Marine Corps when I went in for the service selection, which was a bit of a blow, because I remember some of the most fateful words I'd ever heard were, midshipman Bolden, welcome to the Surface Warfare community. And I thought my life was over, because I did not want to be on a ship. I didn't like sailing, I didn't like haze gray underway, and I didn't know what I was going to do. So that was the first and only time where I really kind of questioned whether or not I really wanted to serve, because it didn't feel right to me, and that may sound a little awkward.
Fortunately, and I've never met this man, I don't know who he is, don't even know his name, but I think he was a retired gunnery sergeant who was probably a hill staffer or maybe even a representative, I'm not sure. But he had heard that there were a couple of midshipman who wanted to go Marines, and we're not permitted to go Marines because we didn't make the cut, so to speak, and he intervened and I believe helped find three ROTC slots somewhere out in the ether to provide for myself, my roommate and another one of my classmates to go Marines. And the reason being, my father had been a 20 plus year Marine, my roommate's father had been a 20 plus year Marine, and the other classmate of mine was the honor graduate at OCS, and so they ended up making spots for us. And so that's what got me on the path to serving. And even then, I didn't know that I was going to do it for a career. So that's what led me to serve and what led me to the Marine Corps, and then we can kind of get into decisions I made after that. But that in a nutshell, kind of a long-winded way of telling you how I decided that this was for me.
The challenges that I had really stemmed from the fact that, when things come really easily for you, you don't learn how to make your way through adversity. And so up until my time at the Naval Academy, life for me was pretty cake. My parents provided a really solid household for us to grow up in. My sister and I had fantastic role models. I went to a really good school. It was public school, but it was a really good school. I had a good friend group, academics in high school. We didn't have AP per se back then, but I was in honors classes, had no problem, didn't have to study very often, things came very easily. And then I ran into the buzzsaw of the United States Naval Academy and the curriculum. When you're a freshman in college in an environment that's as intense as that, and on top of that, you try to be a varsity athlete, 18, 19, 20 semester hours is pretty tough.
So you try to find ways to adapt, and it took me a little bit of time, and I am not ashamed or afraid to admit that my first grade point average in college at the United States Naval Academy... A lot of people say it's not college, but was I think a 0.99. And that was a big blow to me, even with the strict regimen that we had, it was still a little bit of freedom that I wasn't accustomed to, and so the decision whether to study or not, the decision whether to actually go to bed when you should go to bed, because you know you're going to wake up super early, all of those things, I was enjoying the freedom of being able to make those decisions on my own, and I just made bad decisions, and that's what led to me being a poor academic performer.
And so from that first semester on, everything became do or die for me. I think when all was said and done, I probably went to three, maybe four academic review boards. And I only say maybe, because I think I went to one that I didn't even know about. I vaguely remember getting a letter in my inbox... Back then, we didn't have email as prolific as it is now. It was an actual type letter saying, hey, the academic board has reviewed your case and has decided to retain you. And that was a bit of a shock, because I didn't even know I'd gone up for one.
The tradition... And it is a well-established tradition, is called the anchorman. Obviously appropriate, because it's the United States Naval Academy, and the Naval services is where we feed into, and Anchors Aweigh is the school fight song, and an anchor tends to kind of drag you down or hold you in place, but the anchorman or the anchor midshipman is probably what they call it now, is that midshipman who has the lowest possible grade point average, yet still graduates. And the last semester and a half or so, it's a really tense time for about 50 or so midshipmen. And our anchorman at the time was the captain of our cross-country team, track team... And I did two sports. I did football and track. Three, if you counted indoor and outdoor. And so I'm pretty sure he won't have any issues with me saying his name, but Greg Keller, a phenomenal individual, we called him Woody, but he was an amazing long distance runner, and he, like me and several others, we kind of struggled on the academic side of things, but that last semester and a half though, it literally is a fraction of a grade point average or qualitative point rating, QPR is what we called it. And you had to have a 2.0 in order to graduate, but there are people who have graduated with a 2.0 or a 2.01 or something along those lines. And I'm not sure exactly what Woody ended up graduating with, but he was indeed our anchorman.
I had removed myself from the running the second semester of our junior year or our second class year. I managed to get my academics up enough that I gave myself a good enough buffer that I was no longer in the running for the anchorman position, but I was probably a solid contender for three of the four years I was at the Naval Academy to be the anchorman. It is certainly not something you aspire to. You certainly don't want to be in that position, because literally you're right on the edge teetering on getting kicked out for poor academic performance.
Actually my first class year, my senior year, the anchorman tradition was on full display, because a guy from the class ahead of us, a guy named Lonny Stare, who I played football with as well, he ended up transitioning over to be a baseball player, he was the anchorman, and Dave Letterman had heard about the tradition and he invited Lonnie on to The Late Show. And Lonnie goes in as an ensign, he's wearing his whites, and he's explaining the whole anchorman tradition to Dave Letterman in front of a national audience, and then he does something that all of us just at one point cringed, but at the same time, we're like, yeah, okay, he does a rate. For those who have heard about the Naval Academy, we have these things called rates, and they ask you to do these mundane, repetitive things that are intended to teach you attention to detail, as well as kind of hone in your ability to remember specific facts. And the one particular rate that Lonnie did on national television was how's the cow, which is a question that the upper class will ask plebes at the table just to test their memory. And it's a ridiculous little thing, but basically you're supposed to guess how much milk is left in the carton, and Lonnie did this on national television.
So that was another motivator, I think, for a lot of people to not be the anchorman, so that you didn't go on to David Letterman and embarrass yourself or potentially the school in front of a national audience, although I go back to it, I don't think Lonnie embarrassed any of us, just at the moment we were all putting ourselves in his shoes and going, holy shit, I hope I'm not that guy or gal. So that was probably one of my most vivid memories, is my attempts to stay above the line so that I was not indeed the anchorman.
I think when I was there, everybody donated somewhere between $1 to $10, so if you are indeed the anchorman or anchor midshipman, you're going to walk away with a couple thousand dollars in your pocket, thanks to your classmates, because particularly those who were down there close to the bottom with you, we gladly gave our money to someone else. Like, thank goodness it wasn't me kind of thing. So yeah, it is a money maker, but it's worse than going to Vegas. That's a gamble that even Vegas is probably not willing to take on.
So I got Marine Corps. I was fortunate enough to be able to commission as a second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. The day we walked across, May 26th, 1993 in the middle of a hot afternoon, I was commissioned second Lieutenant Bolden, rendered my first salute to my father, and then I stayed on at the academy for another eight or nine months as a graduate assistant with the football program, which was necessary for me. It taught me that my school was actually pretty awesome in hindsight. It sucks to be there. It really, really sucks to be there, but it's an amazing place to be from. And Annapolis is one of the most beautiful cities in the country, and I got an opportunity to enjoy that as a relatively normal person for several months.
And then I went to The Basic School on a ground contract. So I actually was not an aviator. My performance did not merit getting an aviation contract. Even with the assistance of my benefactor, whoever that was, I was just afforded the opportunity to be commissioned as a ground contract Marine. I went to The Basic School, had an amazingly fun time. And I know there's a lot of people who've gone through there and say, are you crazy? I mean, one of the nicknames for The Basic School... First off, we called it TBS. Everything in the military, it becomes an acronym, whether it makes sense or not. In this particular case, The Basic School is just TBS. OCS, Officer Cadet School. But the other term that a lot of people say for TBS is The Big Suck, because a lot of people, just, they don't have a very good time with it. I, and several of my contemporaries, we had a blast. We had an awesome time at The Basic School. Our company commanders were really good at teaching us the ropes and what it meant to be a provisional rifle company commander, and I excelled at The Basic School. It was a physical place. Having been an athlete, I had enjoyed the physicality of it. I excelled, and I got along with all my classmates, and so I got good peer reviews and whatnot. As a result of that, I then basically won an aviation contract out of The Basic School. And so that's how I became an aviator.
I was a bit surprised, because my eyesight isn't the best, but when I went and took my flight physical, lo and behold, I was qualified, and I had a really solid mentor as one of the SBCs, a fine, upstanding, incredible human being, officer named Ed McGee, class of '87. He had looked up to my father as he came up through the ranks, and then when he saw me come along, he decided to kind of take me under his wing and convince me that aviation was a place I needed to go for several reasons that I now know as to why he pushed that.
So Ed, black like myself, was an aviator, A-6 bombardier/navigator, eventually transitioned to the F-18, but what Ed saw was that there was a paucity of color in the Marine aviation ranks, and he wanted to make sure that he did his part to make sure that those who were qualified... That's a key thing, because I know a lot of people always push back on these things, but to make sure those who were qualified had an opportunity, or were afforded the opportunity to go into the aviation community and contribute to the Marine Corps and the nation as aviators.
And so through his mentorship, his coaxing, his pushing me along, I went and took the physical, took the AQT/FAR, passed both of them. The physical bit of surprised me, because I knew my eyes weren't the best, and then that was it, and all of a sudden I found out, hey Lieutenant Bolden, you're going to go to Pensacola to become an aviator. And so I packed up a U-Haul trailer, put it behind my... I think at the time, I had an Isuzu Rodeo, and I drove down the Pensacola, Florida to start flight school. At the time, there was a bit of a backlog, and so we sat in the pool waiting to start training for... I think I got there in mid July, I didn't start training until October, November, which really in hindsight wasn't that long, but it felt like an eternity then. But lo and behold, during that time period, I had to go to the Naval Aviation Medicine Institute... Is that what NAMI stands for? I can't remember. But when I went there, they indeed found out, hey, your eyes aren't that great. And at that time, you had to be 20/25 correctable to 20/20 in order to be a pilot. And I was a bit concerned, because I didn't really have any other options. I had kind of forgotten about all the other options that the Marine Corps had to offer, and I made this assumption, if I can't be an aviator, what am I going to do?
But fortunately a class ahead of me was a guy named Chandler Seagraves, another great guy. Chandler had the same situation I had, had gone down as a pilot, found out that his eyesight wasn't good, he had done all the leg work to make a transition from a student Naval aviator to a student Naval flight officer, and he had gotten all that stuff laid flat, and so all I had to do at that point was find someone who was down in the pipeline to be a student Naval flight officer who qualified to become a student Naval aviator. Because there were some places around ROTC and even the academies, I guess, where the pilot slots ran out, and so in order to fly, some people just took the student Naval aviator contract. I was fortunate enough to find a guy, [Ronan Lasso], he and I swapped positions. He became a student Naval aviator, I became a student Naval flight officer, and then that was all she wrote. Went through flight school, very much like ‘Academics is not my thing’, if that wasn't apparent when I was talking about the Naval Academy. I had a couple of bumps at flight school as well, but overall when I performed, I performed, and so my instructors knew that it wasn't for lack of ability to fly or have aviation sense, they just saw that there was a bit of a focus... And so they just whipped me into shape.
And it took getting a Marine on wing to kind of speak in the language that I can understand. And once that happened... [Matt Saltice], Bucket Saltice, I think he lives in Colorado now, he and another guy named Ralph McCreary, Slider McCreary, the two of them about halfway through my flight school time started to speak to me as a Marine. There's a slight nuance between the way Marines speak and act, and the way sailors speak and act, and that made all the difference for me.
And once that happened, the light bulb went off and I never really looked back from aviation. So that's how I got into the aviation community, through a lot of strong mentorship, which is unusual for someone as young as I was in the service. And unfortunately for a lot of student Naval aviators or student Naval flight officers of color, finding mentors is not necessarily something that's right there at the ready. I was just incredibly fortunate to have individuals like those two that I mentioned, and then our XO, Disco Jones, Major Disco Jones, who was an F-4 RIO, the three of them really had a solid impact on my focus and my ability to take to aviation. And without them, I probably wouldn't have made it through flight school, but I did, and that's how I became an aviator.
So going through flight school '94 to '96 post-Gulf War, post-Cold War, it was a time of unprecedented peace, peace had fallen across the land. And as a young Marine, your fangs are out, they're ready to taste blood, and you really wanted to go and do something. So as I'm in flight school, and as I get closer towards the end of flight school, the only choices for NFOs, for Naval flight officers in the Marine Corps was at the time... The A-6 had gone away, which was my dream platform. My dad had flown it. It's the ugliest aircraft ever created, but for me it was the most badass aircraft ever created. That's really all I wanted to fly. I kind of reignited the bug for aviation by watching Top Gun, like most teenagers in the '80s, but even watching Top Gun, I wanted to be an attack guy, that's what I wanted to do.
Unfortunately, Flight of the Intruder was just a crappy movie, so not a whole lot of people decided they want to go A-6's after that, but Top Gun did put that in my brain housing group. But when I was in the middle of flight school, there wasn't really a whole lot going on, and so the question was, do you want to go into a community that's being readily employed in the profession of arms... And in that case, at that time in the United States Marine Corps, it was the EA-6B Prowler. The Prowler was gainfully employed. As a joint asset, it often was not attached to the Marine Corps, because the Marine Corps wasn't being called upon to do certain things at that time, but those who flew the Prowler were in the thick of whatever was happening.
And so that was a bit of a dilemma. And I say a dilemma, because the other side of it was go be one of the "cool kids" or cool guys, be a fighter guy, get to strap on the speed jeans, pull a lot of Gs and do air to air combat training, and the F-18 was just a badass plane, the Blue Angels flew it. So the choice was Southern California flying pointy nose jets, really cool sun and fun, or go to Cherry Point, North Carolina, never be home, but be in the thick of things. And so up until the night before we had to select our platform, I actually was contemplating both, I didn't know what to do, but when all was said and done, ego got the better of me and I was like, you know what, I want to be a cool kid.
So that's how I chose F-18s. And it was a great choice for me, mainly because at that time in my life, I don't think I would've enjoyed being a Marine in North Carolina. There's a lot of things about Eastern North Carolina that for someone who looks like me, with a background like me, life's not that comfortable. And at that time in my life, it probably wouldn't have been very good. So instead, I was one of the last folks assigned to El Toro when the fleet replacement squadron, VMFAT-101 was still there. Had a amazing time both learning how to fly that weapons platform and living a really good life for someone who hadn't gone to a real college. It was pretty good.
So that's how I became an F-18 weapons and sensors officer, which is the label people use now, and it's a dying community, because there are limited number of two seat F-18s in the Marine Corps, and so the Marine Corps's not producing anymore, but originally it was actually called a weapons and sensors officer, but too many people just defaulted to weapons systems officer, and now that's what it's called. So that's how it became a WSO, weapons and sensors officer.
So at that time in 1997 when I joined the fleet Marine force or the operating forces, depending on your vintage of Marine Corps time, we had four F-18D squadrons, and the F-18D... So the F-18 is a marvelous plane. Obviously it's something I flew a lot, I have an affinity for it, even as old and decrepit as it is now, but the F-18 actually, when it was designed... And I couldn't point to you where this actually is in writing, but it takes 1.4 people to effectively fly the F-18 to its maximum capability, and they didn't realize that or discover that until after the plane and the platform had kind of come into being, and so then they created the F-18B as a trainer, but then it became missionized, and then the F-18D was a specific night fighter attack platform intended to fill the void of A-4 going away, the A-6 going away, and the A-7, even though the Marine Corps didn't have them, that going away.
The A/V-8-B, which was our attack platform, was limited in its capabilities, and so the Marine Corps postured the F-18D as its night attack option to give us "all weather capabilities" by having two people in the cockpit. The challenge with it was, with the sundowning of the Intruder, crew coordination or crew resource management, having two people in a cockpit and working together kind of took a little bit of a lull. And so the early days of the F-18D, one plus one didn't always equal two. And this is where my athletics and the struggles I had earlier at the Naval Academy when I came through... Because being a team player was really important to the success of the F-18D. If you had a pilot and a WSO that didn't get along, one plus one actually ended up being less than one in that regard. So crew resource management or crew coordination was vital. To your point though, we were never on the carrier, we were always land-based.
There was a myth that was perpetuated a long time ago that once they added the ejection seat into the F-18D, it took away 800 pounds of gas, which at somebody's calculation put the F-18D below the "fuel ladder" in order to be a viable player in carrier aviation. The carrier's all about getting back to the boat, and so you're always looking at your fuel. And if the aircraft was not capable of holding enough fuel for you to go out, do the mission and come back and get into the holding pattern prior to landing on the boat, then it was not viable. I think that was probably mathematically true for a very short duration during the life of the F-18D, but then they went back and they revamped the fuel cells, and it ended up being better than that.
But the die had been cast, and so everybody said, all right, the F-18D is never going to go to the boat because it didn't have enough fuel. So we were always land-based, and what that did... So my first deployment was in the winter of 1997, and it was a unit deployment program to the Western Pacific. Back then, it was referred to as Pacific Command or PACOM, now it's called INDOPACOM. And what we did is, in order to fulfill the existing war plans that were in the Pacific, the Marine Corps signed up to always have two F-18 squadrons in the Pacific. And one of those was four deployed. At the time, it was Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 212, the Lancers, historic squadron, they were four deployed in Iwakuni, Japan all the time, and they PCS or they permit change of station Marines and their families out there to support that squadron. But we always had a rotation of a CONUS, United States-based F-18D squadron would go over there to augment them. Because the war plan always had a plan for one single seat squadron and one two seat squadron there in order to counter some of the adversaries that we had in the Pacific, mainly Korea, and then some of the others becoming more well-known adversaries. And so we would go rotation. A six month rotation would alternate between east coast and west coast. For a little while, the east coast was taken out of the rotation because of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but ultimately there was a flopping of east coast, west coast going out to Iwakuni, Japan. And so that was my first deployment.
And I remember my dad had never talked about his time when he was flying the Intruder and the deployments he did. He just never spoke of it, because his deployment was to Vietnam in 1972 after I was born. So he just didn't talk about it. So I didn't really know what to expect. And so I was newly engaged, my fiance, now wife and I, we were pretty concerned that I'm going off to this far off land to defend the nation. At least that's what I was told and what I believed, and so we made all kinds of preparations, hey, what happens if you don't come back, and be careful, all these concerns about this deployment, but this is the mid to late '90s, nothing really going on. I mean, whichever Kim was in charge of Korea back then, he'd occasionally pop off, but nothing was really going to happen about it.
But I remember taking off at Miramar to go on this Western Pacific deployment, and we didn't... Back then, everybody still had Discman, and as the back seater, I had very little things to do as far as the actual flight of the aircraft. As a navigator, we had our course set in. Well, I was the appointed DJ for the beginning of the transpacific flight, the Transpac flight, and as we took off from Miramar, I can remember I hit play on the CD, and I played Rocket Man by Elton John. It seemed somewhat poetic as we were going off to do this amazing thing to defend the nation. That was probably the last time on my first deployment that I actually felt any sense of dread or uncertainty, because once we got there, we got into a routine. And the UDPs in the mid to late '90s were, they were the boondoggle that people talk about.
We were land-based in Iwakuni, Japan. We had liberty. We had a bar, we had three different restaurants, we had a gym. We were living fat and happy. We had intramural football. We ended up winning the intramural football championship that year, and then intramural basketball we didn't do so well. But I think I spent half my time in the gym, a quarter of my time flying, and a quarter of my time in the bar. So that was my first Western Pacific experience, my first deployment. After that, I had a better understanding of what those deployments were going to be. It wasn't until the early 2000s that I had to revamp, or rechange, or reorient, my understanding of what a deployment really was. But that first Westpac was quite impactful. It was a lot of fun. I learned a lot.
Actually on Westpac was the first time I had a "near death experience." We were about 250, 260 miles off the coast of Japan in the middle of the winter. So the water temperature was probably 50 degrees, and the outside air temperature was probably 18 degrees, that's a recipe for poopy suits and all kinds of things that are meant to help you survive. While we were out on a routine training mission, all of a sudden our fuel gauge just starts rapidly decreasing. It's called the [inaudible] fuel gauge, and for the life of me, I can't remember what [inaudible] stands for, but the fuel both sides are just going down, going down, and my pilot and I, Glen Miles, Digger Miles, amazing lacrosse player from the class of '87 from the Naval Academy as well, a jerky pilot, but a good pilot, he and I were looking at the fuel and we're just like, oh my God, what's happening, and we're so far off the coast, if our fuel is actually leaving the aircraft, there's no way for us to make it back. And so we're doing all this preparation to eject over the sea of Japan, and there was really no shot of survival.
So that was a bit disheartening for about 30 seconds, until the rest of our flight looked and said, there's nothing coming out of your aircraft. Ends up it was just a fuel gauge malfunction, but it was enough to kind of clue me in to realize that the work we were doing, it was inherently dangerous. The inherently dangerous nature of being an aviator came right and smacked me in the face at that moment when I wasn't sure if we were going to survive, but lo and behold, there was nothing wrong, we got back just fine. Rest of the deployment, fairly uneventful in that regard. I did get to see a bit of the Western Pacific, which was cool. It was fun. It was a good learning experience. And I came back, got married and started a family after that.
So I mean, my time of service was 1993 to 2019. So for those who are familiar with the exploits and escapades of US foreign policy, post-9/11, we had a lot of things going on. I did not make the initial push into Afghanistan.
On September 11th, 2001, I was actually in old school Marine Corps camouflage utilities, sleeves rolled down, sitting at the end of a bench with 180 other service men and women with a T-20 parachute on my back and a reserve parachute on my front, because I was at jump school. I was the operations officer at 1st Force Reconnaissance Company, and as an aviator, it was an unusual position or bill for me to hold, but my boss said that if you're going to hold this position, you got to know about what we do, so he sent me to jump school.
Well, we had gone through two and a half weeks of jump school, and then we were about to do our very first jump, which was an exciting time in and of itself, when all of a sudden things just kind of get chaotic. The C-17s are outside turning up, and everybody's a little bit nervous, because jumping out of airplanes is not a natural thing to do. And I happen to be the senior ranking officer, and so I had a relationship with the Black Hats, the instructors that were there, and finally one of them comes over to me to say, "Hey sir, you need to tell everybody to go back to the barracks. The jump's canceled. Something's happened. The United States has been attacked." And so we all went back to the barracks, or I went back to the officer's quarters and flipped on the TV and watched everything unfold just like everybody else.
Probably sat there for three or four hours with tears in my eyes, just kind of wondering what's going to happen next. Called back to my command, asked them what they wanted me to do, and they just said, hold tight, we're not sure. And eventually coordination from Fort Benning back to the host commands was, hey, we're going to get all of these folks through, we recognize that they're going to be necessary to have these qualifications, because we don't know what's going to happen. Because we had a bunch of Rangers or would be Rangers airborne. It's an army school, so it was predominantly all army. There was probably 14 Marines in the class, all of them from reconnaissance units. So getting the jump qualification was something that we thought was going to be necessary. So we finished that out, and then we shipped everybody back to their units.
When I got back, my primary responsibility at that point was to get force reconnaissance units ready to go, and we indeed sent some of our people to augment units that were already forward deployed. And so Operation Anaconda, which was a marine expeditionary unit, performed the longest amphibious raid in the history of amphibious raids. We sent some folks over to augment that, but I stayed back in the rear, so to speak, to continue to train force reconnaissance units to go. And so for the entire duration of the end of 2001, all the way to 2002, I was providing training and operational guidance for one of the frontline units, which was the force reconnaissance Marines, who for those who are familiar, they were the descendants of the Marine Raiders and the precursor of the Marine Raiders, if you will.
So Marine Special Operations Command now are called Marine Raiders, and a lot of that came from the force reconnaissance community, the Radio Reconnaissance Battalions, EOD and signals intelligence is what comprised them of that time, but we had a lot of those things there. So I'm watching my version of what I joined the Marine Corps for from a desk at Camp Pendleton thinking that, okay, I'm not there, but I got to do the best I can. Well, it didn't take long before my tour of duty was going to be up with them, and so I ended up just going right back down to Miramar and rejoining my old squadron VMF(AW)-225, the Vikings, and we started to prepare, because there had been a lot of discussions about we were going to pivot from Afghanistan to Iraq. All the things that happened there, we don't need to really go into that.
But then in January, we packed up and we deployed. We went to al-Jaber Air Base in Kuwait in preparation for the inevitable operation, Iraqi Freedom. We participated in Operation Southern Watch for, I guess it was about two months before things kicked off. And I can remember... So I was an instructor in the squadron, I was a forward air controller airborne, tactical air coordinator airborne instructor, and so we were responsible for trying to make the squadron as operationally ready as we could. And just like every military unit, it hadn't changed its assignment policies yet, we hadn't adjusted anything the way we did as far as manpower's concerned, and so we had a third of the squadron were relatively new. And as an instructor, part of my responsibility is making sure that the new guys weren't going to be doing new guys stuff, and so we paired them up with older guys like myself and others.
But for some reason I got paired up with our CO, which was fine, fantastic, another mentor of mine, a guy named Mike Kennedy, McGilla was his call sign, and he and I were flying what we thought was a routine OSW mission, and all of a sudden they tell us go, and I just remember the aircraft nosing over and my CO was on the radio and he asked somebody something, and all I remember hearing, because it was a bit of a blur, was roger that, and then the next thing I knew it was like, *doonk doonk*. And for those who've been in a military aircraft and those who haven't, when you release ordinance off the aircraft, it changes the aerodynamics of the plane and it kind of rumbles and shakes. And when you drop... At the time, we had dumb bombs. When the dumb bombs dropped off the wing, it kind of rocks the aircraft, and I was like, holy shit, we just dropped some bombs. And that was it, that was the very first day of the Iraq War. Me and the CO were flying, and that was how it started.
And from that point on, for about 20 days straight, we were doing what we were supposed to do. For the most part, it was a numbing experience, but there was two things that came out of that time in Iraq that I remember and I will never forget, quite frankly, the first one was my CO and I were out flying one of the days, and we had just come off the tanker, we had done an aerial refueling mission, and we came off the tanker, had a full tank of gas, the day is as clear as you can imagine, and he says, "Hey, we're bingo."
And bingo, for those who aren't aware, means that you're at the fuel state that you have enough fuel to get home. And I looked at the fuel gauge, and we were full. We had just come off the tanker, so I was like, what is going on here? And then I remembered my CO had been medically down for a couple of years because he suffered from manure's disease, which is a destabilizing effect in the inner ear, the ability for you to keep your balance, and he had gotten cleared for it and he was fine, but at that point, even on a clear day, it came back right then and there.
And I remember flying back with him, and it was about an hour flight to get back to al-Jaber from where we were, and I remember thinking to myself that he's the commanding officer of a squadron in combat, this is what we'd all trained for, lived for, and he had been in the Gulf War, but nonetheless, he was the commanding officer, and so he wanted to lead his Marines. And I remember telling him, I said, "Hey sir, it came back, didn't it?" And he's like, "Yep." And I said, "Can you see? Can you see straight?" He goes, "Nope." I said, "All right. I got you." And I'm talking to him, and he's looking at the instruments, and about 20 minutes before we land, I said, "Sir, when we get back, don't say anything to anybody..." I'm thinking I'm doing the right thing. "Don't say anything to anybody. I got you. I'll fly with you. We'll be fine." And he sat there for a minute, and before we landed, he said, "Nope, Curly..." That's my call sign. He's like, "I'm done." And I remember thinking to myself, “Holy shit, what is he…” feeling what is he doing. But what it taught me was courage has all kinds of forms, and the courage that that commanding officer demonstrated that day has stuck with me ever since. He realized that he was perfectly capable of leading his Marines in combat, without leading them in combat, and he made the decision that day to take himself off the flight schedule for the rest of our war, if you will. And I remember just being just incredibly impacted by that or influenced by that as, that's the kind of leader I want to be. He put himself to the side and he said, what's best for the Marines that I've been charged with leading and taking care of, and he made that decision. He didn't have to, because you can judge me how you want, but I was willing to go to the [inaudible] and deny that he was suffering from this disease, but he wouldn't have it. He wouldn't let me do it, and he wouldn't do it. So I have The utmost respect for him for that.
The second part of my experience that will always... This one will sort of haunt me, was all of the different times I was on the dawn patrol... After the CO went down, I got paired up with a guy who's still a lifelong friend of mine named Matt Shortell. And Matt had never been in a two seat squadron until about four months before he went to Iraq, and so it was a bit of an adjustment for him to be stick monkey, as I love to tell him. And if he hears this, he'll get a chuckle out of that. But he and I, we would get on the dawn patrol, and we would go out, we'd take off at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, and it was nerve-wracking every day, because at that point, things were kind of quiet, and you were always waiting to hear someone come across the radio.
And when the radio crackled, you knew things were okay, because that means that the Marines that you were there to support were still there, they're still in the fight in what they were doing. And for those who are not familiar, the Marine Corps is somewhat unique in that the guy on the other end of the radio was probably sitting in the cockpit with you the year prior. We do this program called the forward air controller, and so we'd always assign an aviator to a ground unit, and they would go down, they would be the ones who would coordinate on behalf of the ground commander aviation support. And we had several of my old squadron mates attached to the units that were making their way to Baghdad.
And so every morning, we were always on pins and needles as to whether they would answer the radio, but every morning they did, but one day... And it was in the middle of the day almost where we were just outside of Baghdad, and one of the units had gotten into what we call a danger close situation, which means that the enemy is within a very close distance where in a lot of cases, you can actually see the whites of their eyes, going back to that old proverb or that old, whatever you call it, analogy. And we were the forward air controller airborne, which is an extension of the forward air controller on the ground. The FAC on the ground, I think it was a tank battalion, they actually had to go inside the tank and close the hatch, so he no longer had the ability to see and direct air traffic.
So we took responsibility for that, and it being danger close, when you're up at 18,000 feet, it's really hard to make sure that your weapons don't infringe upon friendly forces and they're only going to the opposition, to the enemy. And so that was a stressful situation, and we ended up having to take our aircraft down below the floor that we were told we couldn't go below, which I think was 10,000 feet, and we're down flying it 1500 feet down to 700 feet in order to provide this air support, and my pilot, Matt Shortell, we got into a position where the only thing we had that was a viable weapon, where we wouldn't frag fellow Marines, was a 20 millimeter cannon in the nose of the F-18. And I don't think Matt had pulled the trigger on the cannon since he had been in the FRS, so five, six years before this, and this is the first time he's going to fire it, and we're firing it in anger, and we were both understandably nervous. And he was so focused on making sure that he got those rounds where they needed to be, both of us didn't notice that there's all these puffs of gray smoke and whatnot going off around us. And so we were basically in the heart of the AAA zone. And so once we had finished that run, all I could do was tell him to pull up, evade chaff flares, whatever, and in the nervousness he goes to full afterburner, which is not the thing we're supposed to do, and I'm encouraging him to go to full afterburner so we can climb and get out of that.
But that wasn't the harrowing part of it actually, we had been training for that. The part that sucked was, one of the tank commanders didn't make it through, and we felt a certain sense of responsibility for that, because that's what we were there to prevent, and we weren't able to. And to this day... We used to, every flight, we would take flags, we'd fly flags with us, because... Those are the types of things that when you go into a Starbucks or into MISSION BBQ, you see these flags that people flew in defense of the nation and whatnot. And I had a couple flags with me. And I remember that day... And I still have the flag in my closet because it belongs to someone else, and one of these days I'll get up the courage to deliver it, but I haven't found that courage yet. So I've carried that flag with me through several PCS moves. I ended up flying it again with me at a later deployment, but someday I hope I can find the courage to deliver it.
I mean, I have the last known address, I have his parents' names, I picked up the phone probably 10 times to try and call them, but as a Marine... And I would like to think any leader in any service, you take a certain sense of responsibility for those that you're charged to protect, and so that's the reason why I still get choked up, is because that was one of the few times I feel like I didn't do the job I was supposed to do. And I'm getting closer to that day, because the thing I feel probably ashamed about is that it's not about me at all, and so I keep projecting my own feeling of embarrassment and disappointment on this, when in reality I need to be a grown up and go and do that. So maybe as a result of our conversation here, I'll finally do it. But nonetheless, that's one of the things I carry with me still to this day.
I mean, one of my favorite books is a book by Simon Sinek called, Start with Why, and what I pulled from it, which I hope was his point, was you got to have a purpose for everything you do. And he writes his books in a business context, he's trying to teach business people how to go about being better at business, and how to bring people... He's actually studied the military quite a bit and the methodologies that we've had in order to build solid teams, but the premise of the book is a lot of people focus on the what's and the how's, and very few people actually remember what the why of it was. The ‘why’ for me when I joined the military was, my first bit of why was I wanted to emulate these people that I had so revered and looked up to in my childhood and in my young adult life.
When I went to go on my force reconnaissance tour, I was actually done. I was like, you know what? The aviation community is really cutthroat, and we sometimes get really full of ourselves. It was the two years I spent with the Marines at Force Reconnaissance Company that kind of reinvigorated my desire to be a active duty Marine in uniform and doing what Marines do, because it became about the people at that point. I met some of the most amazing men, because we hadn't opened everything up to women at that point. But throughout my time as a United States Marine, I met some of the most amazing human beings that I had the privilege to call Marines, friends, brothers, sisters. And so finding out what that reason for why you want to serve.
And it's not always about the super patriotic, hey, I'm going to go and defend freedom. We do a really good job of selling that via Hollywood and other things, but a lot of times some people join because that's their best option, some people join because they don't know what they're doing with their life and they want to find some kind of a reason or purpose. Whatever the reason is, it doesn't matter. As long as you understand why it is you're there, and you fully commit to it.
I was able to achieve the rank of Colonel through performance, but also somewhat in spite of a couple of things. I mean, this maybe bears a whole different conversation at a certain time, but when you look like me or you look like my father in the United States Marine Corps in particular, there's no real clear path to get to where we got. I mean, in the history of the United States Marine Corps Aviation, which is a little over 110 years old, there've only been three black general officers of the aviation community to make it to that rank, Frank Peterson in 1979, Charles Bolden in 1996 and Brian Cavanaugh in 2016. Three.
Last year at this time in the United States Marine Corps tactical aviation community, i.e fast jets, out of 581 pilots, there were only three that were black. So for me to have reached the rank of Colonel, it's not lost on me that that was a bit of an accomplishment. Like I had alluded to, I had really good mentors early on, and they helped reinforce that why. I was there to take care of other people. The sole responsibility of an officer, and even I dare say a staff non-commissioned officer, is to take care of those Marines, sailors, airmen, coast guardsmen, guardians that are out there. That's why officers exist. Anybody who wants to delude themselves and think that they're there as an officer because they're smarter or they're better at something, I'll just flat out say that's bullshit. You are there for one reason, and one reason only, and that's to make sure that young women and men of this nation that have raised their right hand get the best leadership that they can have, and that became my why by the end of it. And I think... I won't put words in my father's mouth, but I've heard him say things very similar. It became always about those young women and men that we had the privilege of calling Marines. And I'd imagine the same thing applies for you in the Navy and anybody else who's listening from the other services. So that's the big lesson I pull away from it, always remember why you're doing what you're doing. And if you forget that, it's either time to go and do something else, or you need to do some soul searching and kind of get back to it. Because without understanding that, you're kind of rudderless.
That was Col. Ché Bolden.
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Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.
Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
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