First Person War Stories

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Dave Lewis: The Journey of an Apache Helicopter Pilot

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Dave Lewis: The Journey of an Apache Helicopter Pilot

Dave Lewis is a US Army veteran. After six years in the infantry, he went to flight school to become an Apache Helicopter pilot, and flew tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ken Harbaugh:

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 hear from Army veteran Dave Lewis. After six years in the infantry, Lewis went to flight school to become an Apache Helicopter pilot, and flew tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Dave Lewis:

All right. Well, I'm Dave Lewis. I retired out of the Army in 2019 as a CW4 and I started my military career in '97. I started off as an engineer in the reserves for about a year and change, and then moved on to first, the 75th ranger regiment in Savannah, Georgia, and then in 2004 started flying helicopters to 2019.

Some of the stuff that stands out the most is for those that were in Iraq on the initial push around March timeframe, when that huge sandstorm came through. At first I was like, “Hey”. The earth turned orange and I'm like, “Well, this is cool.” And 15 minutes later, it wasn't. So you're cold, tired, hungry. We ran out of food. And so what little food we did have left because we couldn't get resupplied because the sandstorm was coming in. I remember poking my MRE open trying sucking the apple sauce off or out of it and you couldn't even do that because the sand just dumped on you. It didn't matter. I finally gave up eating and drinking anything. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face. The sandstorm was that bad.

I remember we got done on objective, and I was driving to another objective that another company was working on. I'll never forget the smell of one, just that body smell because there were bodies laying around. But then it was also coupled with just oil seeping up out of the ground. And so that's one of the most vivid memories. So now whenever I smell oil or something, of that is something that I always think about.

There was a time from the ground perspective, especially in Iraq, when the initial push was going through and it was my turn to pull RTO duties. So I had the radio and I was listening to the air battle net and you're listening to everything that's going on because as a ground guy and at that level in the organization, when you're an E4, you just know where you're going, what you're going to shoot at. You don't really see the bigger picture a lot of times. And so listening to that and seeing just the sheer amount of power and everything that was going on outside of your little scope, it was pretty cool to see everything that was going on.

Yea, it was surprising looking at the coordination and stuff that was taking place, because you don't really see that just as a basic rifleman. You're not really concerned about that. You're just concerned about your little piece of the pie. And then as the RTO opens up a little bit, because now you're starting to work with the different entities and whatnot. And during the training you're drilled in nine line cast calls and stuff like that. But when it came down to it, the language barrier between how the Navy and the Air Force operate or the Marine Corps and the Army, from the ground to the air, that nine line is very scripted and formal.

I remember the first time that I called in an airstrike. We didn't have a JTAC with us, so I did it. And finally I was just like, I'm here, the bad guys are there and pretty much just do your thing. It went out the window because I was just too excited, frankly. So it just came down to plain English and they made it work.

At that time, we really relied heavily on A-10s and we also relied heavily on the AC-130s, so there were times we would be out on a convoy and those guys being the eye in the sky for us, we knew that they were coming. The Taliban or the Al-Qaeda forces were coming, but I never saw them because the specter gunships up ahead, the C-130s overhead saw them and started engaging before I could even see them under goggles. They were just walking the rounds in and the sheer amount of power that you feel when the rounds actually impact the ground can be felt for quite a distance, especially, now I was a pilot when this happened, a Hellfire impacted outside the FOB in Afghanistan. And it was probably about 10 kilometers away, but you could feel that level of impact, just all that kinetic energy, you could just feel it through the ground. So it is a pretty awesome piece of firepower that we have.

We got back from the initial push into Iraq. So this would've been probably about the summer of '03, and I remember we got back on a Wednesday and I believe we were back at the rangers on that Monday. And it was one of those Georgia, Florida days that it's like the sun's out, but it's pouring down rain and I'm running down this Georgia clay dirt road at Fort Stewart. We were doing some stress shoot stuff. And it was just miserable because you're soaking wet. The Georgia clay is stuck to your boots and I look up, stopped raining and an Apache flew overhead. And I was like, you know what? I'm tired of walking and I'm going to start flying. So a couple days later when I got back to the barracks, I started working on my flight packet and went from there.

It was quite the culture shock. I remember we got back and there were three of us that put in our flight packets. We all got boarded together and I think we pretty much all went, one was in the class ahead of me, but we were all basically together going through and we had been together pretty much throughout our careers at this point, but it was different. It was a culture shock when you go from the sheer amount of the rigorous training and discipline and just that mentality that you have on the special operations side. And then when you switch gears and now not only are you going from the enlisted ranks into the officer side of the house, it's just now you're also going to the big Army, which is culture shock is how I can put that. It was definitely different. So I had to tone things back just a little bit.

The way that the pipeline works is once you submit your packet and once you're selected, you'll eventually get orders to go. And then you'll go to Fort Rucker, Alabama, and you'll go through the warrant officer candidate school there. And that's for whether you're a pilot or a walking warrant is what we call them. So those warrants that aren't pilots, they will go through that program. And I don't know how long it is now, things change. But so you go from that program and at the end of that program, you become an appointed officer. So you're not a commissioned officer at that point. You're just an appointed officer appointed by the secretary of the Army. And you're a W1.

So basically what happens is from that point, you still stay at Fort Rucker, but now you enter the pipeline for flight school. So you start off flying at the time, they were still flying Hueys and T-867s. Now they've switched everything out now. So I did all my training in a T-867 helicopter. So you start off in, basically we call it primary. And that is just to teach you how to fly. That's it. It's just wiggling the sticks, doing different maneuvers, teaching you how to fly. The basics of flight. And so half the day you're flying. The other half of the day, you're in academics.

Then once you do all your check rising, you get done with that portion. Then you go into the instrument phase of training. And so, that one's a little harder for people to do, flying solely by reference to the flight instruments rather than being able to look outside the window. So flying in the clouds basically. And that was very similar to the primary where half your day is academics and then the other half is either in a flight simulator or in the actual aircraft, depending on where you're at in the training.

So once you get that done, then in my case, we went through what was called B-Nav or basic navigation. And that's when you're really just going out flying in Southern Alabama with a map, trying to go from point A to point B just by looking at a 1/50s map. 1/50,000 map. So you're not necessarily looking at the aeronautical charts, but you're looking at the same maps that the ground guys are using.

One thing I found was, most infantry guys are pretty good at land nav. That's their bread and butter. They got to go from point A to point B to get to their objective. But once you threw that infantry guy in the cockpit, one thing I noticed was the infantry guys struggled a little bit because we're used to walking so fast and seeing the terrain features from below versus the people that learned how to read the map in an aircraft and fly had a little bit easier time. So that one was just a little bit challenging, at least for me, it was.

Then after that, they bring everybody back together. And I remember you graduate from that and they bring you into a big room and I didn't even realize that we had a whole other half of the class. So while I'm in academics, they're flying and then vice versa and we would switch it up. So you'd never see the other half of your class. And so they bring us all together. And I think at the time I had 72 people in the class and they brought us all into this room. I remember on the board, they had six Apaches listed. One OH-58 Delta, and then just Black Hawks. There was no option for Chinooks or [inaudible] aircraft at the time.

So they literally just opened up the OML and they started from the top. And so the OML was based off of all of your test scores and your check rides and everything. And so they just started at the top and started reading off the names. So number one pick and I remember the top six people all chose Apaches. I was number three. So I got the Apache, which is what I wanted. The seventh person, a really good guy, Harris was his name, former Golden Knight. He wanted the 58. So he got what he wanted and they turned around to the rest of the class and they said, "Okay, everybody else, you're flying Black Hawks." And that didn't sit well with a lot of people. Not to take away from any Black Hawk guys out there, but not getting the aircraft that you wanted, that's just the way it goes.

You know, all the pilots are good in their own right. But every now and then, somebody would get there for an Apache slot, but they didn't want it. And that happens every now and then. And so what you would see is they would intentionally fail out of that course because at the time what they were doing is if you fail out of this airframe, it's too hard for you. So we're going to move you to another airframe. It tended to move them towards the UA-60s, but to curb that they stopped doing that.

But for the most part the guys that went in and worked hard during flight school and that were towards the top of the class, got to pick their stuff. So they were generally happy. It was the guys that were pretty disgruntled were really the guys that went out and partied all the time and had too much fun in flight school. And then they end up getting an airframe that they didn't want.

But honestly I changed my mind probably 20 times when I was in flight school. And then once you figure out that you can't really look at the helicopter, you've got to look at the mission that it does, that really helps narrow down the airframe that you want to fly. So for me as a former ground guy, I really wanted to support the guys from the air from the aspect of being able to shoot. And so that really narrowed it down, honestly, between the Apache and the 58. But then when I sat down and I looked at the different missions of what the 58 had versus the Apache, that's when I chose the Apache. So, that's really how I did it.

So once you selected that aircraft, we just roll right into… started the training straight away for the Apache. It started off with academics, just basic systems of the aircraft and it just evolved from there. And then you start going to the simulator, you start learning the cockpit and the functionalities of everything. And then eventually you go out to the flight line and you start flying.

So that's a pretty memorable experience, your first flight in whatever helicopter you're going to fly in. With mine, I still remember it. So in the back of my mind, I was thinking, I can't believe I'm getting paid to do this. The guy that flew me, he's still a good friend of mine today. And I stayed in touch with him throughout my career, and was a mentor throughout my whole career.

So yes, you basically get to the Apache program and really, you just start off, we call it contact phase and you're just flying the Apache, just learning how to fly it. And wiggling the sticks and getting comfortable with it because there's a lot going on. You go from flying a helicopter that has probably 300 or 400 horsepower engine on it to an Apache, which nowadays with the Echo model, Apache is about 8,000 at max power. So huge difference in the aircraft. So it's definitely an advanced airframe.

You learn how to fly that aircraft and then you just transition from days and then you go to nights. Excuse me, you go to what we call a day system or the bag. With the Apache, this is where it doesn't matter if you're a new pilot coming into the Army, or recently in the past years, the Army disinvested in the 58 and they brought a bunch of 58 pilots to fly the Apache. So some of those guys were coming over at 6,000 hours and the bag is very challenging and it basically puts everybody on an even keel. So the bag is basically you have the monocle that falls onto your right eye. And that allows me to see via thermal image, everything that's around me.

But the issue is you're sitting in a cockpit that has curtains pulled down, doesn't even have a pinhole of light and it's completely black and you can't see anything. So if you were to just look out into your cockpit, you're not going to see anything but black. We tape up every little pinhole of light. So you're relying solely on the monocle that's over your eye with a FLIR picture or what we call a composite video. So you have a FLIR image and then you have all your flight data overlay on top of that. And so you're trying to fly the helicopter with that and it's pretty difficult because there's some people that are left eye dominant, let's just say. And your monocle's on your right eye. They struggle quite a bit with that.

So basically you work through it and you learn how to fly it. It's funny watching people try to fly that way. We go out to X stage field at Fort Rucker and you see people coming in and flying the aircraft sideways thinking that they're flying straight. So it really takes a couple hundred hours, honestly, to get good at flying with that monocle and the FLIR.

So you make it through that phase and then you go into nights. And so that what that bag phase did is it prepped you to go out and fly at night. And so now you have the visual acuity of your left eye, as well as the FLIR image that's in your right eye. That's fairly challenging to do because now you're looking unaided with one eye and you're looking aided with your other eye. So you make it through that.

Then you finally get to the gunnery phase, which is where you actually learn the basics of employment of the aircraft. And so when I say basics, I mean, you're not doing a lot of maneuvers. It's more learning how to shoot the aircraft, employ the weapon systems. And then at that point you're done finally. And so generally, it's about a two year process roughly, probably a little bit longer now I think. But it's definitely a journey.

So obviously we break loose and we would go down to Panama City and all that stuff and see how much we could get away with. A lot of drunken nights and drunken parties. But we would always screw with the instructors when we could. I remember there was one instructor that was retiring and it was around Christmas time and nobody wanted to fly. I think this was the last flight before we went off on Christmas Exodus. So before we went to go take off, we handed out the little bottles of Jack Daniels, this instructor did, because he was leaving. It was his last day. And so of course we all took the shot and the other instructors flipped out because now you can't fly, obviously, because you've been drinking. You can't fly. So we took the day off.

There were other times, just little things we'd go out, like how I described people flying sideways with flying in the bag. We made up just a bunch, took a tag and wrote numbers one through ten on various ones. So we'd sit there and grade everybody's landing and just little things like that. We'd always pick at each other. But for the most part, when you get into the Apache program, you have no life really. You break loose on the weekends and stuff and you have fun where you can, but there's just so much studying because it's just such an advanced aircraft to understand it all. It takes a lifetime. So I was studying most of flight school. I broke loose when I can.

My career path was a little bit different because out of fight school, I left and my first assignment was actually in Korea. So the way that you fight in Korea versus the way that you fight in Iraq or Afghanistan are completely different. Completely different tactics, mindset, everything. Now I look back and I think that was definitely a positive going to Korea first because you learn that side of the fight, which was really what the Apache was originally designed for, was that type of mission, going Army to Army and you're hovering and you're firing that way and you're moving around. It wasn't as kinetic as what it is in Afghanistan, in Iraq.

But so I got done with Korea and I ended up in Savannah and I knew that I was going to deploy, but for me, going from that mindset, more of a traditional battlefield type of mindset to more of a kinetic battlefield, like what Iraq and Afghanistan was, I felt I was behind the power curve at first. When I first got to Savannah I tried to catch up, because now I'm working with people that have already deployed a couple times. So their knowledge base was hat side of the house than what I had.

So I had a lot of catch-up to do. Especially in Afghanistan, because now flying an Apache in Afghanistan, just from the capabilities of the aircraft as far as power goes and your limitations was definitely a concern. Because once you weigh that aircraft down and it's in the middle of summer in Afghanistan, you don't have a lot of power.

So in preparation to go to that, we did a lot of training as far as working with the JTACs, working with other services. It was nice being in Savannah because you had Beaufort just to the north. You had the Marine Corps Air Station there. So we got to work with those guys. I'm back in Savannah and I still know most of my ranger buddies that are still across the street. So we would still work with those guys quite a bit. And a lot of those guys I still knew, which worked out really good. And I ended up supporting all those guys again down range, which was fairly nice to go from the ground side to the air side.

But it's a little different because on the special operations side, you generally only deploy for about three months at a time versus I believe on that deployment, that was I think a 15 month deployment on that one. So I rotated through every ranger battalion that came through. So it really went full circle. So it was nice. So I knew a lot of the guys. Those guys that I was in E4 and E5 with are now squad leaders, platoon sergeants, first sergeants, up to sergeant majors. The guys that I grew up with that were still there, that are still JTACs and everything, it was really cool working with them again up in the air versus on the ground.

And so, I think one thing that was an advantage was understanding how those units operate and their terminology really helped out a lot. And so a lot of the missions that I did on that deployment were in direct support of the special operations side of the house, which was pretty cool because it was almost like giving back to the unit that I served with again. So it was pretty cool.

But we also did a lot of high altitude work out west. And then we would send the individual pilots to what we call HAATS training, high altitude aviation training strategy is what it stood for, out in Eagle, Colorado. And so flying OH-58 Alpha Chuck aircraft. So for somebody like me taking off, we had no OG power, but yet I could hover above basically a cliff face at 25% torque utilizing the winds. And so basically it's a really good mountain flying course. So the amount of training that went in before we left was actually really good. And so it prepped us pretty good for that deployment in 2009, 2010 into Afghanistan.

So basically what happens is they take the battalion, or really they take the whole combat aviation brigade and they break them up into task forces. So each battalion, you could have an Apache battalion commander, but each battalion commander would have Black Hawks, Chinooks, Apache, so their own task force. And then they would split that task force up and on that deployment, I was in RC East out of Fob Shank and FOB Shank sits at, I want to say it's about 7,200 feet. So you're already sitting pretty high. We had another unit in Bagram, another unit down in Salerno, and then another unit over in Jalalabad. Most of my time is all pretty much Eastern Afghanistan and that's where a lot of the fighting took place, over in Eastern Afghanistan up in the mountains.

I spent most of my time at nights, and every now and then I would be able to take a day shift, which was really cool because it's like, ‘Wow, I can actually see everything now when I go out and fly.’ And I'll never forget, I liked being on QRF, which was a quick reaction force. Basically we would be sitting in a trailer and the phone would ring, we call it the bat phone. And I would automatically send everybody out to the aircraft. They'd grab the crew chiefs. I'm getting the free the call sign and the grid for the location of wherever the troops in contact are at.

I remember taking off and it wasn't very far north of FOB Shank. And you get to see a lot of IEDs and the aftermath and stuff. I remember I got this call. I was in the air for about four and a half minutes, took off and I could see the smoke out in the distance, and I got up with the guy on the ground and it was an E7. He's just hysterical. And he had hit an IED and it was the biggest one that I've probably ever seen because the MRAP was just gone. Pretty much from the back of the cab forward was just gone, which usually doesn't happen. So it was pretty big. But that one, I think they lost everybody in that squad except for two people I believe. So that one sticks out.

There was another one that really sticks out. I was working with, I can't remember which ranger battalion it was, but anyway, they were on the ground and it was one of those nights in Afghanistan, it was a full moon. And on top of that, it had just gotten done snowing and it snowed six or seven inches of snow. And you just got fresh powder up in the mountains. And so with the full moon bouncing off of that snow, it's almost like flying daytime. It was actually hard to fly because your eyes are fighting. Should I be using the FLIR or can I fly unaided? And everything went good on this objective. It was me and my wing man, the Georgia National Guard Chinook guys, which were some of the best pilots I've ever seen that were supporting us on that tour. They went in, they dropped them off, no problems. They went back to the FOB. We stayed overhead until the insertion was done. And then I think we came back at a predetermined time, but they were getting ready for exfil, and so they start leaving the objective and they're in what we call PC posture. So they've left the objective. They're setting down by this road, down along highway one and the Chinooks are getting ready to come in. And they have left FOB Shank and they're probably about 20 minutes out. And then everything just opened up, and basically there's a null along this road, basically just a high point. It's got a bunch of trenches in it, and it was basically a checkpoint for the AMP, the Army National Guard guys. Or I'm sorry, the ANA, the National Army over there. So anyway, they just unleash and just start shooting up this unit pretty good. And as it turns out, it wasn't them, it was the Taliban that had come in and basically taken over. And so we go in and it is almost like the movies. The tracers start coming in at the aircraft and me and my wing man, we just start coming in and we align with the trenches and we just come in, laying 30 millimeters and rockets down through the trenches. I remember my wing man pulling off and the tracer fire was just all over him. And so I call him on the radio and he's breaking off. And then I'm coming in and then the tracers just start falling over onto my aircraft and to make a long story short, we basically neutralized everything that was there.

But that went on for a while. That battle went on for a little while and to the point where at some point you have to stop and get gas otherwise you're going to crash. Well, the dilemma is always, you never want to leave the ground guys. I don't have assets to come in and relieve me. So I made the decision to send him back, my wing man back on his own to get gas, which is really a rarity because you don't want to be flying around by yourself in Afghanistan. He gets gas, he comes back, relieves me. I go back to get gas and I remember, I didn't think I was going to make it. I think I pushed it too far. In the back of my mind I'm like, I'm going to crash. I'm not going to make it. And I landed at FOB Shank with 110 pounds of gas, which is nothing. So how I didn't flame out the aircraft, I have no idea. Landed, I hopped out while they're fueling and I helped load everything up, because I was about Winchester at that time.

Flew back. By the time I got back there, they had just picked up everybody to include the wounded. We're off site at that point, and come back and your adrenaline starts to go down and you fill out the paperwork and go eat some breakfast and go to bed.

We would generally get fairly close. Especially if I've got ground guys around, I would still be shooting usually about with the gun and rockets, I would probably say an average of probably 1500 to 1700 meters, something like that. There's been times where it was no kidding, danger close. I've definitely had a few of those on that same deployment. Actually, I'm sorry, that was another deployment. But there were times shooting danger close where I literally get their initials and they try to bury themselves in the dirt as much as they can, because that's how close it would get.

So there were times of danger close, but if I was shooting danger close, I would come in closer to the target just so it minimizes any error in the gun.

We had received a troops in contact call and it was a Navy Seal team that we would generally work with to the north of the FOB. So we're out there. They come in, they give us the call. And I remember it took about 40 or 45 minutes just to fly to get there because in 2013 you got to realize, things were starting to wind down a little bit. So we didn't have as many assets in the area. It wasn't uncommon for an Apache crew to fly 40, 45 minutes just to get some place. The problem with that is now you're limited on fuel and time.

So I remember I got there and I kept trying to get a hold of them and I finally got a hold of them, and you can hear the rounds going off when they key the mic, like in the Vietnam movies when they're keying the mic and the commander can hear all the rounds and stuff and the screams and stuff in the background. That's what it was like. They told me exactly where they were, exactly where the bad guys were and in this case, they were actually in, I don't want to call it a trench system, but the way that this Wadi had formed, it really was trenches. And so they were really dug in. I had my wing man. I get on site. He climbs up to give an update to the talk that we had arrived on station. It happened so fast that I found him there laying as flat as possible on the ground. You can see the rounds hitting in front of him and all around him. The bad guys were probably about 30 to 40 meters away.

So anytime you're doing a danger close, there's basically a 10% probability of hitting a friendly. I've been retired now long enough I can't remember what the danger close range is of the 30 millimeter cannon, but I know it was pretty close. And so when you're doing a danger close, I advise him, "Hey, this is a danger close, Sean." I believe it was 150 meters if I'm not mistaken. And you have to get that ground force commander's approval. And he'll give his initials saying that he approves that level of risk. And so I told him I was coming in hot.

As soon as I got on scene, this is all transpiring in route, wing man climbs up to call. He was oblivious to what was going on and it's not his fault. He was just on with the talk, climbing up, talking when all this was taking place. So he didn't even know that I was shooting at the time. And I literally just came in. Normally I do an orbit, about a three kilometer orbit to gain situation awareness. And this, I just went straight in and just started laying 30 millimeters right down inside the Wadis.

The optics on the Apache are really good. So just to give you an idea, even from that far away, if they've got buttons on a shirt, I can pretty much almost count them. I could tell that they were military age males with weapons, what they were wearing. Did they have hats? It's pretty detailed and you can tell that from pretty far out. So normally you can tell that from kilometers away.

Anytime I ever had a new unit come in, and when I say more on the special operations side, because that's generally who I dealt with, we always brought them into the FOB and we discussed emergency extraction, things of that nature. So normally on an Apache, you can fit two people on each side of the aircraft and basically most special operators have a belt so they can basically tie themselves to an aircraft they'll snap link into the aircraft. So what'll happen is they can hop on the side of the aircraft, take that tether off their belt, and snap link into the side of the aircraft onto one of the handles just as a safety measure. And then they can prop their feet up on the missile racks. And they're not going to go anywhere. The side of the Apache is big enough that it's like sitting in a chair. So unless you're going to go out and pull negative Gs or something like that, they're not going to go anywhere.

So the way that we would teach them, we would teach them how to get on. They even had a safety guy that went up and made sure everything was good. And some of these, we would actually practice this. We called them spur rides. We would actually practice this stateside before going overseas. And this has been done before. It's even been done to the point where they've thrown operators. They've kicked the pilot out of the front seat, put him on the side of the aircraft and put the wounded into the front and then strapped them down with the seatbelts. That's also been done.

But in this particular case, it was an operation with another Seal team south of Kabul. And for whatever reason around that area, the communications were always a problem. Both satellite communications and radio communications were always a problem. So I couldn't get a hold of anybody. There was wounded on the ground. The SSE, basically the site survey that they did indicated that there was also a high value target at that location and high value target generally, the criteria changes, but it's generally one of the top 25 most wanted. And I had eyes on the guy that left the building. We ended up going down and I actually had my wing man do it as I was overhead tracking the squirter, is what we would call it and trying to get comms with the talk. I approved him to go down and the video had it really good. They did it just like what we showed him. Two on each side, even had a safety guy come up to make sure everything was good. We basically flew them about two miles away, dropped them off in order to get this guy, and they made two turns to drop them off. Now when the adrenaline's pumping and everything is going on and you're laying out the facts and you're making that decision, everything- the battlefield calculations in my head made pretty good sense.

But then when we got back and your adrenaline comes down and you're doing your after action reports and everything, you're like, oh man. Don't get me wrong. I would still do it again. I think it was still the right decision. But the consequences of that, not now at the end, nothing happened to me, but the brass wasn't too happy on that one. So that definitely made for some memories on that one.

I don't think I fully grasped the toll that everything took on my body until I started getting close to retirement. And years earlier, before becoming a pilot, I was doing a demonstration at west point and I fell off a fast rope. There was a knot in the rope and I fell off of that probably about 25 feet and landed on my back spread Eagle. And the consequences of just things like that and the constant running and falling off a helicopter every now and then, because it happens when you're pre flight and it's slick or in the winter, and just flying that much and that vibration that's going through your body constantly for those thousands of hours. You don't really feel it until you start winding down and about that time of retirement. Then you realize just how much abuse your body's taken compared to your peers in the civilian world.

So after I retired and I showed up in the civilian world, it's like, man, these guys are my same age. They're going out and running marathons and stuff. There's no way I could do that. But then also just the mental toll that it's also taken is definitely different for each person. Well, here's a case and point. In the year 2017, I went to nine funerals, all of which were suicide. And out of the nine, seven of them were military people that I worked with that we had all done the same things. We had all seen the same things. But for whatever reason, those seven people reacted differently than what I did. And now don't get me wrong, I still have my demons. And I think everybody does, but everybody's different.

It's real easy to sit there and say, "Why didn't they just pick up the phone? And that one I still haven't figured out. I don't know if it's an ego thing or what it is. I don't know. But it's definitely different for everybody. For me, do I still think of a lot of things? Yes. There's nights that I don't sleep very good or whatnot, but I think that I've been able to curb some of those challenges by just staying busy and going to the gym and sitting down and talking to other people that were there and doing that. I think that if you sit there and you keep all that stuff inside, you're never going to get better.

But I think one of the bigger concerns is there's nobody to talk to on the civilian side. So when I go to work, nobody there has done the same things that I've done. So for me to talk to them, they think it's a really cool story. Well, for me, it's not a cool story. It's something that I've got to deal with on a personal level. So I don't really talk to them about that. I don't talk to my spouse about really anything because she's not going to understand. So I think especially once you retire or you get out, I think that burden just keeps weighing you down and weighing you down and weighing you down. But just with the mentality that we have, nobody wants to go seek help and nobody wants that on their VA records.

If you're in the military, embrace it while you've got it. I didn't realize coming out of the military just how further ahead I was compared to my civilian counterparts and it's not a ding against them. You're just so immersed in leadership more than you know. Because starting as a private all the way up to whether you're a W4, W5, a general, whatever. It's just one challenge after the next after the next after the next. And it really sets you up for success on the outside.

But then along with that, since I've been on the outside, I've also worked to do a lot of leadership, mentorship things on the civilian side, which has really helped improve the organization. So you don't really know what you have until you get out of that environment. And it's really scary to get out, but it's worth it. Embrace it and get out and live the life you want to live.

Ken Harbaugh:

That was Dave Lewis.

Thanks for listening to Warriors In Their Own Words. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We’re always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on twitter at Team_Harbaugh.

And if you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review.

Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.

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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