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Lt. Col. Fred Wellman: Survivor’s Guilt as a Black Hawk Helicopter Pilot in Iraq
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Warning: This episode contains some inappropriate language.
Lt. Col. Fred Wellman served in the Army for 22 years as an aviator and public affairs officer. Fred was a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, and completed four tours during Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. He also was a spokesman for General David Petaeus, and General Martin Dempsey in Iraq.
To learn more about Fred’s work after his service, listen to his interview on Burn the Boats
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 Fred Wellman, who served in the Army for 22 years as an aviator and public affairs officer. Fred was a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, and completed four tours during Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. He also was a spokesman for General David Petraeus, and General Martin Dempsey in Iraq.
Lt. Col. Fred Wellman:
My name is Fred Wellman. I'm a retired army Lieutenant Colonel. I spent 22 years in service. I started off as an army aviator flying OH-58 Scouts, later UH-60 Black Hawks and then I transitioned late in my career to be a public affairs officer at the highest levels. I served in Desert Storm and three Iraq tours.
My family has a long military tradition, we literally came over here in 1640 from England. The first Wellman to serve in the uniform on the North American continent served in the French and Indian war. He was impressed that the British troops marched through his town and took him along. We had a minute man answer the Lexington alarm and participate all the way through the battle Trenton and beyond. My father was a Marine at the tail end of World War II. There was a long military tradition in my family. Like so many that serve, there was a military tradition in their family. As I was looking at my options, I had loved flying, I had loved the idea of being a pilot someday. I was looking at my options, it was the early eighties as I approached college. I dabbled in Marine Corp ROTC and actually got rejected, which is a really unique story in it of itself.
But in the end, the idea of going to West Point really appealed to me. The idea of having the opportunity to go to the United States military academy as a kid from Missouri, and all that went with that, was passion. It's funny, I got there and I used to joke that I graduated from West Point cause I ran out of time to quit. And, in the end, I graduated, I got commissioned as an aviator and suddenly I find myself flying helicopters in Korea or Desert Storm or Hawaii. There's great passion for service in our family.
I actually started off as a scout pilot. I started flying OH-58s in Korea, I flew OH-58 Scout in Desert Storm. Flew them and I commanded them in Hawaii. I ended up going in the Black Hawk right before Iraq won OAF. The aircraft is such a beautiful aircraft, it's powerful, it's agile. For me coming out the tiny little Scout helicopter, which was great, but didn't have enough power to really do fun stuff. Flying a Black Hawk with all that power, and our mission was such a cool one in my unit in Iraq, we had all the weird stuff. I had a Pathfinder platoon of infantrymen, and we had the mission- actually that if any of our aircraft went down during the invasion of Iraq, I would be one to go and rescue them. Really just a cool, fun mission and a great experience. I miss terribly. I actually got to fly recently here in St. Louis. I may go back to flying helicopters again.
The thing about being a pilot is, you realize that there's great responsibility with it. Actually why I'm so hard on fellow pilots even to this day, is the idea that when you place your hands on those controls and you lift gently off the ground, that all the lives and souls on that aircraft are your responsibility. I learned this as a young scout pilot, I had a left seater. In those days we actually had enlisted observers in Desert Storm. Chris Anderson, who I'm still friends with to this day, was my enlisted observer. I taught him how to fly as much as the aircraft as I could. I taught him how to land the aircraft. I took a bullet. His life was in my hands and my life was in his hands in many ways. That integration of understanding that a moment's bad decision could lead to the loss of both of our lives.
Then even more so, when you get in a Black Hawk. In Iraq, you've got seats out, so you've managed to pack 18 people in the back, stacked, shoulder to shoulder. The awesome response that goes with understanding that you have the power to both save lives and take lives. I think too often, we forget that part of service. We forget that part of... Even as a civilian, you've got those kinds of responsibilities, but there is a great response that goes with service to your country and service to your fellow service members. I never forgot that. Again, I'm passionate to this day of understanding that I have a great responsibility to those who have their lives entrusted to you.
Well, when we were doing the invasion of Iraq, we took seats out that- The advantage of that is I can squeeze an entire squad or half a platoon in the back of a Black Hawk. Again, the one thing about the Black Hawk, if you're just carrying people, that's nothing. I know it sounds like a lot of people, but that's a light load for a Black Hawk with seats out, 12 people. I've heard... Again, just people are nothing to Black Hawk. This is an aircraft that can lift huge loads, but it's a blast. It's a blast, with the door's open and you're strapped in, you got your feet dangling off the side of the doors.
I flew missions. When we first flew into Iraq dropping off food, we got the notice that we'd taken Najaf on the marsh to Baghdad. We were trying to negotiate with Mr. Sistoni who had his Mosque there. He asked for food, so we were tasked to grab as much MREs that we could pack on our aircraft and fly straight into the airfield that'd just been taken under fire and just literally kick as many... In those moments when you see that, the infantry wouldn't get off the ground and come help us unload the aircraft. We had to just kick all the stuff out ourselves right on the runway and take off again.
The thing about, especially war is, there's these remarkable moments of clarity, where you're in the middle of a mission, or you're in the middle of a moment and you know with clarity that you're living history. That you recognize that as you are doing, what is a relatively mundane task perhaps, or something you've trained for your whole life, that you are going to be a side note in a historic moment. I've been very blessed that I've had that feeling. I knew as I lifted off flying into Iraq, especially that second time, that this was a historic moment that would be talked about for ages. I knew as I landed for the first time at Saddam Hussein airport in Baghdad, that this was a moment. Caring delegates to their first conference in democracy, sitting in the room when Donald Rumsfeld came to visit Iraq to talk about the next stage of the war in 2006. You sit there and kind of go, "Geez man, I'm the fly in the wall that people talk about." I think that one of the most remarkable things about serving your country in these moments in our time is, that ability to be part of what will end up being the history of your nation, is really an awesome part of what we do.
I joke all the time that I liked invading Iraq, I did it twice. It sounds terrible when you say it out loud. I of course did Desert Storm. I was a scout pilot for Apaches. We had been participating in reconnaissance missions, we had been surveilling the border. I actually went in at daytime once the evasion started, the ground evasion for desert storm, especially. I experience the same, what's similar in Iraq freedom is, you go in and as far as I can see is vehicles. It's a Mad Max- envision Mad Max but on steroids. I remember seeing seven columns of vehicles going into Iraq from Saudi Arabia across the desert, dust everywhere, you're flying along just over their heads, leading your troops, leading your flight.
That moment you go, "Ah Jesus." There were, especially at Desert Storm, there were moments where you're like, no movie could compare to what I'm seeing here. The vastness of what we do when the might of the American military kicks in, it's a vast enterprise of power. It's hard to imagine it. I did have a hard time doing a movie without CGI, trying to depict the thousands of vehicles rushing headlong northbound into Iraq to cut off our enemies and out maneuver them as fast as possible.
I remember, especially in [inaudible], flying scouts in the dark, the technology then wasn't as advanced as it was in 2003, so it was very dangerous. We had one mission where we were pushing the limits of our technology and their ability. There was a night mission where they called us out because there had been reports of Iraqi probing the border during the air war. I took off in the middle of the night with a scout weapons team, a OH-58 Scout and two Apaches. We got out there, it was pitched dark, all I saw was black, luckily the Apaches had infrared. So at that point he said, "Lead us home with the Apaches." The funniest thing happened, the division commander wanted me to go brief them and I'm like, "Okay, where?" I mean, this vast sea of tents lined up along the border. Luckily my Baton commander had to come outside with a flashlight and wave me down to where I should land. You knew you were really riding the edge of your technology and your ability.
When I came home from that mission, it was extremely challenging to land, we had zero visibility plus we had the dust. Which led to the decision, a very difficult decision, just a day later, when we had another night mission into Iraq and my crew essentially came to me and said, "Look, we need to send only the most senior crews in this mission to Iraq, you need to set this one out." Essentially they did an intervention, if you will, so consulting with my commander I decided just to send my instructor pilot and my more senior pilot Hal Reichle into Iraq.
Sure enough, they go into Iraq and found weather, flew into weather and never returned. In years, we could tell, Hall flew into the ground about 90 knots. So there's this realization as a leader- one of the unique things about being a leader in the military and especially in combat is, the responsibility in knowing that someone could lose their lives based on the decisions you make and the guidance you give. I experienced that. I unfortunately experienced that loss, knowing that a mission I was supposed to be on led to the death of two very good men at a very young age.
The original tactics for attack helicopters were actually a legacy of Vietnam with OH-58, Charlie Kiowa's and AH-1 Cobras, and then we continued that when the AH-54 was fielded. The way we organized for missions was, it depended on the mission. So, for a mission where we're sort of doing reconnaissance, we're trying to make contact, we're actually not sure the enemy is, we're trying to develop the situation, we would break us into what they call scout weapons teams. My platoon, I had four OH-58's and then we had six Apaches in a standard age 64 company. In my unit, it was the 24th aviation, 24th ID. So, we would go in as a Scout weapons team with the Apaches. I was the light team, so I had two Apache's and my colleague would have four Apaches and two Scouts. In that team, the Apache's the most valuable piece of equipment, right? So, the scout would go ahead. Typically, if we're doing a scout weapons formation, the scout would be slightly ahead of the Apache's, if not a mile or more, kind of feeling out the ground, looking for targets. This manifests itself when, during the last part of Desert Storm, as we cross Route one, we had reports of multiple movements of heavy divisions of Iraqis on the highway. We were sent in. All we had was the information that there were tanks. I took my Scouts out ahead of time and we developed looking for the target, so we went out actually without the Apaches. Then once we found a good spot to put the Apache's that could have a line of sight on the highway, then we brought the Apache's in and then broke into teams. It was dependent on the tactical situation. It was funny because that day we broke into the light team, one of my Apache's, when he went to go spin up his rockets, he actually fired a pair of rockets at me and damn near took me out accidentally, which would've been a bummer. Hell of a way to get shot down, by your own Apache, but which happened a lot because just a spark could set those rockets off.
You just take these system and you go develop. That's what we did. We would go up. I mean, that day I remember vividly, flying my scout up to the highway, and it turned out the Iraqis were hiding underneath the bridges. So, I would come up and they'd shoot at us from underneath the bridge, I'd break right, break left, and then call the Apache's and the Apache would come in and destroy the target, but it was a great system. Years later, they would just go to pure Apache companies and they'd do their own scouting essentially, but it was early days, it was really great, the Scouts were great. Navigating our job was finding targets, sort of being the bait a little bit. And we were unarmed, that was the really interesting part: you're an unarmed aircraft. So, high adventure, you could say.
We were constantly training that at Fort Stewart, to seamlessly transition from whatever the situation. So, if it was the scouts going ahead to identify a battle position for the Apaches and then bringing them in to line up six a stride shooting at things, to seamlessly transition to how to break into teams to find targets. We had done this over and over almost to the point of being, it was boring. We could do it so seamlessly that it was just part of our DNA. There're very little... We never had to talk about, "Where you at? Where'd you go?" It was always, we all knew each other so instinctively having trained so hard at Fort Stewart, that by the time it got into combat, it was really just focusing on the tactical situation at hand, "Where was the target? Who do we develop?" My whole career was dictated by what I learned as a young Lieutenant and the 24th ID, with that unitm that we do the training over and over and over until it becomes a muscle movement. That way, you're ready for almost anything. So, whenever the tab situation changes with combat, when the enemy gets a vote, you're ready. Because, the actual functioning of the organization is a muscle movement. The actual adaptation of the targeting is where you put your brain into things. I tell you, I think the attacks were solid for Desert Storm. Especially, in the end we used them throughout the very... Almost every single one of the attacks we had practiced we used at the tactical level during Desert Storm especially in just that short time.
It's a tough fraternity to join when you lose soldiers. For us, we flew the night mission, they flew the night mission, I should say, came back and Hal and Mike didn't return. So, we spent the night trying to find them and then in the morning we actually sent an entire company of Apache's and Black Hawks into Iraq to fly the routes. Then they found the aircraft crashed several hundred or a dozen kilometers into Iraq.
The war doesn't stop, the need for our mission doesn't change, so it's tough. I remember when we found out, me and Doug Erman, the commander, took ourselves aside. I remember sitting in a bunker with Doug just crying it out. A grown adult man and just crying it out together quietly as commanders and then getting our stuff together to go back to the team and give them the short break.
We had a Memorial service the very day. During the Memorial service we actually got a hall to go take off for potential Iraq incursion. I actually left the Memorial, so I was running into my aircraft to launch. That defines it, the challenge you have is that, with loss, you still have to go on with the mission. I think in many ways, though, for that time, we never understood. I mean, my God, I was home six weeks later and we didn't really talk about it. In the nineties, we just moved on if you will. We didn't know survivors' guilt was a thing, which I only found out when I was in my fifties, that I had survivors' guilt, which was just like PTSD. It is a very difficult, very difficult thing to manage. But again, you do fall back on your training. You fall back on the years that went into preparing you for that moment and the leadership that kicks in to say, "Look, this is bad. We've lost guys. We still have a mission to continue. How do we do it?"
I had to reorganize my unit because I'd lost essentially a third of my combat power with that loss. I wasn't getting any replacements, so we went into Iraq without replacements. You have to just dust yourself off and fly the mission, because the mission doesn't stop just because you lose folks, unfortunately.
For me, it was a very formative thing, I mean, I was 25 years old. So, managing that stress and carrying it is the burden of command. That's what people talk about, the burden of command. You will have to make those decisions that could lead to men dying, and you're going to have to live with that. It's not for everybody.
So I go to Iraq in another great unit. It's funny though, I was the operations officer for a Black Op Battalion, I was the S3. My battalion commander was a great guy, just a damn nice guy. I figured out early on though we couldn't have two nice guys, cause I was a pretty nice guy too. I often joke that when we invaded Iraq for the second time I was really an asshole. What I mean by ‘really an asshole’ was “Look, I'm taking everybody home this time." I learned my lesson that you have to be more direct. You have to be very direct in making sure that the procedures are followed, that safety is protocols, that we were doing the things we need to do to be ready.
I was relentless in our training preparation for the second evasion. I was that asshole running around saying, "Put your helmet on or dig your damn hole." Because the last thing on earth I want to do is to have to explain to a widow, as I did to another widow previously, two widows, just the idea that we took a rocket attack and I had guys sitting on their lazy asses instead of digging holes, was infuriating to me. I was a relentless asshole and I'm proud of it. You know what, every single one of my men and women came home from that trip, so I think it shaped everything for me. There's a feeling that goes into it.
Then I went back. I remember going back for my fourth tour or my third Iraq tour and thinking, "Man, at some point my luck is going to run out." The night before I arrived in my unit, the trailer next to mine got taken out by a rocket. I was like, "Whoa, you're really gambling at some point." But, it does. I think it framed for me my whole career of my approach to training, my approach to prepping men and women for combat was relentless. For many years I didn't associate much with any of my former soldiers from that unit because I thought “They don't want to hang out with me because I was such an asshole.” I had the nicest note from someone that was actually on a plane and they found out they were sitting next to somebody who was one of my soldiers from Iraq and they had said, "Oh man, Wellman got us ready." He literally told the guy, he goes, "I think Wellman kept us alive through that tour." I was like, "Well, that's a hell of a compliment."
That doesn't mean we didn't do tough things. It doesn't mean we didn't fly very dangerous missions, but I do believe you train and you prepare and you're relentless in the discipline that goes into military preparation and military service. You can lower the odds of losing troops to the random things. Because you know, most deaths in combat aren't directly really the enemy, even Hal and Mike, they crashed because of weather, it wasn't enemy action. So, I, as a leader, have been obsessed, while I was in the military, with taking out and reducing the risk of those factors causing me to lose my men or women in combat.
I think a lot of people thought that OAF would be much like Desert Storm, that we would take down the country and then leave. I remember having this conversation with my peers. One ended up being a three star general when he was grade three. And saying, "Look, I don't think you get it. There's no government. There's nobody to hand it off to. We're it. We are a kind of pottery barn. We broke it, we’ve got to fix it."
So, I remember early on, when I arrived at Q-West air base in Northern Iraq, we were one of the first people there. I had no spare people, I had a pilot with a pistol as my gate guard, if you will. An older gentleman approached us with a note in English and a kid, he had a kid with them. The notice actually said that they used to get their water from that base and that there were bullets laying in their village from the base. I would only find out later that my infantry counterparts had set up a range thinking there was nothing on the other side of the hill and there was. So, unfortunately there were bullets kept on going and landed in the village. That led to an incredible adventure of serving as sort of the civil affairs guy for that large swath around Q-West.
So, my very first experience to work with the Iraqi part, was literally local Iraqis who had been devastated by the loss of their government or struggling to make ends meet and we became their government in a way. We ended up building schools and a clinic and delivering water and building roads. That morphed into the following tours where I served as an advisor for the minister of defense, the minister of defense and the joint staff of the Iraqi military. Advising them on public affairs and helping them build their offices and build their capabilities. I spent the next three tours working closely with Iraqi partners and helping their country get better or worse if you will.
I mean, even our Iraqi counterparts, civilians, who made the brave decision to even work with us. Dr. Mohamed, that man I mentioned, the man who sent one of his older villagers to meet us. Dr. Mohamed ended up being the leader of my efforts to interact with my Iraqi counterparts. Dr. Mohamed was murdered in the clinic I built him in 2012. He made a very brave decision to better his people at great risk to himself. Again, he was blown up in 2006, lost two of his legs, then he was murdered six years later.
Shake Rod, who was the shake of the other village, ended up joining when Mosel fell in 2004. He took his villagers and basically created a police force in his village, which ended up being an early Iraqi battalion. Ended up being a battalion commander in the Iraqi army before being pushed out because they wanted to have a more formal army and then he was murdered. Bassam, my first interpreter, was murdered for being an interpreter. Again, I could go on and on. Colonels I worked with in the Iraqi ministry of defense were assassinated. These men and women, but mostly men, were stepping up for their country and they did right. It didn't always go well. It was a very dangerous place, it still is. Which is why I'm so passionate about helping our interpreters and our allies get safety when the time comes.
When I asked Dr. Mohamed... I remember sitting in the village one day saying, "I don't understand it. Why are these people able to place bombs and broad daylight on the side of the highway and no people are seeing them? Why aren't they reporting to the authorities? Why aren't they doing the right thing?" And Muhammad said, "You must understand. For 30 years in Iraq, you didn't see things. You did not see the men in the black car pull up and take the neighbors away in the middle of the night. You didn't see it." So, when you see a country that's been under authoritarian rule try to become something else overnight and the foolishness of our hubris to believe that we could convert that in a quick manner, that we could convert it in just months, "Hey, we'll have an election, everything's better now." Is such a hubristic approach. People forget the democratic traditions that existed in the colonies long before we had America, that wasn't the case in Iraq. So, we were working to solve that.
Something I say often to this day is, at some point we decide that every solution to everything was a hammer. That the US military was a solution. That we're going to use soldiers like me to build schools. We're going to use soldiers like me to make sure girls got a school. That's great. But the problem with that is when the only tool you've got in the toolbox is a hammer, well, everything's a nail. Everything needs to be hammered. So I knew very early on that there was going to be limits to what we could accomplish if we didn't approach it with an understanding of the Iraqi people and what they want and their needs. This goes to our politicians. I had someone who is a very famous politician today come over and tell us that we should break Iraq into three parts. There should be a Kurdish and a Shia and a Sunni, just break it up. I'm like, "Okay, that sounds awesome, but that's not what they want." Again, that was 2006. I saw through the arc of my three tours in Iraq, especially that there was definitely going to be limits to what we could do.
Then, I'll be honest, I'll tell you one of the most frustrating things for me was always, something we say a lot now, in retrospect for our war is that, we didn't fight a 20 year war or a 12 year war, we fought one year wars 20 times. For me, especially at the highest levels when I was working at the three or four star level, that was demonstrated very clearly, that every time a new unit arrived, everything that had been green for the last year, everything that had been going well on their stoplight charts and everything that had improved got set back to zero again. It was incredibly frustrating to watch this short term mentality that each unit would bring with them that, "Well, sure, the hundred and first did really well here, but we're the 82nd we're going to do it better. We're going to be different because they're the hundred and first and they suck." It's just this very short term, unfortunate military mindset that we were trained in, also can undermine our success. While I talked earlier in this conversation about how the military mindset and discipline can be such an important tool in our toolbox and combat, I also believe the military mindset and focus on victory and decision making can also undermine us in contact because they aren't directly having to do with getting shot at. We don't do nuance well and when you're talking about a political solution to a problem, there has to be nuance. Unfortunately I was painfully aware that we were in very challenging circumstances as early as 2003, in those early days saying, "This may be beyond our scope."
I remember being one of the guys saying, "Where's our phase four plan? I don't understand. We're here at Q-West airbase, I've taken down the government. There's no government, what's the plan now? Where's phase four?" If you remember the history of it, we didn't get our phase four plan for several weeks. Frankly, the insurgency had taken hold by the time we were given orders on how to handle it. I remember talking to a colleague then and saying that this is not good. We're not prepared. I mean, I'm getting into an argument with my higher headquarters about how we should handle our local civilians. Hearing an American officer tell me that if we get too dug in here, if we feed them... This is what he said to me, it's a true story: "If we feed them," it's like these dogs, these dogs run around the base, "if we start feeding them, they'll come to rely on us and we'll never get out of here." I remember thinking, "Jesus Christ, man. We just took out their government. These are human beings. The whole point was to quote, liberate them and you're saying they're dogs." That's when I really started saying, "Jesus, if this is the attitude of people at higher levels than me, we're going to have a problem on our hands." And we did.
That was Fred Wellman.
To learn more about Fred and his work after the Army, listen to his interview on Burn the Boats.
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Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
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