Round Table

The war on terrorism is now Navy pilot J.J Cummings ’89’s everyday job.

By J.J. Cummings ’89

Lt. Cmdr. J.J Cummings ’89 served aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, deployed in the northern Arabian Sea after Sept. 11. The following is excerpted from e-mails he sent in December and January from the carrier. In March, he returned home to his wife, Sara ’89, and their children Mackenzie and Delaney.

My wife, Sara, sent me a copy of the memorial page on the Bates Web site telling about Peter Goodrich’s life and death. I now carry it, as well as a few other names, with me on every flight over Afghanistan. I figure that it’s the least that I could do for one of the nicest guys I knew at Bates.

Peter’s name was written on a 500-pound laser-guided bomb I dropped in support of operations that resulted in the Taliban collapses at Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. I sleep well at night knowing that the last thing a large collection of Taliban soldiers in the vicinity of Kabul saw alive was “Peter Goodrich. Bates ’89. WTC 9/11/01.”

With every name that I put on a bomb, I am reminded of why I chose to join the Navy. Pete and thousands of others were murdered by faceless cowards on Sept. 11 for one reason – they were Americans. The United States of America will not roll over and take that, and needs someone to make them pay for their cowardice. That someone is the armed forces, a group that I am extremely proud to a part of.

For Thanksgiving, the ship dressed up the wardroom, dimmed down the lights, and put out a nice T-day spread. For a brief moment, it was almost like being home. Sure it was. I don’t know too many folks who live in a gray tin can with 5,500 other roommates, but what can you do? We had flights later in the day scheduled, so scores of aircrew had to fight off the L-tryptophan nods during their six-hour flights over Afghanistan. Can you see the headlines now? “U.S. Fighter Down Over Afghanistan. Turkey Overdose Suspected. Should Have Gone for the Dry Ham.” I was able to call home and chat briefly with Mackenzie (and Sara and Delaney, of course), who filled me in on the untimely passing of her second fish. “It’s OK, Daddy. We’ll get another one.” It was a great day.

The flights over Afghanistan continue. In a nutshell, Afghanistan is a giant pile of brown to light brown rocks bordered to the south and north by huge deserts and bordered to the east by an even bigger pile of rocks. Over the southern border with Pakistan, you are met by hundreds of miles of desert. After the Desert of Death (as the charts call it), you get into rolling hills and occasional 2,000-foot mountain ranges. From mid-Afghanistan north, dark brown mountains max out around 13,000 feet. Snow tops a majority of these peaks. Off to the northeast are snow-capped ranges that reach 25,000 feet. To date, I have not seen one tree. The mountains surrounding Kabul look like the Sierra Nevadas this time of year. I wonder if I could get some heli-skiing in? Never mind. Land mines and deep powder are a tough mix.

The rural areas are littered with villages filled with roofless, four walled structures that appear to be abandoned. The “cities” are unremarkable and colorless with no structure taller than two stories. The only color I’ve seen in these cities besides the ever-present light-brown hue is the occasional red streak coming from Taliban gunners as they open up with their anti-aircraft artillery. Some farmland, but it’s infrequent and minimal. The only signs of life that I have seen are vehicles (Toyota appears to be the SUV of choice) moving on one of the country’s three main highways, some lights in the smaller towns at night, and Taliban tough guys running from their convoy of military vehicles right before multiple weapons impacts.

The last real big push involving air power was just before Christmas up at Tora Bora. After weeks of relentless air strikes, pockets of the Tora Bora started to look like the surface of the moon – a burning moon, that is.

Just before Christmas, I received a large manila envelope from Ladder Company 37 (Bronx) of the New York Fire Department. Inside was a collection of wake cards and programs from the funerals of 14 firefighters killed on Sept. 11, as well as a note from Lt. John Gormley, a former F-14 guy, signed by 15 other firefighters. Two weeks before Christmas, and I’m looking at the names and faces of 14 firemen, killed in the line of duty. Choked up? Oh yeah.

He asked if I would drop the cards on one of my flights, so the Taliban could see who they’re dying for. I stuffed them into a big envelope and headed up to the flight deck to coordinate getting it tucked under my speed brake, a 4-foot by 4-foot flight-control surface on the aft portion of the jet controlled by the pilot. Anything placed beneath will come out with the flick of a thumbswitch. Just before the flight deck chief climbed up on the back of the jet to stash the envelope, he opened it to look inside. Looking down from the cockpit onto the flight deck, I witnessed yet another sight that I will not soon forget: 10 young enlisted men, dirty and tired, methodically looking at each of the wake cards, gazing at the faces of 14 fallen heroes, many of whom were the same age as the sailors. Judging by the looks on their faces, I guess they had the same reaction that I did when I first opened the package.

Off to Kandahar. Night hop, so finding the city was easy. Lights off, just in case any Taliban AAA gunners were up late. Dropped down to an altitude lower than I probably should have, but I didn’t care. Rolled inverted and, while staring “downtown” Kandahar right in the face, popped open the speed brake. On Dec. 11, 2001, at approximately 8:30 p.m., Kevin Owen Reilly, Capt. William F. Burke Jr., Durrell V. Pearsall Jr., Michael Scott Carlo, Nicholas P. Rossomando, Peter A. Bielfeld, Raymond Murphy, Hector Luis Tirado, Capt. Terry S. Hatton, Archie E. Davis, Thomas J. Foley, Lt. John F. Ginley, Thomas G. Schoales, and Michael Helmut Haub had one last flight, destination Kandahar.

Navy regulations say that for every 45 consecutive days you spend at sea without a port call, you rate two beers. Two weeks ago, they broke out 10,000 beers for the first of many “beer days.” Multiple discussions erupted in the Ready Room over how to maximize the beer-day allotment. Do you nurse your two beers over a two-hour span, or just chug ‘em and ride the wave? Which beer gives you the most bang for the buck? Foster’s? Yuengling? MGD? All crucial questions. Rumor has it that more than 22,000 beers were killed. Hmmm…crew of 5,500, two beers per person. Hey…someone went through the line more than once! No comment.

Ship’s TV had the NFL playoffs on last weekend. The taste of home is great, but don’t dig the late hour the games come on over here. Rolling out of the rack at 0400 to catch the Patriots-Raiders was brutal, but screw it. Loved seeing the snowstorm – made me long for Sunday River. Just after the New Year, got to chat with Sara, Mackenzie, and Delaney for 20 minutes via a video teleconference. Sara looks great, Mackenzie is getting tall, and Delaney is a crawling/cruising machine. Sara spent the entire 20 minutes managing toys, coloring books, snacks, sippie cups, and Delaney’s repeated escape attempts, all the while trying to conduct a conversation with yours truly. Don’t worry, Sara, relief is on the way: I’ll be home in a few months.