(Dec. 5, 2017) I was touring the National Museum of the United States Air Force with my family the other day when I encountered this story. I’ll get back to the museum later; this story is remarkable enough to warrant its own column. It is a small “footnote in history” (to quote the man who told it to me), but it’s a footnote that saved a family from being caught up in the machinery of war.
I met a U.S. Air Force targeting officer who was home on leave. We were both in the museum’s Cold War gallery, and began talking while looking at a British Tornado jet on display. As he’s still active duty, I’m changing his name to John.
He was deployed to Iraq back in 2014 while ISIS was making its big push to conquer the country. Shortly after getting his boots on the sandy ground, he made the rounds to meet everyone he would be working with. John was surprised to learn some of our allies were dismissive of him because his predecessor had not been very engaged with anyone outside of strictly U.S. operations.
“Well, there’s a new sheriff in town,” John said he told them. He learned they were planning a ground attack on a house to nail an enemy combatant who was trafficking weapons to the terrorists. He asked if they had any direct imagery of the target. They said they had maps and ground intelligence to use.
“No, do you have any imagery of the target?” John asked again.
They didn’t. He said that was part of his job and if they’d get him the coordinates, he’d get real-time imagery of the area.
They called John with the target coordinates while he was eating in the dining hall. He pulled a pen out of his uniform pocket and discovered the only thing he had to write the coordinates down on was a napkin. So, he wrote the coordinates down on the napkin!
Later that day John arranged to have some U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornets from the carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) photograph the area. Unfortunately, they were called away for a high-priority mission at the last minute. John engaged in some time-honored cursing and other traditionally colorful language common to military personnel frustrated in a high-pressure situation, calmed down, and picked up the phone. He managed to get some British Tornado aircraft vectored in to capture imagery of the target.
Once the imagery was processed he walked into the allies’ office and presented it. They were rather nonplussed, telling him that was not an image of the target. John said it was. They said it wasn’t.
He pulled out the napkin he’d taken notes on back in the dining hall. “These are the coordinates you gave me!”
Their commander took the napkin and compared it to his own notes, clearly expecting to find John had erred.
The commander was stunned to discover John had copied the coordinates down correctly; it was the coordinates themselves that were in error! The house they were planning to breach was a family residence with no military value and no threat level. Apparently a significant misunderstanding had occurred between our allies and the Iraqi agent on the ground who was aiding them.
The attack on the house was called off and fast planning on the real target resulted in a genuine bad guy being arrested. A shipping container was found buried in his back yard full of mines, missiles, and other weapons he was providing to ISIS.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Iraq, a family is living safe and quiet, completely unaware that a napkin saved their lives.
War is an overwhelming force that take on a life of its own. The grand spectacles of war can easily subsume the reality that making them happen are, in fact, thousands (if not millions) of individual lives and stories colliding on the battlefield.
Mistakes happen in the fog of war. It is inevitable. But, sometimes diligence, competence, and a paper napkin can prevent a mistake from cascading into a tragedy. John, being the man he was, stumbled into a situation simply because he was intent on doing his job correctly. Quite by accident he protected an innocent family and prevented a possible public relations disaster. By doing his job correctly, he then went on to help stop a very bad actor.
As John said, this was merely a footnote in history, and it’s a footnote I believe important to remember. Heck, it’s damn sure a pretty darn important footnote to the family involved!