The unlikely soldier - Page 2

This hippie musician turned helicopter pilot in Iraq just wants to come home
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His trip went on for three and a half years, spreading to Africa and Europe.

In South Africa he met the woman he would marry, Jane, and in 1997 they made their way back to San Francisco, where she now lives, awaiting his return from the war (see "The waiting wife," page 16). But things had changed in his social circle.

"What we discovered was the free love and pot-smoking hippie culture had been replaced by crystal meth," he said. "It was like a nightmare. All of these wonderful artistic people now wrapped around the axle, wrestling with this python of drug addiction."

Rice was 27 and didn't know what came next. His father had been a pilot in the Air Force, and Rice had always been interested in becoming a pilot, so he considered enlisting.

"I didn't think I wasn't going to be able to swing it in the civilian world," he said. Paying for flight school and renting an aircraft in order to build up flight hours can cost several hundred thousand dollars.

During his travels, Rice made life-changing decisions several times using the flip of a coin. He decided to do so again. This time he would either return to his expatriate bohemian life or join the US Army with the goal of becoming a helicopter pilot.

So with the flip of a coin, Rice became a soldier Sept. 10, 1998.

STAYING ALIVE

The military life hasn't been all bad. In strange ways, Rice said, some of his life is like it used to be, comparing his driving the Cool Bus on tour to flying missions in a Black Hawk.

"Just imagine a couple guys on a road trip to Burning Man," he said. "The difference is we never get there."

Rice attended one of the early Burning Man events and thrived on the sex, drugs, and music in the postapocalyptic Black Rock Desert. Unlike on road trips of his civilian past, Rice's destinations in the war are issued without his consent — in the form of orders.

The official time off from one mission to another is 10 hours, according to the risk matrix established by the military, but even that can be cut short. Often, Rice wakes up in the middle of the night to someone pounding on his door yelling, "You've got a mission."

Rice pilots a variety of missions. Most are simple transportations of soldiers and supplies. Others, such as nighttime air assaults, involve careful planning and sometimes making difficult decisions in a chaotic environment.

"From our perspective, Sunni, Shia, Kurds, and Christians, they all look the same from the air," Rice said. "I can't tell the difference. I don't know who's who."

He said sometimes people are waving and other times they are throwing rocks or shooting. It's hard to know whether someone is a friend or a foe.

"I speculate that it all stems from their own personal experiences," he said. "Did they personally benefit from the United States or was it detrimental to their family?"

Besides these Black Hawk missions, Rice also performs regular inspections on the aircraft and some mechanical repairs. Prior to his acceptance to flight school, he was trained by the Army as a helicopter mechanic.

A few months ago Rice crash-landed his helicopter when one of the engines failed during takeoff. He was able to land in an open area at the edge of a base. Everyone walked away unharmed, and Rice was able to fix the helicopter and get it back to Sykes.

"Every day you take off and we fly around, there is a possibility somebody is going to shoot you down," he said.

In Iraq, Rice said, his company flew more in six months than it did the entire time that he was in Afghanistan. With the increased time in the air, the risk of crashing from mechanical failures increases.

During another mission, his fuel cell started leaking gas down the side of the helicopter, dangerously close to an area that could have ignited the entire gas tank.