This hippie musician turned helicopter pilot in Iraq just wants to come home
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As the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter prepared for takeoff, a French Special Forces soldier ran up to the aircraft, carrying a wounded insurgent over his shoulder. Other insurgents were stacked up in the back of the helicopter like a cord of wood, facedown with their arms and legs zip-tied to prevent movement.
The pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Shurd Rice, was on his first tour of war in Afghanistan. He looked back as the captured insurgent was thrown in. The man's intestines and other bloodied inner parts spilled out on top of the rest of the prisoners. The prisoner died during the flight, bleeding on the pile. Rice and his crew had to clean out the blood and pieces of internal organs after the prisoners were removed.
Ten years ago, when Rice was a hippie musician living in San Francisco, he never thought he'd be a soldier struggling to stay alive in a full-blown war zone. Even when he joined the peacetime Army before Sept. 11, 2001, he was simply looking for job training as a helicopter pilot. Instead, war has become this reluctant soldier's life.
After serving in Afghanistan, he found himself fighting a war in Iraq that he doesn't support. Now deployed in northern Iraq at Forward Operating Base Sykes where I embedded with his unit Rice has found the potential for death comes in larger, louder packages.
While performing repairs on the runway one afternoon in March, Rice was physically shaken by a rumbling explosion that rattled all the buildings across Sykes. Five miles away, a mushroom cloud appeared over Tal Afar. Then, 15 minutes later, another explosion ripped through the city's marketplace, killing at least 152 people. The Iraqi government called the bombing "the worst single attack of the war."
The city of 80,000 people is 40 miles from Syria, and last year President George W. Bush touted Tal Afar as the model city for Iraq's future, an area where Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, and Christians lived peacefully. By dawn, the day after the bombing, the Iraqi Police began executing random civilians including women and children as retribution for the bombing. At least 60 civilians were pulled from their houses and shot, according to military sources and an account in the Washington Post.
At this point Rice just wants to go home, something he was supposed to do in July, when his Iraq tour was scheduled to end. But then the military extended his involuntary obligation to keep fighting in Iraq another three months, as it has with all active-duty soldiers in the Army, even those like Rice who are at the end of their contracts and ready to get out.
"Let's face it: the reason we are here is the oil," Rice told the Guardian. "I don't know when I am coming home anymore."
The US Army requires a six-year commitment from soldiers who enlist and become Black Hawk pilots. What it doesn't spell out is that six years starts after finishing pilot school, and for some soldiers, who joined the Army in peacetime, the extended tours in Iraq and Afghanistan are indentured servitudes in hell.
Before the wars, even before boot camp, Rice seemed like an unlikely candidate for the life he now leads. In the early '90s, Rice played guitar in a band called Lovesake, which played the Café International weekly and regularly headlined at the Cannabis Buyers Club in San Francisco, where the band was paid in marijuana.
"I gave 110 percent to my music," Rice told us. He had a warehouse and a tour bus that he dubbed Cool Bus. But eventually, the band fell apart, and he left San Francisco for what he thought would be a short trip to Asia. He carried a classical guitar with him and often made his living as a human jukebox in faraway bars and roadhouses. 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.
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. Rice immediately landed the aircraft and performed an emergency shutdown. Someone in the other helicopter he was flying with radioed over to him, "You are a pussy. Fly that thing back."
Rice refused. "They wanted me to cut some corners," he said. "They resorted to name-calling, but with a name like Shurd, I am fairly immune to that sort of harassment."
Pilots, he said, are eager to fly missions and return to their rooms, where they shut out the war. But he was at a military base when he landed his leaking Black Hawk, and the safer option was to fix the helicopter rather than limp it back to base.
"I am not taking any extra chances," he told us. "I love my wife and plan on getting back to her."
The news that all active-duty soldiers would have to stay in Iraq three months longer had just been delivered that week, and none of the soldiers were accepting it easily.
"With the extension, the guys tend to lose their patience more than they did before," Rice said. "What a kick to the sack, you know. Thank you very much Uncle Sam."
But Rice isn't going to let his frustrations cloud his focus. In the end, everyone had to wait a few hours until the problem was solved and Rice was able to safely make the flight home.
First Sgt. Anthony Smoots, who manages all the soldiers in Charlie Company, said that Rice takes care of his guys and cares about his job, adding, "He really cares about his wife."
Even more traditional soldiers, such as Rice's captain, Trent Lythgoe, find the extended, back-to-back deployments excessively hard on the soldiers and their family life.
"I think you are going to see some attrition across the board as a result of the high OPTEMPO [Operations Tempo] that we are experiencing," Lythgoe told us. "Soldiers of all ages, ranks, and experience will make the decision to leave the Army."
Rice's room, like those of other pilots, is a trailerlike tin box called a containerized housing unit (CHU). It has become his sanctuary, where he reads science fiction novels and plays EVE online. In the game he pilots a spaceship, goes on missions in faraway galaxies, and interacts with other players in this fantasy world. When he closes the door, he shuts out Iraq.
"We are not allowed to drink, frolic with members of the opposite sex, or look at pornography," Rice said. "I am sure somewhere in the rules it says we can't masturbate or look at our own genitals in the shower."
The Internet is wired into the CHUs, but often it goes out. Rice said that when his wife does not hear from him for a few days, she becomes very concerned about his safety, especially if a helicopter has been reported shot down.
His wife is not the typical pilot's wife, and he is not a supporter of the war on terror. The Sept. 11 attacks occurred while Rice was in flight school in Alabama. Even seeing the World Trade Center towers burn didn't inspire Rice to go to war.
"For the 30 terrorists that launched that attack? No," he said.
But he knew that the military would take action.
"I thought, oh man, here we go," he said. "Now we are all along for the ride."
Rice said he understands why the terrorists attacked the United States.
"What do you expect? We are the Rome of the modern world," he said. "A lot of people love us, and a lot more hate us because of the position we are in.... We are a target. We always will be."
Recently, Rice's wife wrote him that she got a ride from one of his old friends in San Francisco, who works as a cab driver. The old friend said that he doesn't know or understand Rice anymore since he enlisted and cut his hair. But Rice doesn't feel like he has changed and was taken aback by the comments.
"His whole life depends on what I do over here," Rice said. "He is not driving a rickshaw or running on biofuels."
Rice doesn't blame President Bush for this war. He blames the American people, the people who drive cars and create the insatiable need for fossil fuels.
"The United States consumes more every day than the entire world," he said. "It's funny how people justify themselves. If we really gave a shit, everyone would get rid of their cars and get a fucking bicycle."
Rice owns a 44-foot sailboat and plans to live off the grid with his wife for the rest of his life, surfing, playing music, and smoking pot.
"Why should we be in the middle of their killing war?" Rice asked. "I would just as soon pull back into our borders and let them take care of it themselves."