The Ashtray

A reprint from 2003 DUSTOFFer Newsletter

My name is Craig Richardson and I am an Army Helicopter Instructor Pilot.  Currently I serve with the 507th Medical Evacuation Company (MEDEVAC) in Fort Hood Texas.  Recently I was deployed to Kuwait for Operation Iraqi Freedom. This story actually is a compilation of three major events culminating into one final outcome.

My father, David Richardson, was an Air Force Rescue pilot in Vietnam.  In the last few years he took the time to write his memoirs of the year that he spent over there.  In the stories, Dad talks of the light of God encompassing his aircraft during all of his rescues.  He said that when the light appeared, a calming effect overcame him and he knew that he was going to return safely.  After 9 rescue missions, some deep into enemy territory, Dad returned to us safe and sound.

During Desert Storm, I was assigned to the Big Red One in Fort Riley Kansas.  I was a UH-60 Pilot.  Our mission was to fly whatever the Division needed, whether it was mail from the port, a visiting Congressman or food for the troops.  While in Saudi, I was assigned aircraft number 26171.  It is not abnormal for a pilot to keep his aircraft for the duration of an operation.  Since I was relatively new to flying, I was assigned as a right-seat pilot.  The left seater is responsible for the aircraft and all of it’s occupants.  My pilot was named Nelson Donovan.  One day he suggested that we take the ashtrays off the door and scratch our names on the back for posterity.  He took his ashtray off the left side and scratched his name on the back and put it back.  I thought that he would have put everyone’s name on it.  Since he did not, I took mine off the right side, scratched the crews names, the date when we crossed into Iraq, etc.  And then, I promptly forgot about this incident until 12 years later.

With hesitation, I deployed to Iraq.  I was already over 20 years of service and could retire soon.  However, remembering my Father’s stories, maybe I would see the light of God also. On my first mission, I was sent deep into Iraq, at night, to pick up a young female soldier who had been injured in a car accident.  We raced to the scene, due to the fact that the roads were clogged with vehicles, I landed out in the sand next to the soldier’s vehicle.  When we arrive on the scene, the pilots remain in the aircraft, the crew chief gets out performing security and the medic goes to find the patient.  My medic, Sgt Shawn Hope began the trip across the sand to locate the soldier.  After about five minutes, he returned to the aircraft and stated that she had not been injured in a car wreck, but had driven off the road and hit a land mine.  In fact, he stated, they have not moved the vehicle, we have landed in that mine field.  Quickly I began to look for the light of God.  Surely he would not leave me in a mine field in the middle of Iraq.  But alas, the only lights were the lights of passing vehicles.  Since we were already safely on the ground, I elected to receive the patient without moving.  Sgt Hope carefully walked in his old footprints back to the patient.  We safely loaded her on board and began to depart for the hospital.  God, any light yet?  Are you flying with me?

I must digress a little and write that I am now an instructor pilot and since I was training a pilot CW3 Mike Fyola to be a left seater, I was flying in the right seat which is abnormal for me.  We were assigned aircraft number 23904. So, after the first mission I wondered what had I done wrong.  I was in a mine field, was God not there?  This country is supposedly the birth place of civilization.  There is history here.  Where was God?

After a few more missions, I just began to accept that I was not going to see the light of God.  I kept looking, seeking it, however it just wasn’t there. Halfway through the war, I was sent to Baghdad International Airport to pick up a critically injured patient.  Flights were so rough, that we had to have armed Apache escorts with us.  It is a comforting feeling having armed escorts, but our guys were still getting shot at.  We landed into Baghdad while the area was still hot, there were explosion all around.  As Sgt Stefan Roberts, my crew chief, got out, he said this is too rough, we need to hurry.  So, off goes Sgt Hope to check on the patient.  He came back and told us that this one was bad and we would have to leave immediately.  Before we even had the patient loaded, another patient showed up in worse shape.  They were going to really have their hands full in the back.

We are doing good things God.  Are you there?  Show me that you are with me; I am truly frightened for my life and the life of my patients and crew.  The sun continued to shine, but no light of God. We departed from Baghdad, another one of my aircraft that had just flown the route that I was taking had been shot at and they told me to be careful.  God, a little light now would help.

We flew at less than 50 feet and in excess of 145 miles per hour.  Speed and low altitude can be your friend.  Enroute to the hospital, we changed our route of flight, due to the warning from our other aircraft.  Unfortunately, we flew directly over an Iraqi ambush site.  They didn’t have time to react to me, but both of my escort aircraft were shot up so badly that they had to return to base.  So, now I was alone, in the middle of Baghdad.  I stared out the window looking for God.

The flight back from the hospital was uneventful, but also it was without any bright lights.  I guess God knows what he is doing, and he chose not to be there. A number of missions later, I stopped looking for the light, it wasn’t there.  God had abandoned me in Iraq.  Maybe I wasn’t coming home.  That peace that Dad had while flying had escaped me.

Another call, another mission.  This time it is to a new area to pick up yet another wounded soldier.  When we approached the area, I thought, how odd, in this big desert, my landing site was a lush green field.  We sat down, off went Sgt Hope, I sat there lamenting my fate, the radios were loud, the engines were loud, there were vehicles burning on the horizon.  I felt truly alone.

Suddenly, I remembered that I had written my name on aircraft 26171’s ashtray 12 years ago.  That aircraft was now in Colorado.  I was now flying aircraft 23904.  Well, if nothing else, a little posterity for me. I took the ashtray off, we don’t even use them anymore, and they are just there because that is how the aircraft was designed.  Nobody does anything with them.  Plus, I don’t smoke. I turned the ashtray over.  Suddenly all the radios got silent, I could no longer hear the engines, the only thing I could see was the back of that ashtray.  There, in letters scratched by me 12 years ago was my name, the name of the crew I had flown with back then.

How did the ashtray from an aircraft that was in Kansas and is now in Colorado show up in an aircraft in Texas.

How did I get assigned that aircraft, and why was I flying right seat?  I seldom fly that seat and usually change back half way during training.

God did not show himself to me in a bright light, no booming voice from heaven, just a simple piece of metal.

He was there the entire time, riding along on all my missions, keeping me safe.  Sitting on the door no more than a foot away from me at all times. My problem was, I was so busy seeking God, that I didn’t see God.

How does God manifest himself to you?  Is it in that phone call from a friend that you haven’t heard from in years that raised your spirits on an otherwise gloomy day?   Is it in the passing hello from a stranger that helps you see the world in a more positive way? I cannot figure out how these things happened to me, nor will I waste my time trying to figure out a human answer, I just leave it in the hands of God.

I depart for the United States tomorrow, in my carry on bag is an ashtray from a Blackhawk helicopter. It has my name scratched on the back from 12 years ago.  It doesn’t mean anything to other people; it means the world to me.

Craig Richardson CW3,
US Army
507th Med Co (AA)

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