Category Archives: Military

Seeking closure after 9/11

When Tech. Sgt. Keith Winchell’s mother told him she was worried about him deploying here to a war zone, he responded with a shrug of his shoulders and in a heavy New York accent he said, “Ma, I work in the Bronx. I get bottles thrown at me from rooftops. I’ll be fine over there.”

Winchell’s full-time job is protecting the streets as a New York City patrolman in the 50th Precinct. His part-time job is as a fireman at the 105th Civil Engineering Squadron, Stewart Air National Guard Base, N.Y.

He does not remember sleeping during the first three days after the planes hit the World Trade Center, and he still has a hard time sleeping more than four hours at any given time.
Images race through his mind like seeing a fire truck pounded into a 1-foot deep chunk of twisted metal and picking photos of couples out of the rubble at Ground Zero and knowing that one of the people smiling up at him was probably dead.

However, the worst is knowing 343 firefighters and 23 police officers died, two from his precinct.


Tech. Sgt. Keith Winchell, a firefighter from the 380th Expeditionary Civil Engineering Squadron, ties the flag to a fire truck in preparation for the base’s Patriot Day ceremony Sept. 10, 2002. Winchell spoke at the event, and shared stories about the destruction he personally witnessed at Ground Zero and the fellow coworkers he lost to the tragedy.

A year later, he is still searching for ways to deal with the pain of Sept. 11, 2001.

For him, pulling a tour of duty in Southwest Asia for Operation Enduring Freedom helps.

“It’s funny because many Americans want to see Ground Zero for closure,” said Winchell. “Cops and fireman who were on scene want to come here.”

His orders state he will be here 24 days, a number which annoys him.

One of his coworkers said he would volunteer to do dishes just to stay here longer.

Winchell says he would also roll up his sleeves right beside him, if given the opportunity.

Winchell said a tour here is one way for him and many others to take back power from the terrorists.

“I’ve seen the devastation at Ground Zero,” he said. “I had to carry caskets of some of my friends. You realize something has to be done or it will happen again if we don’t.”

The 23-year veteran said sometimes he sees people around base who don’t believe that they personally matter to fighting the war on terrorism. He disagrees.

“We are fighting terrorism from here,” Winchell said. “The tankers refuel the aircraft that go to the front lines, and they can’t do their mission without all of us. It takes the guys turning wrenches on the planes to the guys making our tents comfortable.

“Everyone can’t be the star of the team; you’ve got to have support people as well,” he said. “I can’t be the Special Forces unit smoking the enemy out of their holes, and I may be here for a short time, but I can help out.”

A year ago, he spent four days at Ground Zero on leave without pay to help clear the endless tons of rubble in the hopes of helping someone.

The destruction he saw there still haunts him.

“I stepped through a window in a building into another world,” Winchell said. “There were fires burning in different spots. You would be crawling around and under steel beams… scrapping in the dirt with your hands trying to find survivors because there weren’t enough tools.”

Whenever he feels his resolve slip, he remembers the stories of the people’s lives who were affected by the tragedy.

Stories like the one about Stephen Driscoll, a 38-year-old officer assigned to Winchell’s precinct who was buried alive under tons of rubble trying to rescue victims after the planes hit the Twin Towers.

One story starts with Driscoll and his partner driving by a post office in an emergency vehicle, when he spotted a flag that was wrapped around the flagpole. Driscoll stopped, took out a ladder and unfurled the flag. Then he went inside and told them he would be back again if he saw the flag wasn’t waving freely.

Described by Winchell as one of the most patriotic American citizen he ever met, Driscoll was survived by his wife, Ann, and their 15-year-old son, Barry.

It’s a true account that makes Winchell laugh, not just a small chuckle but a deep belly laugh.

The father of two children, Kaitlin, 13, and Ian, 11, he believes laughter is the best medicine.

“You have to find the humor in it,” Winchell said. “Some guys here are miserable. You have to find ways to cope and entertain yourself.”

At first glance, Chief Master Sgt. Michael Retzlaff, 380th Expeditionary Civil Engineering Squadron chief of maintenance, seems like he has coping with 9/11 down pat. A three-time grandfather, he’s the epitome of a fun loving, “look on the bright side of life”-type of guy.


Chief Master Sgt. Michael Retzlaff, 380th Expeditionary Civil Engineering Squadron, pauses for a moment as he remembers the destruction he saw at Ground Zero at the base’s Patriot Day ceremony Sept. 10. Tech. Sgt. Keith Winchell, 380 ECES, (pictured to his right) also helped clear rubble at Ground Zero and spoke at the ceremony. Both men volunteered to do a tour here to gain closure of the events of 9/11 and snuff out terrorism.

Some might argue that can’t be too hard for Retzlaff, when he pulls his monthly reserve duty at the 624th Civil Engineering Squadron, Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.

However, his military assignments haven’t always been so comfy.

He spent three years active duty in the Marines where he served three tours in Vietnam, and five years active duty in the Air Force with one tour in Vietnam. He fought in both Desert Shield and Storm, and most recently he served at Ground Zero trying to rescue thousands of noncombatants.

“I’ve seen my fair share of death and destruction. I never expected to see someone take the fight to our sovereign soil,” Retzlaff said.

The father of four (Michael, 32, Carla, 30, Keo, 17, Darak, 18) and husband to Shari has given more than enough to his country over his 34 years and 8 months of military service.

But he needed to do one more tour of duty here.

It’s still hard for him to talk about Ground Zero, but he takes comfort in being around others and talking to the lord.


After a Patriot Day ceremony held for the members of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing Sept. 10, 2002, more than 200 base personnel formed a line and waited more than a half an hour in the blistering, 100-degree sun to sign a memorial board dedicated to the 9/11 victims. The sign is engraved with the words, “380 AEW remembers those slain 9/11/01” on the top and “Let’s Roll” on the bottom.

Both men are quick to point out closure won’t come until those who are responsible are brought to justice.

“The terrorists are criminals not soldiers,” said Winchell. “They just killed more than an average criminal does. They committed the crime, so we have to go after them.”

Article and photos by Melissa LeGates (under my former name Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips, 380th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs)

– Originally published in the Sand Script, 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, newsletter Sept. 15, 2002

– Reprinted on Air Force Print News Sept. 18, 2002

– Reprinted on Department of Defense News about the War on Terrorism page Dec. 31, 2003.

me   Melissa LeGates is a professional writer and retired Air Force journalist. She specializes in long-form feature writing and loves to write about living a victorious Christian life, art and health. She and her husband live in Delaware. In her free time, she is a student of colored pencil, watercolor, acrylics and oils.

Melissa is an avid blogger and currently maintains three sites:

– Read excerpts and follow my progress writing my first book “Set My Captives Free” at

– Read published clips from my professional portfolio at

– Read about the world of colored pencil art and artists at

You can contact Melissa at

Camouflage Crafts

Celebrate Our Soliders with Camouflage Crafts

Originally posted by Melissa Legates on Jun 14, 2014 at

The Army celebrates its 239th birthday today. There are lots of ways to celebrate our soldiers – we have 480,000+ on active duty around the world. Make a camouflage tote, camo toys or even camo cupcakes – and some of these camo crafts would make a great Father’s Day gift, too. So take some time today to tell people in uniform that you support them and their family.

BDU Shirt Purses

BDU Shirt Purses

No need to tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree – military spouses, family and friends can proudly proclaim their support by carrying this camo purse made by Army wife Melissa.

Camo Minky Puppy

Ginger Peachy Kids

Camo Minky Puppy

It’s hard for kids to say goodbye when Mom or Dad is deployed. But you can turn an old battle dress uniform (BDU) shirt into a cuddly friend for the kiddos to love until their soldier comes home safe and sound.
Camouflage Cupcake Sandwiches

Camouflage Cupcake Sandwiches

Whip up these treats and watch them disappear! Debbie from Life is Sweets baked these camouflage cupcake sandwiches for her sister’s boyfriend who serves in the Guard and is going overseas for a year.
Camo Play Barricade

Camo Play Barricade

Blogger Midwest Moma rescued these boxes headed for the dumpster and sprayed them camo-style for her son’s Nerf Gun War Birthday Party. They make great barricades for little kids and those young of heart to run, hide and shoot with their Nerf guns. What a great way to recycle and create a playland for a few hours.
All Around Tote Bag

Camo Tote Bag

Jen Eskridge, author of Deploy that Fabric: 23 Sewing Projects that use Military Uniforms in Everyday Life, sells lots of great patterns to turn BDUs into purses, tote bags and quilts.
Camo and Flag Braclet

Camo and Flag Bracelet

Stacy Risenmay from Not Just a Housewife crafted these cute camo and flag bracelets from polymer clay. Wear them in remembrance of the soldiers you love.

Camo Wreath

Faccia Bella Couture

Camo Wreath

This camouflage wreath made by Faccia Bella Couture is a great way to let people know you love a soldier and support the Army all year long.


Melissa LeGates is a freelance writer and retired Air Force journalist who specializes in features and B2B writing. She is also a colored pencil artist and blogs about it at

‘Mechanics of All Trades’ Maintain Equipment

I must admit I have a soft spot for women who break through societal barriers to accomplish great things. Staff Sgt. Michele Calton is one of those woman, and she is beautiful to boot.

U.S Air Force Staff Sgts. Jose Barraza (left) and Michele Calton work on a diesel generator that powers up aircraft on the flightline here. They are assigned to the 777th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron's aerospace ground equipment flight. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jamie Shultz
U.S Air Force Staff Sgts. Jose Barraza (left) and Michele Calton work on a diesel generator that powers up aircraft on the flightline here. They are assigned to the 777th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron’s aerospace ground equipment flight. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jamie Shultz

By U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips
407th Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs

ALI BASE, Iraq, Aug. 26, 2005 — When Staff Sgt. Michele Calton spotted a stranded elderly woman whose car had broken down with smoke streaming from under the hood, her first instinct was not to call someone else for help.

She calmly got out of her car in her 4-inch heels and skirt that she wore for a girls’ night out a few months ago, lifted up the hood of the steaming vehicle and reconnected a loose radiator hose.

Then she handed the woman her cell phone so she could call home before she drove the woman to purchase more antifreeze.

It is all simple stuff to the 777th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron’s aerospace ground equipment airman, who picked up her mechanical skills in the Air Force.

“I credit the military for all my gained knowledge,” Sergeant Calton said. “I probably would have never attempted to close that gap (and learn how to fix machinery) because of the perception this career field carries.”

Sergeant Calton said she sometimes thinks women feel it is too difficult to understand all the moving parts inside engines and how they all tie together. After all, she said before technical school she classified herself as “mechanically challenged.”

“Once you learn the fundamentals of an engine, it’s actually quite simple,” Sergeant Calton said. “The ‘big metal mess’ under the hood starts to take the form of a starter, alternator, radiator, etc.”

Referring to themselves as “mechanics of all trades,” Sergeant Calton and her colleagues have to learn a little bit about everything, because not only do they deliver the equipment to their customers, they maintain it as well.

They quickly figure out how to fix light carts, ground diesel generators, mobile air-conditioning units, air compressors, hydraulic test stands and an assortment of small machinery that support aircraft operations.

Even though they fix some specialized equipment, AGE Airmen consider themselves maintainers foremost.

“I’m a mechanic; I can work on a truck right along side my fiancé,” Sergeant Calton said.

She realizes that her presence in a mostly male-dominated career field is often shocking.

“When people see me, it’s not expected,” said Sergeant Calton, who is from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. “However, I like the fact I get to know all this information. It’s pretty awesome to be able to work on these things.

“I have a (better) understanding how they actually work individually and how they come together to achieve the end result of starting your car or applying power to an aircraft,” she said.

For another AGE airman, it is important to learn the basics so he can apply them to fix just about anything.

“When it boils down to it, it’s all about remembering the basics — where’s the source power, air, hydraulic pressure, etc.,” said Staff Sgt. Jose Barraza, noncommissioned officer in charge of the AGE shop, who is also deployed from Luke.

“AGE is all about problem and solution solving,” he said.

Although AGE craftsman spend a lot of time elbow-deep in grease and wires, they also get out from “under the hood” to talk with their customers.

During her visits, Sergeant Calton said aircrews often show her pictures on their digital cameras of the people and places they see when the C-130 Hercules leaves here.

“When you see the pictures of where the aircraft has been, whether it dropped off humanitarian supplies or troops going home, it’s a great feeling knowing you helped it get there,” she said.

AGE is often a secondary thought in mission success, but without their equipment, transportation could not fix the Humvees security forces use to patrol the base and outside area to keep more than 8,000 U.S. servicemembers and coalition forces safe in this area.

“I rely heavily on AGE (light carts) to provide our lighting for the 24/7 maintenance operations here,” said Senior Master Sgt. Konrad Delger, 407th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron’s vehicle management flight chief from the Nevada Air National Guard. “Also, without their support (of an air compressor) the entire Air Force vehicle fleet here would have been driving around on flat tires.”

Even though AGE Airmen are more than happy to help out people in other units who occasionally need their equipment, their primary mission is supporting aircraft maintainers.

Without their generators the aircraft would have to burn through precious fuel to produce electricity.

“Our main piece of equipment is the (-86) diesel generator set,” Sergeant Barraza said. “That’s our prized possession for AGE out here. It allows aircraft mechanics to maintain and run system checks on aircraft.”

AGE craftsmen provide around-the-clock service, 365 days a year.

“Without AGE, we could not fly the mission or do proper maintenance on aircraft,” said Master Sgt. Jeff Wiedeman, 777th EAMXS production superintendent, who is deployed from Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

“We use the power units (air/electrical) to power the aircraft, so we can use the different systems (like the) interior lighting (and for) trouble shooting all maintenance problems from hydraulics (that lift the aircraft’s flaps), engines and all electrical systems,” he said

Realizing other agencies depend on the equipment to get their job done is a source of satisfaction for Sergeant Calton, who said she was happy to deploy here to have a closer effect on the war on terrorism.

“When I see the aircraft take off and come back, I know that’s a result of our equipment working properly,” she said.

Knowing she can fix equipment, which powers up million-dollar aircraft, has given her the confidence to fix other mechanical items.

Since her training, she seems to have a soft spot for stopping to help those in broken-down vehicles. Before she deployed here, she pulled over to help a 16-year-old girl with a flat tire.

“I pulled out my tool box from my car along with my coveralls (once again I was dressed up, heels and all). Then I showed her how to change a tire,” Sergeant Calton said.

Sergeant Calton said she loves her job because she likes being thrown into a situation where she has to figure out a solution.

“This job is great if you love to attack a challenge,” Sergeant Calton said. “Units come in broke, and you have to figure out what’s wrong with them, fix them and send them back out on their way to take care of the mission.

Servicemember in Iraq serves to help the ‘good guys’ win

I rarely wrote many commentaries while I was in the Air Force. I am a behind the scenes type of gal so I prefer to tell other people’s stories – not my own. But this one has a special place in my heart. Sometimes it is easy to forget what military service really means and this commentary captures my feelings.


A picture of a little Bedouin girl in the desert outside of An Nasiriyah, Iraq. She is probably looking at the first stuffed animal she has ever been given. Photo by Maurice Hessel July 2007
A picture of a little Bedouin girl in the desert outside of An Nasiriyah, Iraq. She is probably looking at the first stuffed animal she has ever been given. Photo by Maurice Hessel July 2007
Here a young Airman tries to communicate with a Iraqi mother and her child while on patrol near An Nasiriyah, Iraq July 2007. The vast majority of the U.S. Air Force missions around the world are humanitarian in nature. Photo by Maurice Hessel.

By Master Sgt. Melissa Phillips, Special to American Forces Press Service (former name) 

WASHINGTON, D.C. July 13, 2007 — Before I left for my current deployment, an 8-year-old asked me out of the blue, “Why do you have to go to Iraq?” It stopped me in my tracks.

I remember thinking, “How can I possibly answer such an immense question without somehow tainting her view on this unpredictable world?”

When I deployed to Southwest Asia in 2002, a fellow Airman told me that he explained to his daughter why he had to deploy by telling her, “Daddy has to go help feed the camels in the desert.”

After about two months into his tour, he said, his 4-year-old told him on a telephone call, “Daddy, someone else needs to feed the camels. I want you to come home.”

I thought that was such a cute, bittersweet story, but I knew the camel trick definitely was not going to work on the well-informed 8-year-old bookworm who posed the question to me.

I wanted to say something profound and comforting, but I was at a loss to answer her. After all, I was headed for a war zone where people don’t always come back alive, and there is no easy explanation to ease the worries of family and friends.

After a few ums and ahhs, I heard myself tell her, “We have to help the good guys fight the bad guys who are trying to hurt them.”

She seemed satisfied with the response, gave me a beaming smile and ran off to play. I sat there stunned.

I had been trying to avoid thinking about the reason why I was going back to Iraq.

After my conversation with her, I thought, “Is it really that simple? Do good guys still win in our universe? Can U.S. and coalition forces really help a nation of people overcome their differences to rebuild a stable country? Who exactly are the good and bad guys?”

In reality, I know there isn’t a black-and-white answer to these questions. That’s hard to accept by a nation of Americans who pride themselves on their logical and forward-thinking mind set.

To servicemembers’ advantage, we are used to operating in the grey. While it’s unfortunate, and although we do our best to avoid it, it’s accepted there will be collateral damage in war.

Lives will be lost. Families and innocent people will be hurt on both sides. I don’t like that reality. However, I firmly believe we are doing more good in Iraq and Afghanistan than harm.

I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

I’ve witnessed children receiving the first stuffed animal or toy they’ve ever had, and I’ve seen their eyes light up. I’ve seen thirsty and hungry people barely surviving in blistering 130-degree heat receive life-sustaining supplies.

I know most Americans don’t have the opportunity to witness the endless parade of care packages that family members send their loved ones to give to the Iraqi people: shoes, clothes, wet wipes, diapers, food and more. I had the privilege to see the goodness in people on both sides, despite the harsh conditions that brought them together.

Many military members, and those who support them, are personally invested in helping the Iraqi people.

We admire Iraqis who are forging ahead to make their country a better place, even though they and their family members are targeted for accepting the responsibility to secure their future.

Insurgents don’t recognize freedom of speech, nor do they value human life. They don’t seek a compromise with their countrymen or neighbors for the greater good of their collective society. They are the bad guys.

Not only is our mission to destroy the bad guys, the U.S. military spends a huge hunk of time on humanitarian missions. We patch up Iraqi and Afghanistan children when they’re sick or hurt. We provide medical services that a vast majority of people could never afford on their own, and might not have access to if they could.

We build hospitals, schools and a myriad of facilities that directly improve their lives and will continue to do so long after the U.S. and coalition presence is gone and this war is in the history books.

The success stories are rarely told in the media, but they occur every day. I knew that from my last tour in Iraq, but I was still confused about how I felt about this war.

Now, when anyone asks me why I’m in Iraq, I know what to say.

I’m here to help the good guys win. It’s that simple.

(Phillips of the U.S. Air Force is deployed to Iraq from the 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs.)

Melissa LeGates freelance writer

Melissa LeGates freelance writer

Melissa LeGates is a freelance writer and retired Air Force journalist who specializes in features and B2B writing. She is also a colored pencil artist and blogs about it at You can commission Melissa’s work (either writing or art) by contacting her at 1-541-995-0015 or e-mail

Air Force Still Photographers

by Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips (former name)

ALI BASE, Iraq — Photographers here are proving that a picture is truly worth a thousand words in fighting the war on terrorism.

“Our images tell the military story to the American public, our children and their children, and beyond,” said Master Sgt. Maurice Hessel, base multimedia center manager and still photographer.

“Military photographers have had a tremendous impact on history and document the horrors of war,” said Sergeant Hessel, who is deployed from McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. “The men and women of the U.S. military are considered heroes in the eyes of most Americans, and I believe military photographers have played a role in that view.”

Considering themselves observers to history, photographers here have captured images of Iraqi citizens and U.S. Airmen meeting each other.

“I like knowing what I see is what someone else will see, and maybe have a better understanding that not all of the locals hate us or want to bomb us,” said Airman 1st Class Jamie Shultz, a 407th Expeditionary Communications Squadron still photographer also deployed from McConnell.

“If no one saw what we were able to document, then people can assume that no one wants us here or needs our help,” she said. “We are the eyes that everyone sees through.”

The photographers have also documented the friendships formed between U.S. and Iraqi Airmen working together to refurbish the Iraqi Air Force.

“Shooting here is the truest sense of photojournalism,” Sergeant Hessel said. “We tell the story as it happens.

“It’s a target-rich environment, and I’m like a kid in a candy store,” he said. “The (Iraqi citizens) are not acting any different because I’m around. It’s survival for them, and I get to see them in their hour of need, in their own environment and uninhibited.”

But the historic documentation does not come without the danger of working in a combat zone. That fact is not lost on their family members back home, but their imagery helps provide consolation for some.

“A picture that Sergeant Hessel took of me holding a little girl in my arms has helped to put my wife and son at ease,” said Chief Master Sgt. Charles Aliff, the 407th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron security forces manager, who along with his subordinates have had their base defense and humanitarian missions documented by the 407th ECS.

“(The base photographers’) work conveys a message to a larger community, military or civilian, of the significant contribution an individual or an organization provides in the defense of our nation and the universal fight against terrorism,” he said.

“The images they create educate, motivate and inspire confidence in the U.S. Air Force and its role in the defense of freedom,” the Ohio Air National Guard chief said.

Photographers have logged many hours accompanying Chief Aliff and security forces Airmen on convoy patrols throughout the 210 square miles surrounding the base to forge relationships with the locals and keep the more than 9,000 U.S. and coalition forces on the installation safe from terrorist attacks.

“The minute I go (off base) my situational awareness increases,” Sergeant Hessel said. “What we overlook on the roads of America might kill you out here.

“The other day there was a soda can on the street,” he said. “In America, it is just a can, but in Iraq that same can could blow your leg off. I don’t take anything for granted outside the wire.”

Before deploying, photographers are treated to a crash course in convoy operations and survival techniques. While outside the base perimeter, they carry an M-16 but their preferred weapon of choice is a camera.

“My camera is like security forces’ rifle — it’s a part of me,” Sergeant Hessel said about the camera and 30 pounds of photographic equipment he hauls around to get the perfect shot.

Base photographers know that landing the picture-perfect shot is not as easy as pointing a camera at a subject and hoping magic happens.

“Good photos incorporate all the elements: background, foreground and subject,” Sergeant Hessel said.

However, the seasoned photographer says the single-most critical component of a good photo is the emotion caught in the image.

“A good photograph gives some insight into someone’s life and personality,” he said. “You almost have to be a part of the situation — to feel what they’re feeling.

“I empathize with my subjects,” Sergeant Hessel said.

Sergeant Hessel said he finds it easy to capture emotions when photographing the local Bedouin — nomadic Arabs of the Arabian, Syrian or North African deserts — population here, who often do not have basic necessities or the money to buy diapers or shoes for their children.

He is not alone.

“It’s heartaching to see kids run, sometimes barefooted over rocks and dirt, in weather that would be unbearable (100 to 130 degrees) to most, hoping that they’ll get some water or food thrown at them,” Airman Shultz said.

The photographers have to strike a delicate balance: Remain an objective observer to history in the making, yet act as a conduit of emotion to portray humanity occurring.

“You have a split second to take a picture,” Sergeant Hessel said. “If you pause to take the photo on either end of that moment, you lost the photo.”

Their photographs are not just to adorn walls for aesthetic reasons. They can also affect the shape of Airmen’s work environment.

“The battlefield commanders and the secretary of defense use our imagery as a decision-making tool for critical operational assessment,” Sergeant Hessel said.

Safety and criminal investigators also use their photos to solve criminal cases or assess safety mishaps.

“One day you may be documenting a fatality, the next day you’re documenting an awards ceremony,” Sergeant Hessel said. “The job goes from one extreme to the next.”

It is a dynamic mission that many individuals do not realize photographers perform.

Documenting Airmen and the mission is a privilege and responsibility Sergeant Hessel said he does not take lightly.

“It’s pretty cool that my images will outlive me and my children,” he said. “Imagine what history books would be like without pictures.”


Melissa LeGates freelance writer
Melissa LeGates freelance writer

Melissa LeGates is a freelance writer and retired Air Force journalist who specializes in features and B2B writing. She is also a colored pencil artist and blogs about it at You can commission Melissa’s work (either writing or art) by contacting her at 1-541-995-0015 or e-mail

Iraqi Boy to Receive Heart Surgery in U.S.

By Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips, USAF (former name) 
Special to American Forces Press Service

ALI BASE, Iraq, Aug. 23, 2005 – Eight-year-old Baher looks like a happy, healthy boy on the outside. But the members of the combined Iraqi and U.S. Air Force C-130 aircrew who flew him on the first leg of his journey out of Iraq Aug. 22 know he isn’t healthy — at least for now.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Eight-year-old Baher and his mother, Afaf, board the C-130 aircraft that took them on the first leg of the long journey to New Orleans, where Baher will have heart surgery at Tulane University Hospital and Clinic. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Brian Davidson, USAF

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Baher and his mother, Afaf, are headed to New Orleans to have a hole in his heart repaired through a new program called “Operation Mend a Heart.”

“I was very happy to (be a part of the aircrew to) help him,” said Iraqi air force navigator Atiya, Squadron 23 (Transport).

Atiya was one the C-130 crewmembers who flew Baher from Baghdad International Airport to Basrah Air Station on the first leg of his journey.

Atiya, who has three sons, ages 11, 10 and 5, of his own, held Baher on his lap to show him the airplane’s control panel.

In Basrah, a team of Army civil affairs specialists from the Humanitarian Operation Center in Kuwait was waiting to whisk the family to Kuwait to pick up the proper visas and paperwork.

Later in the week, the mother and son are to board a plane headed for their ultimate destination — Tulane University Hospital and Clinic, where Baher will undergo surgery to correct a congenital heart defect.

Tulane is donating the $100,000 surgery. Operation Mend a Heart is facilitating the effort between Tulane, the U.S. military, and coalition forces.

More than 10 different U.S. and coalition military and civilian agencies will have a part in getting Baher to New Orleans for the life-saving surgery.

“Let’s just say it’s a network of inspired people,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Mark N. Matthews Sr., of 90th Regional Readiness Command, at Camp Pike, Ark. Matthews helped facilitate intra-theater airlift and began dreaming of ways to help Iraqi children with heart problems. Even though he currently isn’t in the Middle East, he helped smooth over logistical bumps and get the right people involved.

The Ali Base C-130 aircrew had only a short portion of the mission, but it left a lasting impression. “This was the first (advisory support team) mission that flew humanitarian airlift for their country,” said Maj. Bob May, a Squadron 23 advisory support team pilot instructor assigned to the 777th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron here.

May was the copilot and an Iraqi officer piloted the aircraft. “It was a great feeling being able to do this together with so many Iraqi crewmembers on board,” he added.

At the end of the trip, the U.S. crewmembers asked one of the Iraqis to translate their well wishes to the mother and son. “We asked the translator to tell them it was an honor for us to be able to help him,” said May, who has a son Baher’s age.

“When Baher and his mother were driving away, they were all big smiles,” May said. “It’s good to know you’re making an impact and doing something good for other people.”

That spirit of kindness is what moved Matthews, who started the seeds for the idea of the organization, while helping a 5-year-old Iraqi girl named Noor get airlifted to Kuwait aboard a Japanese aircraft earlier this year. The story garnered wide acclaim and recognition through the recently deceased reporter Peter Jennings.

“On a phone call home, I described how humbled I was to have been a part of helping Noor,” Matthews said. “Later, the organization came up with the phrase, ‘You must have a heart, to save a heart.'”

The program’s long list of supporters includes Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu. “The people behind Operation Mend a Heart understand that one way we can support our troops is by supporting the people they are fighting for, the children of Iraq,” Landrieu said in a press release. “Operation Mend a Heart will help provide the humanitarian medical assistance to the underprivileged children of Iraq who would otherwise not have access to the pediatric medical and surgical care they need.”

During the expected four-week recovery period after the surgery, an Iraqi professor at Tulane will host Baher and his mother. They’re expected to return to Iraq in October.

For many of those involved, the intense logistical coordination required by U.S. and coalition military personnel is indicative of a key role the U.S. military plays in Operation Iraqi Freedom, but that is often downplayed in the news.

“Most Americans think of our military in combat roles,” said Operation Mend a Heart program founder Karen Troyer-Caraway, who is also vice president of Tulane University Hospital and Clinic. “Many Americans do not realize that our military mission also includes humanitarian assistance, rebuilding communities, and investing in the future.

“Operation Mend a Heart is ordinary Americans helping the U.S. military accomplish their mission.”

(Air Force Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips is assigned to the 407th Air Expeditionary Group.)

Base family raises Guiding Eyes for the Blind Jan. 14, 2009

I published this article about a half a month before I retired from the Air Force. You get to meet a lot of great people in the U.S. Air Force and I was proud to serve.

Note: My former name was Phillips.

by Melissa Phillips
USAF retired

1/14/2009 – DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — Heidi Luba believes it’s important to raise her children with a strong civic-minded ethic to give back to the community.

What she didn’t fully realize before she and her family embarked on a journey to raise and train a Guiding Eyes for the Blind guide dog is how much they would receive back in return.

“Fala is such a love,” said Heidi, a homemaker who is married to Master Sgt. Michael Luba, 9th Airlift Squadron. “She keeps me company throughout the day.”

A 2-year-old black labrador retriever guide candidate, Fala requires more than daily grub and a pat on the back.

Staying on track

In order to qualify as a puppy raiser for the Guiding Eyes for the Blind program, each member of the family has to be committed to training, which is a ’24/7′ proposition.

There are reports to be filled out and milestones to be reached throughout every phase of training.

“It is fun,” said Brandon Luba, 18. “However at times, it is a little stressful. The whole training thing takes a lot of commitment.”

Brandon, who was Fala’s primary care giver, was in charge of making sure she stayed on track.

The family must walk the potential guide dog daily, rain or shine, to acclimate the dog to a variety of weather conditions. There are also daily sessions on proper puppy manners like sit, down, heel and stay.

Puppy college and field trips

Each dog and trainer also attends a kind of local puppy college with other potential recruits. At first, the sessions are once a week, then bi-weekly and finally once a month. On average, it takes a network of puppy raisers 14 – 16 months to train guide dog candidates.

Five days a week, puppy raisers are responsible to take their furry recruits on field trips so they don’t get spooked in different situations, Brandon said.

Sudden noises and movement can frighten dogs, but guide dogs don’t have that luxury. A spooked guide dog can be fatal to a visually-impaired person who depends on them to cross busy streets and navigate daily life without sight.

Family, community commitment

“It is truly a family and community effort to raise a dog,” said Heidi. “We started working with Guiding Eyes for the Blind about three years ago. Brandon has grown a lot since then. He’s learned discipline, commitment and how to care for something other than himself.”

The Luba’s eight-year-old daughter Kirsten brings a different aspect to the training. Puppies have to learn to behave around children, who naturally are drawn to pet them. However, the guide dog’s job is to ignore distractions and stay tuned into the visually-impaired person’s needs versus playing like a normal pet might.

The pay off

“It’s well worth all the trouble and difficulty to know that you are going to help someone who needs it,” Heidi said. “The biggest reward is to help a visually-impaired person live a good life and one that affords them more opportunities than they might have had.”

James Case, a Dover Air Force Base switchboard operator for Delaware Industries for the Blind, was 40 when diabetes claimed his sight.

“I went with just a cane for five years … I procrastinated,” said Mr. Case. “After I got Davis, I thought, ‘what a wasted five years.’ Guide dogs give blind people the ability to get out and work, and socialize. It’s especially important to a single person.”

Although Mr. Case has his wife Holly to help him, he wanted to remain independent for most daily functions.

A horse enthusiast, he takes pride in the fact he can still feed and take care of his two horses with the help of Davis, a 9-year-old black Lab.

The base operator once got lost in his own backyard, but he said Davis was right there to lead him home. Prior to Davis, he would have struggled for who knows how long just to locate his own door.

“A blind person depends on the sounds the cane makes against the ground to get around,” said Mr. Case. “If it’s pouring rain, it muffles the sound. Snowy sidewalks are no good either. A dog is more on target.”

A cane simply can’t perform some functions for a visually-impaired person.

“I can’t thank the puppy raisers enough,” he said. “It’s a wonderful gift, and it has got to be hard to raise a dog for a year and then give it up. It can’t be expressed how wonderful an opportunity it is.”

Making the cut

For the last three years, it’s been Heidi’s dream to raise a dog that would help a visually-impaired person live a better life. The Luba’s had read personal accounts from several handlers on how much each guide dog impacted their owner’s life. It is part of what kept them going and allowed them to give up Fala.
In early October, the Lubas said goodbye to Fala, who made the trip to New York for advanced guide training. In November, the Luba’s found out that she didn’t make the cut.
The drop-out rate for the program is high. Out of 500 dogs that are bred each year for the program, only half qualify as guides. The other half are considered for police work or adopted.

The Lubas were fortunate enough to adopt Fala, who is back home and still involved in the program. She now helps other puppy candidates by attending classes to socialize new puppies to get along with other four-legged creatures.

The Lubas also help out as puppy babysitters. They give other puppy raisers a break by taking on candidates for several weeks so the puppies are trained in different homes and learn how to accept commands from other people.

And, Fala is there every step of the way wagging her tail.

Breeding kindness

Since the program was founded in 1954, more than 6,500 dogs have graduated to become a lifeline to the visually-impaired. The Lubas are a part of that legacy.

“I feel very strongly that every student should do something like this in order to make a better America,” Heidi said.

For now, the Lubas are happy to provide a good home to Fala and Cinder, the families other black Lab.

After all, there is always the future and another generation of guide dogs who need dedicated puppy raisers to help them get a paw up.

Melissa LeGates freelance writer
Melissa LeGates freelance writer

Melissa LeGates is a freelance writer and retired Air Force journalist who specializes in features and B2B writing. She is also an artist and blogs about it at

C-5 crashes at Dover AFB April 3, 2006

Aerial pic of C-5 crash at Dover AFB April 3, 2006
Aerial pic of C-5 crash at Dover AFB April 3, 2006

This is one of the highest profile news releases I ever worked on for the Air Force. A C-5 crashed on my way to work April 3, 2006. It is something I will never forget. Most of all, I was impressed by the professionalism of all the Air Force and local agencies who helped mitigate the damage and clear the wreckage.

P.S. My former name was Phillips.

Story below:

Seventeen People Recovering After Surviving C-5 Crash

By Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del., April 4, 2006 – Seventeen people are in various stages of recovery after surviving a C-5 aircraft crash less than a mile from Dover Air Force Base’s southern perimeter yesterday.

“Our crew did a spectacular job of landing the airplane in its location,” said Air Force Col. Chad T. Manske, 436th Airlift Wing vice commander and current acting commander of the wing. “Thankfully, there were no fatalities or injuries, and by the grace of God the aircraft didn’t explode.”

The C-5B Galaxy broke apart into three major pieces at 6:42 a.m. in a grassy area surrounding the base’s fenced perimeter. The land is classified as proprietary to the base and was purchased years ago to provide a cushion of airspace to protect the civilian population from extremely rare and unlikely incidents such as this, said Manske said.

At approximately 6:21 a.m., the transport plane took off headed for Ramstein Air Base, Germany, carrying supplies destined for people serving in the global war on terror. Officials will release further details after Air Force officers analyze information collected from accident and safety investigation boards.

In incidents like this, the crew is trained to declare an in-flight emergency and would have checked to ensure the plane was still under control. At that point, the crew would assess the cause of the emergency, process their aircraft checklists, determine a location to safely land to mitigate risks and prevent loss of life, and communicate their course of action to everyone aboard the plane, Manske said.

The gigantic plane, which can transport six Greyhound buses end-to-end and looms above the flightline at the height of a six-story building, crashed into the field at 6:42 a.m.

Air Force and local first responders, including medical professionals, firefighters, security forces and civil engineer personnel, immediately responded to the scene.

Officials don’t know why the aircraft, fully laden with fuel for a long trip over the Atlantic Ocean, didn’t blow up on impact.

Base officials won’t speculate on the cause of the accident, but they say they are thankful whatever the reason.

“Our crews are thoroughly and stringently trained on a continued basis to handle events in the aircraft,” said Air Force Col. Ronald A. Rutland, commander of the 512th Airlift Wing, the Reserve wing located at Dover. “At this time we are not sure of everything that occurred during this flight; it’s currently under investigation.

“I consider our crews here at Dover, the 512th and 436th Airlift Wings, as consummate professionals,” Rutland said. “It is with great relief that we had no loss of life in this incident.”

The crew included 709th and 326th Airlift Squadron members from the 512th AW and personnel from the 436th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, from the 436th AW.

This particular aircraft recently underwent an avionics modernization program upgrade to convert the cockpit from 1960s instrument technology to one similar to that used by modern civilian airliners.

Introduced in 1998, the modernization program enhances aircraft reliability and maintainability, and helps maintain structural and system integrity, while reducing operating costs, officials said. “The (modernized) cockpits are needed to operate aircraft in the saturated airspace over the North Atlantic Ocean and Europe,” Manske said. “It also allows us to interface with other military and civilian airplanes more precisely than before.”

Only five C-5 aircraft have been lost since the plane’s inception in 1969. Until now, no Dover planes have been destroyed. “The safety of the aircraft is paramount to our crews or they wouldn’t have flown it that morning,” Manske said. “It’s a great aircraft. It sustained a massive force against its hull during the crash, yet it still protected our crews.”

A board of Air Force officers has convened and is investigating the cause of the accident. In order to protect the integrity of the investigation process, none of the crewmembers will be able to discuss the crash, officials said. The unclassified findings will be released to the public as soon as the board results are released. Officials noted such accident and safety investigations typically take about four months to complete.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the survivors, family members and coworkers impacted by the crash,” Manske said. “We wish all of them a speedy recovery.”

The crewmembers were listed in the following conditions as of mid-afternoon today:


  • Capt. Brian Lafreda, 326th AS, fair, at the Christiana Hospital, Christiana, Del.;
  • Lt. Col. Robert Moorman, 326th AS, fair, Christiana;
  • Lt. Col. Harlan Nelson, 326th AS, fair, Kent General Hospital-Bay Health Medical Center, Dover, Del.;
  • Master Sgt. Timothy Feiring, 709th AS, released;
  • Master Sgt. Michael Benford, 709th AS, released;
  • Tech. Sgt. Vincent Dvorak, 709th AS, fair, Christiana;
  • Master Sgt. Brenda Kremer, 709th AS, released;
  • Chief Master Sgt. David Burke, 326th AS, released;
  • Chief Master Sgt. George Mosley, 709th AS,
  • released;
  • Tech. Sgt. Henry Fortney, 326th AS, released;
  • Senior Airman Scott Schaffner, 89th AS, stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, released;
  • Tammy Lucas, Lockheed Martin employee, fair, Kent General;
  • Staff Sgt. David Abrams, 436th AMXS, released;
  • Senior Airman Nicholas Vather, 436th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, fair, Kent General;
  • Retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Paul Kath, released;
  • Hannelore Kath, released; and
  • Retired Tech. Sgt. Raul Salamanca, released.

(Air Force Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips is assigned to the 436th Airlift Wing.)

Melissa LeGates freelance writer
Melissa LeGates freelance writer

Melissa LeGates is a freelance writer and retired Air Force journalist who specializes in features and B2B writing. She is also an artist and blogs about it at