Memories of Ghostriders' duty remain

The Clearwater Army reservists, who returned from Iraq in November, make up the only air combat unit in Pinellas.

Published January 23, 2006

David DeHoyos spends his work days patrolling city streets in a St. Petersburg police car.

But last year, DeHoyos spent his work days flying over Iraq in Black Hawk helicopters with a Clearwater-based Army Reserve unit nicknamed "the Ghostriders," which recently returned home.

One of those days will always stick with him.

The setting was a helicopter landing zone at Abu Ghraib Prison, where two helicopter crews from the Ghostriders were preparing to transport some Army generals. An Apache helicopter escort was circling overhead, and two Black Hawks from another unit were preparing to land.

Just then, a mortar shell blasted near the landing zone, then another. DeHoyos could see insurgents "walking" the mortars, making adjustments so the shells would hit closer to the helicopters.

The two other Black Hawks rose into the sky to escape, and a third mortar round exploded underneath, right on the helipad.

"Next thing I know, I feel like something came up behind me," almost like a kick in the back, DeHoyos said, and he found himself on his hands and knees.

He felt something wet running down his back and assumed the worst. An image flashed through his mind: a flag being handed to his wife.

"Check me out. I think I'm hit!" he shouted.

DeHoyos got back on his feet, with help from fellow crew chief Sgt. Jerry Castonguay. The wet stream running down his back turned out to be sweat, not blood. A 3-inch hunk of spinning shrapnel had hit him - right in the rear plate of his body armor.

He got a bruise. And a reminder of the danger he and his buddies were facing as they flew over Iraq, on missions that included transporting soldiers, monitoring elections and participating in special operations.

"Maybe an inch higher and it would have hit the back of my neck. Body armor saved my life," DeHoyos said.

"Next day, you wake up and say, "Good Lord, I've got six months left in this place?"'

The day after his near miss, DeHoyos boarded a Black Hawk again and flew back to Abu Ghraib.

The Ghostriders - officially Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion of the 159th Aviation Regiment - returned to Florida in November. They came home as they left, without much fanfare.

The Ghostriders are the only air combat unit based in Pinellas County. It operates out of a hangar near St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. The unit consists of 37 soldiers and eight Black Hawk helicopters, although three of the helicopters are still in Iraq.

Most of the soldiers are reservists, meaning they work regular jobs throughout Florida and go to Clearwater for regular training. But in January 2004, the Ghostriders were put on active duty.

Maj. James Fitzgerald, the commander, said the deployment sent the unit across the United States. After mobilizing at Fort Bragg, N.C., his helicopter crews helped with medical evacuations and training with other soldiers in Arizona and at Fort Knox and Fort Campbell on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. In some of these missions, the Ghostriders were doing a job normally performed by other units that already were deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In summer 2004, the unit went to the Bahamas for drug interdiction work. But later that year, soldiers in the unit learned they would be heading to the Middle East.

After two weeks' leave around Thanksgiving 2004, they loaded up and flew to Kuwait, then set up at Camp Anaconda at Balad Air Base, about 40 miles north of Baghdad.

There, they were given missions such as escorting generals and other VIPs, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, transporting infantry soldiers, helping with Iraq's historic elections and assisting in special operations.

Fitzgerald won't talk about the latter.

They flew over desert and grasslands, over endless cities where the only colors were brown, tan and gray, except for the shining, brightly colored domes of mosques. They flew to the north, in view of distant snow-covered mountains reminiscent of Colorado.

Their work took the Ghostrider crews on innumerable low-altitude flights over Baghdad and other cities. On one of the early flights, Lt. Aaron Stepler, 31, a pilot who also supervised maintenance operations, got a taste of what was to come.

"One day we were flying back from Baghdad, it was just a standard mission, just a regular day," he said. They crossed over some palm groves near an airfield, and "the right-side gunner ended up yelling, "Break left, break left, break left!'

"So we broke away. What happened was there were three Iraqis down in the palm groves that were shooting up at us.

"That was a little unnerving because that was the first time it had happened."

Fitzgerald said he is proud that his helicopters never got hit by bullets while flying.

But the insurgents were never far away.

At the air base where they stayed, "there were mortars coming in just about daily," Stepler said.

One day, "we had one land probably about 20 yards from our command post," said Sgt. 1st Class Raymond Toper, a crew chief and gunner.

The shell left a 5-foot crater.

"I hate to say it but ... it was more annoying than scary towards the end," said Stepler, who is a full-time soldier assigned to the Army Reserve.

Everyone hated a mortar round during mealtime because that shut down the chow line. Eventually, the challenge was to fight complacency.

A grim look sets on Fitzgerald's face when he tells of a day in January 2005 when he flew over Mosul. He already had heard reports of insurgents setting up roadblocks and going from car to car, executing anyone who showed signs of working with the American-backed Iraqi police or election officials.

Looking down at an overpass crossing the Tigris River, he saw it firsthand. A roadblock had been set, and armed insurgents were dragging people out of cars. Fitzgerald didn't see any shooting, he said, but he didn't doubt it was about to start. His crew called in the report to ground forces.

The scene appalled him, but it gave him newfound respect for Iraqis.

"'Cause you know what? They kept coming," Fitzgerald said. "They would keep coming to be police officers. They would keep coming to be elections officials."

Mixed in with the scary times, the Ghostriders said, they also experienced some inspiring moments.

One came late in January 2005, during the National Assembly elections, an important milestone.

Two helicopters flew north of Mosul into a region ruled by scattered individual sheikdoms, what Fitzgerald called "the wild, wild west." The Ghostriders' job was to pick up ballots stored in large plastic bins.

The two crews landed next to a small village. Two "technicals" - sport utility vehicles topped with 12.7mm Russian-made machine guns - roared over a berm and sped toward them.

It was a tense moment, with Fitzgerald feeling he had no way to tell if the people approaching were planning to make friends or start firing. But the technicals pointed their guns away. Fitzgerald relaxed.

And then the soldiers discovered something that overwhelmed them. So many people had voted that there were too many ballots to fit in two helicopters.

"I think everyone was taken back by it," Fitzgerald said. "We were all, "Let freedom ring.' You know, it was more meaningful than we can express. They just turned out in droves."

DeHoyos, who also was on that trip, said he "felt some pride for the Joe Schmo citizen Iraqi. 'Cause you're under threat of people blowing up polling places ... despite all that, 90 percent of the people voted? It was incredible."

Fitzgerald got a similar feeling during another election, when his job was to fly over Karbala and monitor polling places. One problem: He didn't know where the polling places were.

But flying over that city, which is revered in Islam, the soldiers noticed one thing that stood out in the dusty scene below: lines of women wearing their traditional black burqas. The women were lined up to vote, so many that the Ghostriders suddenly had a way to find polling places.

"It was just amazing," Fitzgerald said. "I mean, in a traditional Islamic society that enforced the burqas, now they're expressing their political views. ... That was quite impressive."