PORTLAND, Ore. — This week marks 20 years since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The stated goal of the operation was to destroy weapons of mass destruction and topple the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
"My fellow citizens," President George W. Bush began. "At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger."
The night the invasion began, in a 4-minute address to the nation, President Bush foreshadowed what was to come.
"A campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation almost as large as California," he said. "It could be longer and more difficult than some predict."
Eight years of war and its companions of death and despair followed. No weapons of mass destruction were ever found.
Do you recall where you were when the invasion began?
The war at sea
The Story's Pat Dooris and his brother were aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier operating in the Persian Gulf. Dooris was an embedded reporter, living on the ship for more than three weeks. His brother was an F-18 pilot stationed on the ship.
Along for the ride was KGW news photographer Rod Stevens, who managed to send back stories to the station without using a satellite hook-up — quite a technical feat for the time.
There were something like 10 crews of reporters aboard the Abraham Lincoln, but all of them were at the network level. Dooris and Stevens were the only crew for a local TV station. Dooris was there not only to report on his brother, but on the many others aboard who hailed from the Pacific Northwest.
At the time, public sentiment in the U.S. overwhelmingly supported going to war. Dooris reckons that he wasn't there to tell anybody whether the war was right or wrong, but to tell the stories of the people on the ship. Here he is, reporting from the war's outset in 2003:
Thursday morning, jets launched from the Abraham Lincoln ... But they were not flying specifically-designed war missions. Instead they were told to combine the typical patrols of the southern no-fly zone with an increased aggressiveness — an eye toward targets of opportunity, an attempt to soften up the battlefield.
Pilots heading out, including these from the Stinger squadron based in California, say this day brought no significant changes.
"Still feels about the same as we've always been doing," said one pilot. "I mean, we're here to do a job, we're ready for the job, and we do what they tell us."
"Do just as we have trained," another pilot agreed. "There's not much new. We're very familiar with the area and everything should be pretty routine for us today."
Still, the official word that this aircraft carrier and the United States are at war with Iraq now caught some by surprise.
"Yes, 'cause they woke me up," one crew member told Dooris. "But other than that, I was glad to get it started, get it over with."
"I'm relieved," another said. "We're actually doing something, we're doing what we trained to do our entire careers. So I'm glad that we got it started."
'Something to behold'
The Lincoln had been at sea for six months, a typical stint for an aircraft carrier, and was beginning to head back home to Washington state when it was ordered to turn back for the Persian Gulf in preparation for war.
Many members of the crew were restless and tired of waiting. Dooris and Stevens were given access to pilot briefing rooms as the ship prepared for its first night mission:
As the sun went down today there was a flurry of activity here in the Persian Gulf as jets, including this F-14, launched from the Abraham Lincoln to deliver devastating blows in Iraq.
Jet after jet launched tonight; F-18s loaded down with so many bombs they needed afterburners to get off the ship safely; also, radar-jamming EA-6Bs from Whidbey Island and F-14 Tomcats from Virginia Beach.
An hour before launch, the Tomcatters from VF-31 met to discuss the battle plan. They'd already been briefed on the weather, altitude and speeds they'd use for the night, as well as their target: a military facility with an airport and other buildings
The crews also know how they will fit in to the many, many other aircraft attacking Iraq this night. A senior member of the squadron reminded the pilots and weapon officers to keep their cool.
"Keep calm, it's gonna be crazy," he said. "There's gonna be AAA, SAMs (anti-aircraft weapons) out there. Stay calm ... trust your training."
The Tomcatters' commanding officer had a similar message: stay calm when the enemy radar hits you.
And then it was time to launch. Five hours later, the tired but excited crews returned to the ship. They described what they'd seen over Iraq.
"It was something to behold out there tonight," one said. "Saw a bomb about every third of a second for a half-hour impact. And it was something that I've never seen before in my life."
"Kept really busy up there, a lot of stuff going on. You know, you could see for miles, a hundred miles out there. Like they were saying before, stuff was blowing up left and right. A lot of stuff was getting shot up at us, but we kept our heads on a swivel — it worked out real well I think."
No one is saying how many more nights of attacks like this lie ahead, but certainly here on the Abraham Lincoln, they have prepared many more bombs.
The USS Abraham Lincoln was the lead carrier in the U.S. war effort. It took an astounding number of people to keep the ship working and the flight deck running. That included people from Newberg and Gresham:
Launching a jet off an aircraft carrier is no small task — it takes dozens and dozens of people. They're the unsung heroes: the deck crew.
Aboard the Abraham Lincoln, the crew works night and day getting the big jets ready for flight.
"Fast action, a lot of rain right now," one deck crew member reported. "I hope it clears up."
They handle everything from cleaning the canopy to scrambling up on a jet at the last second to help a pilot troubleshoot electronics — and it does not matter what the weather is doing.
"It's crazy all the time, no matter if there's bad weather or good weather. There's always something interesting going on. But no matter what's going on you gotta get your job done."
Richard Cook from Newberg is one of the many "red shirts" on deck who take care of the explosives.
"It's tough, we got a lot of rain, sometimes hot days sometimes cold days," Cook said. "It's pretty hard sometimes."
This day it was especially hard for the pilots. A fine, powdery sandstorm enveloped the ship, dropping visibility to less than a mile. Listen as the head of the air wing talks to one pilot struggling to land:
"I prefer you to couple, I need you to fly the best approach of your life. I need you on and on about half a mile," he said.
"I'm not gonna couple because this thing's throwing me off at three quarters of a mile," the pilot replied.
The pilot did manage to land on the carrier safely.
At least one Texan on board says he's seen enough of these storms — and water.
"It's a new — it's new to me," he told Dooris. "First time outta home, and I've never been in the ocean this long, it's the first time. I live in Texas, in the middle."
But a crew chief from Gresham says the young men and women working the decks are doing an excellent job.
"Half of them don't realize what they're really doing, supporting the guys on the ground," he said. "And to see an 18, 19-year-old kid in charge of a $35-40 million airplane, and knowing that's their responsibility, is pretty something."
The Lincoln's air wing included EA-6B Prowlers, then based at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington. The squadron has since moved, but 20 years ago they played a crucial role in the early days of the war:
In their defense of Baghdad, the Iraqis have fired mostly unguided missiles at the jets leaving this and the other carriers. One reason might be that old, ugly plane down there: the EA-6B Prowler.
The biggest fear for a fighter pilot is a guided missile that can blow him out of the sky. The Iraqis are thought to have so many around Baghdad, there's a zone called "the MEZ" (Missile Engagement Zone). But so far, surprisingly for some experts, Iraqis have rarely used their radars to guide those missiles toward coalition fighters.
"I guess the biggest one is the limited number of guided — seemingly limited number," Commander Scott Pollpeter told Dooris. "We're coming to their neighborhood, coming into their backyard, we expect a good fight."
Pollpeter is the commander VAQ-139, based at Whidbey Island. The squadron specializes in electronic jamming. Pollpeter says the Prowlers have not only jammed enemy radar day and night since the war began, they've also fired several HARM missiles that follow radar signals back to the source.
"We have trained the Iraqis over the many years that we've been involved here, and from Desert Storm and from Kosovo ... they're good in terms of watching and learning lessons," Pollpeter said. "They know if they radiate, there may be a HARM missile coming down the stovepipe right to them."
The fighter jets on board also carry that deadly HARM missile. Heather O'Donnell is a member of the Prowlers — she was on board during one of those missile attacks.
"It was awesome," she said. "I mean, just to watch it go up there in the sky, big bright light and everything. I'd never shot one before, so we had goggles on and watched it all the way up there and it was just ... it was an amazing sight to see."
O'Donnell's uncle is a New York firefighter. He sent a flag to the ship to help the Prowlers remember the meaning behind their mission.
"There've been times where it's been really exciting and then some times where you're just like, 'Okay, wait. This is it?' And then you think about the guys on the ground and you try to go out there to support them as best you can," O'Donnell said.
Dooris' reporting aboard the carrier lasted less than a month — the ship itself was at sea for a record 10 months, finally returning to its base in Everett, Wash. in May 2003. For Dooris' brother it was the long stay, not the short one:
I always knew my big brother Bill had more guts than me. Watching him work on the Abraham Lincoln proved it.
Bill volunteered, even fought to be a Navy pilot. Despite 18 or more years of flying, he'd never seen combat. But now, there he was — in the Persian Gulf, flying combat missions half a world away from his wife and three sons. Like other pilots here, he tried not to think of family during the missions.
But I was right there with him: an embedded reporter, watching him check the bombs and missiles on his F-18 Hornet. I could not escape the feeling of how much danger he faced. Any mistake, or a bit of bad luck during take-off or landing or in the air, could be fatal.
Some missions were more dangerous than others. As I interviewed him, it was clear this one made him nervous.
"So, General, what are you gonna do, what's this like right now?" Dooris asked.
"Well we're getting ready to support some of the 5th Corps ground elements against some resistance they're coming up at, just to the southwest of Baghdad. The boys need our help," Bill replied. "The problem that we're looking at is that the weather's coming down. May force us down into some anti-aircraft fire, which I don't want to see."
Then it was my turn to be nervous as I waited for Bill to return to the carrier. Fortunately, my big brother and all the Navy pilots did make it safely back during the war.
In between missions, we even had time for a bit of fun, being interviewed by Inside Edition, the New York Times and others.
And then finally, after what seemed like forever, my brother and many others returned home to long-awaited hugs and kisses.