ABOARD THE USS NIMITZ April 12 —
Nearly three weeks after the war in Iraq began, Lt. Cmdr. Scott
Toppel launched his jet for the first time into Iraqi skies, looking
for snipers firing on U.S. troops from a Baghdad building. Now he
looks forward to keeping the peace.
Toppel, like the dozens other pilots and more than 5,000 sailors
aboard the USS Nimitz, had figured for more than a month that
Operation Iraqi Freedom was not going to be their war.
The aircraft carrier didn't even leave its home port of San Diego
until March 3, and was steaming across the Pacific Ocean when the
first coalition missiles and bombs struck Iraq on March 20. It
arrived in the Persian Gulf on Sunday, as the Saddam Hussein regime
was showing signs of collapse.
"We didn't come here to fight a war," said Lt. Fitz Lee, a
34-year-old Nimitz pilot from San Diego. "We're here to help build
Once the fighting in Iraq ends, U.S. pilots like those aboard the
Nimitz will be patrolling the skies over Iraq for months, if not
years, to come.
Sent to replace the departing USS Abraham Lincoln a carrier
that's been deployed for nine months, three longer than the standard
cruise the Nimitz began flying combat missions late Tuesday, just as
forces from the U.S.-led coalition were tightening their
stranglehold on Baghdad.
Since then, two other major cities north of the capital Kirkuk
and Mosul have fallen, further shrinking the territory controlled by
the remnants of Saddam's loyalists and the list of targets to
But coalition troops are still fighting their way through pockets
of Iraqi resistance, so coalition pilots are mostly flying air
support missions for ground troops. While many are coming back
without having dropped a bomb or fired a missile, some, like Toppel,
are still seeing combat.
Toppel and his partner throttled their F/A-18F Super Hornets off
the deck of the Nimitz on Tuesday afternoon. Their mission was
simple: go to a preselected area in the parlance of pilots, a
"killbox" south of Baghdad and await further orders.
With a brief stop to refuel, it took Toppel's plane and two
others just over an hour to get to their killbox, where they were
told to hold their position.
Their wait didn't last long soon they were contacted by troops on
the ground who were advancing into Baghdad from the west, fighting
their way to the Tigris river.
According to the soldiers, Iraqi snipers were using a tall
building maybe 15 stories-high, Toppel couldn't say exactly as a
perch from where they could fire on a U.S. position on the western
bank of the Tigris.
Toppel's job was to take them out.
After getting the building's coordinates from the U.S. troops on
the western bank, Toppel and the two others flew in "to get our eyes
on the target," he said. Finding targets can be hard in the haze,
weather made even worse by smoke from burning fires "good thing it
was huge building."
First, the pilots fired laser-guided missiles at the top floors
of the building. Next they took out the bottom floors.
Mission accomplished, they headed out to refuel, satisfied with a
day's work done.
"It's not that we're anxious to go to war ... it's just something
we're trained to do," said Toppel, a 34-year-old from Sunnydale,
Calif. "We're all aggressive people, overachievers. ... So we want
to be the ones doing it."
That kind of attitude made the monthlong trip across the Pacific
"Pilots fly at supersonic speeds and when your carrier is only
doing 20 knots (23 mph), it can be a little frustrating," said Capt.
Jim Greene, a 46-year-old pilot from Bloomington, Ind. He is the
deputy commander of the ship's air wing.
|United States Marines of Kilo
Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines sign their autographs for
some Iraqi children who approached them while on patrol
through a neighborhood of Baghdad Friday, April 11, 2003.
Marines began building relations with civilians Friday in
order to lower tensions between the military and local
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