All posts by Tanya Schusler

Dispatch from a Pentagon Airman, 25 Sep 09

Things are not always as they seem. Sometimes what we see is not, in reality, to what we can expect.

For example, the other day I was waiting at the barbershop for a haircut. There were nine barbers working and all engaged. There were four customers waiting. I was number five.

Sitting down, I noticed the barber next to me dabbing alcohol on the back of the neck of her customer. Not sure what happened, but he was bleeding. Not much, but blood nonetheless. There are two things I never want my barber to do while cutting my hair: say “oops” or draw blood.

After applying the alcohol, the barber applied a bandage and finished brushing off hair clippings. “Hope I don’t get that barber,” I thought to myself, fiddling with my ticket bearing 34.

Another barber had just finished and was calling out the next number. “Number 32?” No answer. “Number 33?” No answer. “Number 34?” Here, I replied. Whew, I didn’t get the barber who drew blood.

At this point, the barber noticed that a man bearing 33 was standing beside me. She didn’t notice him when she called my number. I sat down to wait for the next barber.

The barber who drew blood finished ringing up her client. She looked at the number counter and called out, “Number 34?” I raised my hand and headed to her chair, hoping my haircut goes better than the previous gentlemen.

Despite my apprehension, my haircut went smoothly. Actually, it was probably the best haircut I’ve ever received.

Now, from around the Air Force…

Life-saving Airman

Tech. Sgt. Daniel Sluss is an air traffic controller with the 20th Operations Support Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. However, he became a lifesaver when he helped save teenage boy struggling to stay afloat in the ocean off North Carolina.

As Senior Airman Matt Davis, 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs, wrote:

Within seconds, Sergeant Sluss was in the water alongside two other vacationers swimming out to help the person in trouble. As he and the others swam closer, they saw it was a teenage boy barely staying above the water.

When he finally got to where he could help, the boy panicked and struggled with Sergeant Sluss at first, not realizing what was going on. Sergeant Sluss and the others eventually got him calmed down enough to be pulled back to shore. As he asked the boy to kick to help swim, Sergeant Sluss realized the boy was exhausted from fighting the ocean for so long.


Sept. 19 was POW/MIA day. Retired Brig. Gen. Norman Gaddis spoke at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., about his time as a prisoner of war in the “Hanoi Hilton.” (story)

As Airman 1st Class Marissa Tucker, 4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs, wrote:

During a massive firefight on a mission to Hanoi, Vietnam, May 12, 1967, the engine of his plane ingested part of a missile and went down. Both pilots ejected, but the backseat pilot’s parachute never deployed.

“I remember calling on my radio after I ejected saying ‘Dager 4, I’m OK,’ but I didn’t say Dager 1, so they didn’t know the fate of the other pilot,” he said. “After calling on my radio, I looked around to see I was surrounded by the Vietnamese Army.”

He was taken to a prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton, where he only gave his name, rank and service number. The Vietnamese knew he was of a high rank so he was continually questioned about American operations. Because he refused to talk, he was beaten and tortured for 67 hours until they decided to put him into solitary confinement for 1,000 days.

“I went 1,000 days without seeing a soul and not being able to yell or scratch to contact anyone,” he said. “Many thoughts run through your head in a situation like that. But I never doubted I’d make it home.”

Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff works in the Pentagon with Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs.

What does war sound like?

What does war sound like?

I don’t know. I do know what my experience of briefly coming under fire sounds like…

Like a metal filing cabinet falling on a concrete floor.

Earlier this year I deployed for six months to southern Iraq. I felt fortunate I was going to a base where news of combat or violence was less than in other areas.

Five days after arriving, it was Inauguration Day in the United States – the only day where this Pentagon Airman was glad he wasn’t in the Washington area. I didn’t have to deal with the folks coming to the nation’s capital to watch history unfold. I was content watching it on Armed Forces Network on the little television in my office.

On the television was the newly sworn-in Vice President Joseph Biden shaking hands with Associate Justice John Paul Stevens. As if on cue with the handshake…


A sound filled the building that resembled a metal filing cabinet falling on a concrete floor. A quietness lasted for several long seconds.

People stuck their heads out of their offices and asked each other what that was.  A cry of “get down!” filled the building. Airmen hit the deck.  After the required time, they donned protective gear and started doing their post-attack duties.

We learned enemy fire did strike about a half-mile away on the surrounding Army compound. Fortunately, the attack did not hurt anyone or damage anything.

I know my experiences don’t even come close to comparing what Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines in contact with the enemy experience daily. During the Air & Space Conference and Technology Symposium, Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz highlighted the heroism of two explosive ordnance disposal Airmen facing danger every day: Senior Airman Danny Williams and Tech. Sgt. (ret.) Matthew Slaydon. (CSAF addresses AFA convention). The Air Force’s “Portraits in Courage” series honors the extraordinary actions of Airmen who have faced and heard war.

This was my experience, though. Thought I’d describe it.

Dispatch from a Pentagon Airman

The Pentagon is one of those places where you’ll never know what you’ll see. Would you expect an art museum? Well, museum might be stretching it but there’s certainly a collection.

In the Air Force section there are a lot of paintings depicting Air Force life, history, and senior leaders. Would never expect an aerial painting of a remote north Pacific island?

Outside the Air Force Services Store is a painting of Shemya Air Force Base from 1980. The 3.5 mile by 2 mile land mass is part of the Aleutian Island is now known as Eareckson Air Station.

This painting interested me because my brother did a one-year remote tour there about the time of the painting’s commissioning. He told me usual stories we’ve all heard about Alaska… long winter nights and short days, and the long summer days and non-existent nights. He also said mail flew in one day a week…Wednesdays, I think. While the weather might have been fine when the plane left Elmendorf Air Force Base 1,500 miles to the east, poor weather frequently would come in at the last minute. The inclement weather kept the plane from landing. He said hearing the mail plane flying overhead and unable to land was a sad feeling.

Here are some other Air Force stories of interest I found…

Life-saving Airman

Congratulations, Staff Sgt. Chris Harlan of the 965th Airborne Air Control Squadron, Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. Because of his heroic actions in 2007, four Indian exchange students are alive today. Sergeant Harlan helped rescue them from drowning at Turner Falls Park. (Sergeant honored for lifesaving action). He received the Airman’s Medal.

Sergeant Harlan offers a quote everyone should remember.

“Within five minutes of showing up there, somebody lost their life. Things can change fast,” he said. “It just makes you appreciate what you have. A lot of people experience loss and tragedy … but people forget how quickly you can lose a loved one.”

Unusual birthday present

With the focus on Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, it’s easy to forget there are Airmen deployed elsewhere, such as Joint Task Force-Bravo at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras.

Recently, a senior airman firefighter there received an unusual birthday present. Senior Airman Alisha Rowe fought her first fire. (Airman celebrates birthday, helps extinguish her first fire)

“My heart started racing as it does on every call since I’m not quite sure what to expect on each emergency,” Airman Rowe said. “Once on scene, I could see smoke coming out of the door of the building, and I got a little excited knowing this was my first fire.

“After it was over I remember how distinct the smell of charred wood was and how warm it still was in the small building,” Airman Rowe said. “When we were cleaning up our equipment I thought about how I will never forget my first fire or my 23rd birthday.”

Medical Readiness at Soto Cano

JTF-Bravo’s medical element conducted a medical readiness and training exercise Aug. 25 and 26 in San Fernando, El Salvador. The MEDRETE treated more than 900 Salvadorans. (MEDRETE provides free medical care to El Salvador villagers). The lead of 1st Lt. Jennifer Richard’s story certainly put the reader in the setting:

Eighty-seven year-old Aurelia Lopez walked two hours round-trip through the mountains of El Salvador to receive free medical care – the first time she had seen a doctor in 40 years.

Ms. Lopez suffered from arthritis and stomach pain, in addition to a large goiter on her neck. She received free treatment from a team of U.S. and Salvadoran personnel hosting a medical readiness and training exercise, or MEDRETE, in the remote village of San Fernando, El Salvador, Aug. 25 and 26.

“I am happy with this medical team because it is really hard to get medical care here,” said Ms. Lopez. “The next closest medical center takes four hours round-trip to walk to, and I don’t have the money to pay to see a doctor.”

BEAST-ly good photos

There’s an awesome photo essay on basic trainees undergoing Basic Expeditionary Airman Training, or BEAST, at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, Sept. 2. (Photo essay: Trainees conquer the BEAST)

Well, guess it’s better late than never…

Former Army Air Forces Tech. Sgt. Howard “Holt” Thornton finally received decorations due him from his service in World War II. (WWII vet receives long-awaited medals)

At an Aug. 29 ceremony at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., Mr. Thornton received his medals from Col. Mark Kelly, 4th Fighter Wing commander. Mr. Thornton commented on his World War II exploits, which included raids over the Ploesti Oil Fields of Romania.

“We took three flights to Ploesti; they called them combat missions,” he said. “We dubbed them suicide missions. One time into combat is enough for anybody.”

Mr. Thornton says he feels very grateful to be where he is today.

“I’m very thankful; I carried a prayer book with me on all the missions I flew, in my flying book. I’m the same way now,” he said.

Airmen searches for wings

While on the topic of World War II Airmen, the Associated Press ran a story about Bernerd Harding returning to Klein Quenstedt, Germany, where he was shot down July 7, 1944. (US pilot returns to site of WWII crash) He was searching for his wings that he removed from his uniform to avoid reprisals from German villagers.

Reading stories about what World War II Airmen endured always amazes me anyone ever went up in an aircraft. They were heroes. That’s how they did it. Harding and his crew were on a mission with nine other aircraft to bomb Bernburg, Germany. After the bomb run, the German Luftwaffe attacked the B-24s. The Germans shot all down. One hundred Airmen were killed or captured.

Wow…I’m in awe of World War II Airmen. The life they endured is hard to comprehend. They are heroes.

Mr. Harding didn’t find his wings

Finally…In Memoriam

Condolences to the family and friends of 1st Lt. Joseph Helton, 24, of Monroe, Ga. Lieutenant Helton died Sept. 8 near Baghdad when an improvised explosive devise struck his vehicle. He was assigned to the 6th Security Forces Squadron, MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.

Master Sgt. Russell P. Petcoff works in the Pentagon with Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs.

It’s 9/11

It’s the eighth anniversary of 9/11. I’m in the Pentagon. Worried? No. Saddened by this anniversary? Yes.

It’s hard to believe eight years have gone by. People always remember where they were and what they were doing when historic events happen. My parents’ generation remembers clearly where they were when they heard of President Kennedy’s assassination. For me, it’s 9/11. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news.

I was stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana. The base was in the midst of an exercise. I had the day shift for public affairs in the battle staff. The morning was quiet. People were getting up to speed, waiting for the scenarios to begin. CNN was playing on the big television screen with news of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s assassination in Afghanistan. No one was paying attention.

A breaking news alert came on stating a plane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers. I figured it was a small plane. When CNN showed live coverage of the smoke pouring out of a tower, I noticed how blue and clear the sky was. Thought to myself how could the pilot not see the building in front of him?

While watching the coverage, I noticed a small dark object come from the right of the screen. It moved rapidly towards the World Trade Center. Shortly afterwards, a fireball erupted from the tower. The second plane struck.

“This is no accident,” I said to the folks sitting next to me. Right in front of my eyes I was witnessing the worst terrorist attack on the United States. I went to my office and e-mailed some friends to say the World Trade Center had been struck by two aircraft. We needed to pray.

Returning to the battle staff, everyone was now riveted by the horrific events unfolding before us. When news came of the Pentagon being struck, we started thinking what’s next? I was two months away from taking a new assignment at the Pentagon to work on the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Public Affairs Office. A lieutenant colonel sitting in front of me – and who knew of my assignment – turned around and asked, “So, do you still want to go to the Pentagon?”

We were stunned when we saw a tower implode. The second tower imploded later. It was too hard to believe. What was happening?

The rest of the day was hectic. Media were calling the office. They wanted to know what the base’s response to the crisis was. I worked until late that night conducting interviews with Great Falls media. This was the first time I’d ever done on-camera interviews. Even a Canadian television outlet came down for a comment.

Two months later. I arrived in Washington and went to the Pentagon. The damaged section had been removed. The ugly gash looked like a cake with a piece cut out. People were coming to the Pentagon to pay their respects, many leaving flowers.

Eight years later, the damage to the Pentagon has been fixed. The memories remain.

This is Master Sgt. Russell Petcoff’s memories of when 9/11 happened.