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It’s rare that a 14-year-old boy, putting together model jets with a buddy, gets to grow up and fly those same jets. But that’s exactly what Lt. Col. John Marks of the U. S. Air Force gets to do.
About a year before graduating from the University of Kansas, Marks went to an Air Force recruiter and said, “I want to fly airplanes!” And the recruiter told him “Yeah, yeah, you and everyone else.”
Initially, Marks was turned down by the Air Force, he said, so he pursued the Navy. A couple of days after being accepted by the Navy, Marks said the Air Force recruiter called and told him a pilot position had opened. And since he really wanted to fly a fighter airplane, and the idea of being on a ship for six months at a time “wasn’t as exciting” to Marks, he pursued the Air Force.
Maj. Raymond Laffoon, II, a retired Air Force navigator, said that Officer Training School, by itself, could take “a little more than three months” to finish. After that comes Undergraduate Pilot Training, which is “very rigorous” and can last a year for pilots. According to Laffoon, the whole process of becoming an Air Force pilot could take between two and two-and-a-half years to finish.
In 1987, Marks joined the Air Force and started his training. He was able to pick the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, or “Warthog,” for short, as his specialty. This was the same jet that he and his buddy had put together as a model.
After completing his training, Marks was then assigned to the 76th Tactical Fighter Squadron, which was a part of the 23rd Fighter Group, and was stationed in Alexandria, La.
The “Flying Tigers” was the nickname for the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force in 1941-1942. In July 1942, the 23rd Fighter Group replaced the AVG. The shark-faced fighters of this group remain among the most recognizable of any combat aircraft of World War II, although the A-10s of today do not have the shark painting.
While he was based in Louisiana, the Cold War was still going on. But the United States was not involved in any conflict at the time. So it was a shock to Marks’ unit when it was told, “You’re deploying to Kuwait.”
This was a time before 9/11, when deployments weren’t an every-day thing for the military. Nobody had heard of this “Kuwait” place. Marks said they pulled out a “big map,” and saw the “tiny little” state of Kuwait.
Before being told this, according to Marks, everyone had thought if they were deploying, it would be “World War III or the Soviets,” not the Middle East.
Marks said that “everybody was shocked” when they taxied down the runway at the King Fahd International Airport in Saudi Arabia, a civilian airport. He hadn’t seen this kind of environment before. Marks remembered that after landing in Saudi, upon opening the canopy, there was a “wall of hot air hitting you, just like opening an oven door.” This country was “very dry and amazingly hot.”
According to Marks, a lot of the “Army guys” were in tents, but he and his unit got to stay in small trailers that made up the airport workers’ quarters. The trailers had air conditioning units in the rooms. Four men to a room. Very close quarters.
Before Desert Shield became Desert Storm, Marks and his unit stayed in Saudi Arabia for six months, flying a few missions for training, but mostly trying to find something to do to pass the time.
They didn’t have the Internet during Desert Storm, so the men had to write a lot of letters. They also built gym equipment out of stuff they had lying around. According to Marks, “The communication, and the ability to stay in touch with people, was completely different” than it is now.
Marks and his unit had six months to get to know each other before flying out to combat, so the question of trust wasn’t really there. The men flew their A-10’s in formation for a reason. They HAD to trust each other. Marks said the question that was really in the men’s minds was, “How am I going to react to this?” The generalizations that had been made about who was going to react a certain way in combat, and who was going to act the opposite, “weren’t necessarily true.” Marks said in his experience, for combat, “You can’t judge by your impression “ of people.
Marks said he can “clearly remember on the way back.” He was flying his A-10, on which he had painted the “devil woman” that was painted on the WWII fighter planes. He was on the last leg of the journey home, “feeling depressed, even angry” that what he “figured would be the biggest adventure” of his life was over. But at the same time, he was excited to return to his parents, his brother and his sister.
For Marks, the feelings that every combat deployment brings out are “hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it.” But he tried, saying that a soldier “holds two completely opposite thoughts at the same time.” They are excited about the possibility of combat, “but at the same time the self-preservation part” doesn’t want to go at all, because of all the preconceived thoughts one has.
“It’s great to be home,” Marks said, “but at the same time, you miss the excitement and adrenaline rush of combat.”
Marks was not married when he deployed for Desert Storm. But for the eight months he was deployed in 2003 for Operation Iraqi Freedom, he had a wife, who is also a lieutenant colonel in the same unit, and three kids who were very hard to leave behind. Marks also deployed to Afghanistan in 2006 and 2008 for Operation Enduring Freedom.
Hearing Marks’ boyhood story could make one wonder what a young man imagines while putting the last swipe of paint on the model A-10. Marks can remember the A-10 clearly, because he still gets to fly them. He said that he will wait until he is 60-years-old to retire, and will “try to find a way to fly one after that.”