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Tuesday, April 8

Pilots scramble to fly flags for war mementos

By Gordon Lubold | Marine Corps Times

AT AN AIRBASE NEAR IRAQ - For the thousands of Marines and airmen who probably will never see battle in Iraq, there is an intense demand for a new, must-have war memento.

American pilots here are fielding a barrage of requests from men and women on the ground who want their American flags flown on combat missions over Iraq as a keepsake of the war. Pilots are being buttonholed on shuttle buses and in mess halls by Marines and airmen playing supporting roles here, besieged with the same request. "Can you fly this for me?'' the supporting troops ask.

It's a discreet bit of flag waving in a war where U.S. commanders have ordered troops to remove American flags from Iraqi buildings and vehicles because they want to lessen the impression among Iraqis that Americans are invading conquerors.

Still, American troops want their flag flown over Iraq - literally.

Lance Cpl. Christopher Dow, 22, said he wanted a flag that had flown over Iraq for his father, who owns a bar in Williams, Ariz.

"My dad wanted something from the war and I thought this was the coolest, most patriotic thing I could get for him,'' said Dow, a member of the Marine Air Logistics Squadron-11. Dow plans to put the flag and a certificate of authenticity in a shadow box so his father can hang it in the bar, called The Smoking Barrel.

Air Force Maj. Dave Morris, an A-10 pilot from the 110th Fighter Wing in Battle Creek, Mich., flew a pair of flags during his mission earlier this week over Baghdad for an enlisted mechanic in his unit. The flags will go to the mechanic's father, a Korean War veteran.

"Every single chance I get to do that, I do it,'' said Morris. "It means a lot to people, and it means a lot to me that they'd ask.''

Fighter attack jet and helicopter pilots alike have already flown hundreds of flags over Iraq. There is even talk of loading pallets of the flags onto a KC-130 Hercules refueler plane to meet the heavy demand.

Astronauts have flown flags in space for years, and the Air Force has been doing it here for the last 12 years during missions that enforced the no-fly zone.

Now, there are thousands of U.S. troops here who want to bring a piece of the war home. These soldiers believe if they can't get a bottle of sand from Iraq or a hat from an Iraqi soldier, then an American flag flown at 20,000 feet is the next best thing.

The American flag has played a nearly nonexistent, symbolic role during this war. Officials have decided there will be no Iwo Jima-style tableau of Marines erecting a flag in Baghdad. There have been instances where exuberant Marines have put flags up on buildings, only to be told to take them down again.

"It breaks your heart to tell a guy to take down the Stars and Stripes,'' said Col. Robert "Boomer'' Milstead, commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group-29, of New River Air Station, N.C. ``But it's about perception. The flag that needs to fly is an Iraqi flag, a free Iraqi flag.''

Like any good military program, there are rules to be followed.

Flags must be folded in a certain way and put in a plastic bag. A form must be filled out with the name of the requesting service member, the pilot who will fly the mission and other information about the flight. Crew chiefs stash those flags in the airplanes and then remove them after the mission, print a certificate of authenticity and return the flags to the service members.

A Marine Hornet backseater pilot, whose call sign is Mumbles, said he has already flown about 15 flags and was scheduled to fly with two more aboard his plane.

"For the Marines who don't have the opportunity to go out to the frontlines, it's something they can put in their shop,'' Mumbles said. "We can't fly out without the Marines on the ground.''

(Contributing: Air Force Times correspondent Gordon Trowbridge)