‘Blackdeath 23’ pilot reflects on the OH-58, training, chaplains, and PTSD

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Robert Mills in Iraq. Photo: Robert Mills

Robert Mills in Iraq.
Photo: Robert Mills

Over the course of the contemporaneous War on Terror many have answered the call to defend democracy against terrorists. The fight has largely been overseas in the often inhospitable locales of Iraq and Afghanistan where the U.S. Army, in conjunction with the other U.S. Military services, has slugged it out with enemy forces on the ground. However, troops on the ground rely upon support from air units. Not doing so reduces successes and operations are much more perilous. Thus there is a need for helicopter pilots. One individual who recognized the need and value of the specialty was Robert Mills, who would eventually attained the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 2 in an Air Cavalry squadron equipped with Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warriors.

A Bell Th-67 Creek. Photo: US Army

A Bell TH-67 Creek.
Photo: US Army

The path to Mr. Mills’ operational flying began with intense training. In an interview he explained, “My initial and instrument training was in the TH-67 [Bell 206]. We then moved into the OH-58A [Alpha] and ‘C’ [Charlie] models for Basic Combat Skills and Low Level Navigation.” This machine, a Vietnam-era platform, was Bell Helicopter’s answer to the U.S. Army’s request for an aircraft to complement new artillery capabilities.

An OH-58D in Iraq. Photo: US Army

An OH-58D in Iraq.
Photo: US Army

Originally unarmed as part of the Army Helicopter Improvement Program, the OH-58D featured a four-blade main rotor, a more powerful turbine engine, multifunctional displays, and a Mast Mounted Sight (MMS). Notably, the MMS incorporated an aesthetically distinctive Television System and Laser Rangefinder/Designator. For offensive work the Kiowa Warrior could be armed with .50-caliber machine guns, seven-shot rocket pods, air-to-air Stinger missiles, or Hellfire air-to-ground missiles on two weapon hardpoints.

Afterward, Robert “completed the OH58D(R) Aircraft Qualification Course before deploying to my unit in Iraq.” The squadron Robert Mills joined operated OH58D(I) model aircraft, “which required differences training,” he added. Robert commented, “All in all, I’ve been in some version of a 206 or OH-58 my entire career.”

How did the OH-58 perform? Robert Mills replied, “The Kiowa is a great recon & close combat support aircraft. The Mast Mounted Site had it short-comings which were addressed and corrected in the Bell 407 redesign.” He elaborated, “This package offered a nose mounted site with much better day/night optics. Unfortunately, that never found its way to our troops.” Mr. Mills stated,” Like any Army aircraft, it was loaded to the gills with weapons and legacy electronics, resulting in max gross weight take-offs after every fuel stop.” Robert related one negative performance issue: “The Kiowa is underpowered at slow airspeeds but very nimble once above ETL [Effective Translational Lift].”

As far as an overall estimation of the Kiowa Warrior, Mr. Mills stated, “I compare flying the Kiowa to driving a fun sports car that’s slow off the line.” Furthermore, “The durability of Bell products have been well proven on the battlefield.”

U.S. Army OH-58Ds escorting vehicles. Photo: Bell helicopters

U.S. Army OH-58Ds escorting vehicles.
Photo: Bell Helicopters

OH-58s are now being phased out of service after more than 40 years of service with the Army and Army National Guard. What are Robert Mills’ thoughts about OH-58s being retired? “From a leadership perspective, the OH-58 is much less expensive to operate and has an exceptional up-time. It can be off the ground in 3 minutes, which is much quicker than its replacement, the AH-64 [Apache].” Mr. Mills holds the opinion that the “upgraded Kiowa on the Bell 407 platform was money well spent.” He exclaimed, “Ask our ground troops who they want overhead and added the comment that there’s a mission for both the Apache and the Kiowa.”

The cover of Robert Mills' book.

The cover of Robert Mills’ book.

Referring to his book titled Blackdeath 23: My Journal as an Army Helicopter Pilot in Iraq, Robert Mills was asked the following question: “Now that you have had more time to reflect on your time with the Army and in Iraq, would you add anything to the book?” After deliberating for a moment, he answered by stating, “Yes, I chose to omit some stories due to staying well ‘in-bounds’ for purposes of operational security. The book nearly mimics my journal and doesn’t account for some things that I wish I had written.”

Mr. Mills continued, “One such account was the hour I spent with my brother in Kuwait, while I was moving into Iraq and he was transitioning home. Was this merely another coincidence? I doubt it. My anxiety was high and I didn’t know what to expect. My brother was returning home with his unit which had operated a combat support hospital in the Green Zone of downtown Baghdad. He prayed with many dying soldiers, and I could tell it burned deep into him.” Robert concluded, “His commander handed me a pendant and we prayed together before they disappeared into the customs tent. I still have that pendant today.”

Citing references in Blackdeath 23, Robert Mills was asked if he personally had many interactions with chaplains. “Most Chaplains in the Cavalry were very involved with us,” he stated. “My schedule was such that I rarely attended the services on the FOB [Forward Operating Base], but I know the guys appreciated them.” Mr. Mills added, “My brother is currently a senior chaplain in the Army and also has some great stories from his deployments.”

While discussing the stresses of military service, long deployments, and combat can impose upon family life, Robert Mills responded to an inquiry about military chaplains’ tendency to dissuade couples planning to marry. “I don’t necessarily disagree with that statement. I wouldn’t say don’t marry, but I would definitely recommend against marrying someone you’ve only known for a short time and under the conditions of preparing for deployment or having just returned.” He explained further, “I watched as women married some of our pilots, waited for them to deploy then wiped them out financially. The tragedy is not only how completely wrong it is, but it also deals a devastating blow to our unit. The reality is there’s no difference in taking him out of the fight in that manner or him taking a round through the leg. Either way he’s incapable of performing his duties.”

Robert Mills incorporates his faith into daily life. Is his faith now, in the aftermath of experiencing prolonged deprivations and the unpleasantness and tragedies of warfare, stronger? He answered, “I don’t like the word religious because it is too often used to rate one’s relationship with God on a scale, but yes I’m a stronger Christian.”

Interestingly, Mr. Mills related that there was “a spiritual threshold” he crossed on about day four in Iraq. “From there I continually resolved that I made the decisions that led me to that exact location because I felt that was the calling I had. I was solid in that thought. It didn’t mean I wasn’t scared every now and then but I learned how to turn that fear to courage through prayer. I would be willing to place a small wager that even the atheists prayed while they were in country,” he commented. Robert’s last comment would seem to confirm a familiar and timeless adage: “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

Does Robert Mills wish to thank any individuals for their assistance or support? In response he gratefully stated, “I had so many people praying for me, my family, and the safety and success of our mission. There’s no way to name them all. I have to emphasize the devotion of my wife and all the spouses of deployed military members.” He pointed out that “it’s not easy being stateside and thinking about all the bad things that can happen to your husband or wife 24 hours a day.” Reflecting upon that observation, he added, “That had to be extremely difficult. Often the servicemember is not as concerned about him or herself because he or she knows what is happening.” Robert added the following: “I was busy nearly all my waking hours so the time passed more quickly. My wife was amazingly strong through the hard times.”

The discussion moved to the topic of Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a mental health issue that has been plaguing humans engaged in sustained warfare throughout history. The term PTSD was invented in the late 1970s, largely in response to diagnoses of veterans of the Vietnam War, but the concept of stress-induced mental disorder has been known since at least the 1800s. Previous references were to “soldier’s heart,” “shell shock” and “battle fatigue.”

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks and inevitable retaliatory strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq, PTSD once again came to the forefront. Therefore, the military embarked upon an education campaign. One such outreach event, which was shortly prior to Robert Mills’ service, was when Civil Air Patrol (the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary) and a few U.S. Air Force chaplains gathered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in the spring of 2002 for a Civil Air Patrol (CAP) Chaplains Conference. A noteworthy speaker, in addition to the senior base chaplain, was a civilian employee and therapist employed by the U.S. Coast Guard who was flown in from a station in Hawaii. She discussed what had been learned about PTSD since the Vietnam conflict.

Mr. Mills graciously agreed to speak on the subject and related that he was trying to reintegrate into civilian life as PTSD was manifesting. Have the symptoms have now subsided? Robert answered, “PTSD manifests in different ways for everyone. For me, I went through a time of feeling guilty for leaving. I had learned a great deal through two deployments and was a prime candidate to pass my knowledge and experience to new pilots.” Yet, he added, “I chose to get out.” Mr. Mills then occasionally “went through times of feeling selfish as I weighed the good of my family against the good of the country and strength of our unit.” He explained that, “In a way I felt as if I had let them down.” Fortunately, he said, “Those issues have subsided to some extent as I see them succeed and begin to lead in their respective interests.”

As to the lingering effects of his bout of PTSD, Robert Mills stated, “Overall it is better, but undoubtedly there are those things that can’t be erased. Thankfully I moved into a job that is very satisfying — there are very few flying jobs that are as rewarding as EMS [Emergency Medical Services].” He added, “In my opinion the root of many PTSD issues is caused from moving from a tight knit military team that operates with surgical precision to a civilian job where that is non-existent in many cases. It leaves soldiers feeling lost and on their own, something very foreign to us. I submit to everyone reading this that you never know what one has been through so be careful not to judge when you see someone on the street or acting different. They may be a Veteran just trying to work through it.”

In the epilogue of Blackdeath 23 Robert Mills wrote that he declined promotion and separated from the service. Does he still believe that move was the best decision? He answered, “My separation was an investment into the future of my daughters. Who knows what that alternate past would have looked like?”

Regardless, he said in closing, “I made the right decision, but I do miss my military brothers.”
_______________________
The author (John Stemple) thanks Robert Mills for granting him an interview and his military service. Robert Mills is deserving of a salute for his service and forthcoming honesty. It is the author’s hope that readers will be inspired by Robert’s dedication, devotion to family and country, and buoyed by his successful dealing with struggles caused by PTSD.

Suggested Viewings

A Day in the OH-58 Kiowa the Little but Incredibly Effective Attack Helicopter of the US Army

Bell OH-58 Kiowa Warrior (2012)

Fly Along with OH-58 Kiowa Warrior over Afganistan

Kiowa Warriors

Kiowas Fire On Taliban (Original)

OH-58 Kiowa Helicopters Attack Taliban Base

The OH-58 Kiowa Helicopter

OH-58D Kiowa Warrior in VCAS (Very Close Air Support)

OH-58 Kiowa Warriors Pilot doing pre-checks, start-up and taking flight | AiirSource

OH-58D Kiowa Live Fire (2012)

Sources and Suggested Readings

152D OH-58 Pilot
http://www.nationalguard.com/152d-oh-58-pilot

Army planning to scrap OH-58 Kiowa Warriors helicopter fleet: Reports
http://www.al.com/business/index.ssf/2013/12/army_planning_to_scrap_oh-58_k.html

Aviation Restructure Initiative: OH-58D personnel transition plan under way
http://www.dothaneagle.com/army_flier/news/aviation-restructure-initiative-oh–d-personnel-transition-plan-under/article_8d4a12e4-4fba-11e4-b8db-0017a43b2370.html

Army Debates Divestment of Kiowa Warrior; Replacement Program in Doubt
http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/blog/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=1374

Aviation Museum of Kentucky – Facebook
https://www.facebook.com/AviationMuseumofKentucky

Battle Brewing Over Future Of Army Aviation Programs
http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/archive/2014/March/Pages/BattleBrewingOverFutureOfArmyAviationPrograms.aspx

Bell TH-67 Creek
http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/aircraft/th-67.htm

http://www.dothaneagle.com/army_flier/news/aviation-restructure-initiative-oh–d-personnel-transition-plan-under/article_8d4a12e4-4fba-11e4-b8db-0017a43b2370.html

Bell OH-58 Kiowa
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell_OH-58_Kiowa

The Bell OH-58D Kiowa Warrior
http://www.bellhelicopter.com/Military/OH-58D/1291148374003.html#/?tab=highlights-tab

HMS Excellent
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Excellent_%28shore_establishment%29

Man-portable air-defense system
http://military.wikia.com/wiki/Man-portable_air-defense_systems

Mills, Robert. Blackdeath 23: My Journal as an Army Helicopter Pilot in Iraq, Wise Printing, 2014.

OH-58 Kiowa
http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/aircraft/oh-58.htm

Posttraumatic stress disorder
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posttraumatic_stress_disorder

Werner, Jr., Floyd S. OH-58D Kiowa Warrior – Walk Around Color Series No. 50, Squadron/Signal Publications, 2008.