FIRE ON HIGH
“Fire On High” is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental. All characters and settings © Tigermark 2003-2018 unless otherwise noted. Request permission before using them, please.
This is a standalone story, set to cohesively cover the events Alex experienced in the Iraq War. It represents a final passing of the baton to the next generation of Air Force aviators. The unit the fictional 412th represents, the 27th FS, was the first to go operational with the F-15, following suit as “America’s First Fighter Squadron,” they were also the first, shortly after this story takes place, to replace the F-15 with the new F-22 Raptor. They keep up the good fight.
Major Jonathan Foertch and TSgt. Helena Oceloton are © Jonathan Foertch and are used with his permission.
Captain Leo Leon is © Joan Jacobsen and is used with her permission.
Only the Young
“Only the young can say,
They’re free to fly away,
Sharing the same desires,
Burning like wildfire”-
It was March 3rd, 2003 when Alex walked into the orderly room for the 412th Fighter Squadron. Known as the Tigerkahts, it was the squadron of F-15C’s he pulled Reserve duty at. Only today, the tall white tiger wasn’t pulling Reserve duty. He’d been recalled to Active Duty for two reasons. One, the unit’s CO, Colonel Richard Leonard, was off flying status for a couple of months. He’d broken a leg in a skiing accident two weeks ago, and was out of commission for now. Two, the unit was preparing to depart for King Abdul Aziz Air Base, Saudi Arabia. On the surface, they were going to support Operation Southern Watch, enforcing the no-fly zone over Southern Iraq. In truth they knew they’d be supporting military operations for an invasion of Iraq, newly dubbed Operation Iraqi Freedom. Despite the U.N. never coming to agreement for a use-of-force resolution, The President had assembled a “Coalition of the Willing” to cooperate in an operation to invade Iraq, oust Saddam Hussien, and discover and seize any weapons of mass destruction, i.e. Chemical, Biological, or Nuclear.
No one had an exact start date yet, but the word was combat operations would begin shortly after the 412th got there. The F-15C had no ground attack capability, being a pure Air Superiority fighter, but their unit would be providing top cover for the other units supporting the ground operations. The Iraqi Air Force, what was left of it, wouldn’t be much of a threat. However, it would only take one or two aircraft to disrupt an attack run. Alex knew better than to get complacent, but he also wasn’t too worried. During all the years the no-fly zone had been in place, there’d only been a couple of times when an Iraqi had challenged the patrolling western aircraft.
“G’morning Colonel, welcome back. Weren’t we doing this when you left active duty?” MSgt. Gangrey, the chief of Admin greeted him. The orange Tabby had been at the 412th for quite a while even before Alex retired from active duty.
“Good morning,” Alex replied. “Yep, I think we were. It’s for real this time, though.”
When Alex had signed out from the squadron after his retirement, a flurry of activity had been going on as a short-notice exercise had just been sent to the unit.
“Yes sir, we’ll be ready to ship out tomorrow. Oh, General Higgins left something for you on your desk.”
Puzzled, Alex simply said “Thanks” and walked into the office. Surveying the desk, he noted that King (Colonel Leonard’s call sign) kept a tidy desk. Both the Outgoing and Incoming baskets were empty. The only thing on the desk other than the computer, baskets, and phone was…a bundle of papers and a set of emblems for the rank of Colonel. He picked up the papers and examined them. Three sets of orders. One assigning him as CO of the Tigerkahts, one promoting him to a full Colonel, and one transferring him from the Reserves to Active Duty. The unit had received its orders days ago, and now as the CO, he was included in those already.
“Great,” he mock-groused, grinning. “Now I’ll have to get new shoulder boards for my wedding.”
Just then, a Staff Sergeant admin clerk he knew as O’Gregor knocked on the door and stepped on in.
“Oh! Excuse me Colonel O’Whitt, I didn’t know you were in. Paperwork for the commander, sir.”
Alex eyed the young Siamese femme, and then simply nodded. “Put them in the In basket, thank you.”
She put the files in the basket, turned and smiled while saluting. “Pleasure to have you back, Sir.”
Alex returned the salute. “Likewise, Sergeant, carry on.”
The enlisted femme sashayed back out. Alex shook his head, and with a sigh, sat down and started to work.
# # #
“So, is Ice as good as they say he is?” the ocelot asked. “I only got to fly on the area orientation with him.”
1LT. Marc Dresden, call sign Growler, was new to the Tigerkahts. The Ocelot was taking Zapper’s place, as the white felid had gone to Okinawa.
“As good as they come, only better,” Jedi replied, the spotted mixed felid reassuring his new squadronmate. The pilots of the 412th were gathered to brief for their trans-Atlantic deployment flight to King Abdul Aziz Air Base, Saudi Arabia, identifier KAAB. They would be enforcing the no-fly zone in Southern Iraq, and also provide top cover to the other aircraft of the 18th Air Combat Group. The group consisted of their squadron, a squadron of F-15E’s, and a squadron of F-16C’s. With any luck, as top cover, they’d never be below twenty thousand feet except to take off and land.
“Just to put a point on it, Ice not long ago was flying his refurbished Tee Thirty Eight, which he had rebuilt when he retired, across the Gulf of Mexico from Jamaica. It has drop tanks for longer range. He was accosted by some Cuban MiGs, and when they fired cannon at him, he took one down with a jettisoned drop tank. That’s how good he is,” Jedi emphasized.
“Squadron, Ten-HUT!” called Blackie Thomas, the black-furred felid Major who was the 412th’s second-in-command. This ended all conversation as he and Alex walked in. Jedi noted the Colonel’s Eagles on the tiger’s shoulders and grinned. Good for him.
“Seats, Gentlefurs,” Ice called as he reached the podium. Everyone sat down, and he began the briefing.
“Guys, this will be a standard overseas deployment flight, with two midair refuelings. Our Eagles have their long-range tanks on, so this is going to be a long hard day of flying. We’ll keep it loose and let Otto do most of the flying for now. I’m sure you’ve all heard that we won’t have much to do. Don’t forget, we are going to a war zone. It only takes one moment of complacency where we’re going to get you killed. Always be ready for the unexpected, in the air and on the ground. It might be the bold Iraqi nutcase who thinks he can take us on, or the unanticipated advanced SAM system that is way better than the Intel folks thought. It might be the malfunction that makes you eject over Iraqi territory, or the guy coming in the gate at the base with a suicide vest or AK under his thobe. Remember, you are Tigerkahts, the best of the best, keep your eyes open and your heads on a swivel and in the fight. Cruise transit altitude is four zero zero. Forecast is for tailwinds around fifty knots at altitude. Section leaders, keep track of your guys, we don’t want to lose anybody going across. That’s it for now, see you in the van. Tigerkahts, GO!”
“Tigerkahts GO!” came the reply in unison as they all stood to attention. Ice and Blackie walked out, and everyone relaxed and began to file out. Now it was time to go to war.
# # #
Corrie sat at her desk, staring off into space as felids do when thinking. Kath had started to walk in, but seeing the lioness’ expression, had gone back out to Billy’s office instead. The tiger had stopped in for a bit to catch up on planning paperwork. With Alex gone, he’d been splitting his time between Kentiger and Helipro. She knocked on the door and entered when she heard his traditional “Come.”
“Hi Billy. Need a signature for this. I was going to get Corrie to do it, but she’s sitting at her desk kinda spaced out again,” Kath stated as she gave Billy the fuel allotment payment authorization. He signed it, gave it back to the collie femme, and then stood up.
“C’mon, I think someone needs to talk to us, but she doesn’t know it yet.”
They went out and around through the hangar, into the lounge area and up to Corrie’s desk. Kath took Billy’s lead and pulled a chair up closer. It wasn’t until Billy spoke that Corrie’s stare snapped back into focus and she nearly jumped out of her chair.
“GAH! Billy! Kath! What th’!”
After a few seconds with her fur on end and her tail straight up, the lioness composed herself. “Was I that gone?”
Billy didn’t grin. He looked very concerned. “Corrie, we both walked in here and pulled chairs up to sit.”
Corrie looked chagrinned. “I’m sorry. I was thinking about Alex. Worrying, more like. Is he going to come home to me?”
Kath answered instead of Billy. “Corrie, no one can say that for certain, except God. Alex is as good as they come. If there’s any way possible, he’ll come home to you.”
Tears welled up in the lioness’ eyes. “I know. I believe. I just miss him so much. I wish we hadn’t put ouah wedding off so long. Is theah any way to get through this? I had…a nightmare last night. I dreamed I lost him in fiah and explosion. I woke up screaming me head off.”
Billy stood up, as did Kath, their arms open. Corrie stood and stepped around her desk, falling into their arms. For now, that was all the comfort they could offer.
# # #
Day One of combat operations, March 20, 2003, had gone off without a hitch for the 412th. No Iraqi aircraft had even attempted launch to intercept coalition aircraft. The ground forces, free to operate without threat of air attack, and the air support free to operate without aerial threat, were charging north along the main highway in the country. The U.S. 3rd Infantry Division was sweeping west and north in an end-around toward Baghdad. Everything seemed to be going to plan. Alex knew that wouldn’t last. He was correct, as a couple of days later, a major sandstorm stalled the northern advance. There had been some fierce resistance, and some not so much.
So it was, day after day. The 412th didn’t go as a full squadron, but now patrolled as two ship elements, two per patrol for a total of four aircraft up at a time, for patrols of six hours. The ground attack units remained ever ready, orbiting the battlespace to drop their ordinance wherever the troops needed.
After almost a month, and several full-on battles, the advance was on the outskirts of Baghdad. Alex was briefing for his turn on patrol. His wingfur would be Growler Dresden. The other element would be Jedi Foertch and Tails Brice.
“Morning Jedi, Tails. Growler, you’re my wingfur today. They’re starting the artillery bombardment for the final push into Baghdad. Our patrol area puts us up over Fallujah to cover the mudbusters there. We’ll stay up around thirty thou. Intel says the bigger Iraqi SAMs are still no-show, as is the Iraqi Air Force, but their newer FURPADS using the Ilga missiles are a possibility down below fifteen thousand. If we’re going to see any IAF opposition, it should be soon. We’ll keep about five miles separation between elements, so we can cover each other and more territory. Any questions?”
There were three shakes to the negative, so Alex went on. “Let’s keep it safe and simple. Time to go.”
The other three joined him as they walked out to the crew van which took them out to their aircraft. It was early morning, and the temp on the ramp was already in the nineties. The squadron had relocated to King Khalid Air Base to be closer to their patrol area. Arriving there, they got out and met their crew chiefs.
MSgt Barry Bastin, his uniform already soaked in sweat, his brown tabby fur beginning to show grey around his muzzle, had been pulled back to crew chief duty by the ramp up for combat. He greeted Alex as he always had, though.
“Ice, she’s ready to go.”
“Barry, let’s pray for a quiet patrol.” Alex replied. The tabby nodded as he followed Alex through the preflight checks, and then up the ladder to help him strap in. Over at Jedi’s F-15, his crew chief, a young Tech Sergeant ocelot femme named Helena Oceloton, greeted him in their usual exchange.
“Major, she’s ready for ya. Fuel in the tank, new oil in the reservoir, and fresh air in the tires.”
“As I like it. I’ll bring her back in one piece. Not a scratch, I promise,” Jedi replied, grinning.
“I’ll hold you to that, sir,” she replied. They went through their preflight and Jedi mounting up.
Growler and Tails had new Airfur First Class crew chiefs, fresh out of Technical School. They hadn’t had time to establish any rituals between each other yet, but they efficiently helped the Ocelot and Bengal Tiger pilots in the preflight and mount up. They got engines started and were cleared to taxi. They had to wait a moment as a flight of F-16’s took off for their combat duties. The tower then cleared them to take the runway.
“Tigerkaht One flight, you are cleared to take the runway. Hold for takeoff.”
“Tigerkaht One,” Alex replied as he moved the flight of F-15’s out onto the runway. Once they were lined up, he called for clearance.
“King Khalid Tower, Tigerkaht One flight ready for takeoff.”
“Tigerkaht One, you are cleared for takeoff. Contact Khalid Departure on one one five point one two.” The controller responded immediately.
“Tigerkaht One, rolling,” Alex replied, and then on the ship-to-ship to the other three. “Tigerkahts, full burners hold brakes for my mark. Three, two, one, Go!”
The four F-15C’s powered down the runway and into the air. Alex handled the ATC duties. As they crossed from Saudi airspace into Iraq, they picked up the EC-3 AWACS that was controlling the battlespace.
“Sightline Five, Tigerkaht One, flight of four F-15’s for air combat patrol, area four cee.”
“Tigerkaht One, Sightline has you identified. You are cleared in, maintain three five thousand and monitor.”
When they entered the patrol area, Jedi and Tails moved out five miles and began a leisurely circle of the area. Alex and Growler did the same, maintaining around five miles separation. Everything settled in for the patrol. Alex looked below. There were a few scattered clouds but the whole of Baghdad and the western environs laid out before him. From up here, the only hint of trouble were columns of smoke from artillery strikes and bomb hits.
Suddenly a flash from beside him startled him out of his scan. He looked back and around to see Growler’s F-15 beginning to bank off to the side and lose speed. A half second later the ocelot came up on the radio
“Ice, Growler, I just lost my number two engine. Don’t think anything hit me, felt like a turbine broke lose. I’m losing speed, and possibly fuel. I’ve pulled the fire handle, and my other engine is still providing power, but it seems a bit sluggish.”
“Copy you Growler, I’ll come around and have a look, and call Sightline, standby.”
Alex switched frequencies and called. “Sightline Five, Tigerkaht One, my wingfur just lost an engine. He’s losing altitude, we’re turning for home.”
“Copy that Tigerkaht One, was he hit by anything?” The E-3 controller asked.
“Negative, seems like a malfunction.”
Jedi then called on the ship-to-ship. “Ice, Jedi, do you need us over there?”
“Negative Jedi, stay on patrol. I’ll shepherd Growler home, see you in a few hours.”
“Copy that, standing by,” Jedi replied.
Growler’s F-15 continued to descend, now down to thirty thousand. He seemed to be stabilizing the situation.
“Ice, Growler, Number Two is shut down, fire’s out unless you see something more. Number One is only producing about seventy five percent power. Controls are a bit heavy, but manageable.”
Alex was looking over the other aircraft, maneuvering around it as it descended. The damage looked bad enough to put in doubt whether the Ocelot would make it to base.
“Growler, looks like you had a turbine let go in the hot section. Blew a hole out. You aren’t leaking fuel at this time. Looks like your number one took some shrapnel. You need to stay as high as you can.”
“Working on it,” the ocelot replied.
Finally, down at twenty thousand, the F-15 leveled out and stabilized. Alex got them turned to the south and headed for home. They were just west of Fallujah when a frantic call came in at about the same time the radar tone went off in his earphones.
“Tigerkaht One, Mudhen Five, SAM launch, looks to be headed your way.”
Alex rolled inverted and looked at the two small streaks of flame rising toward them. That’s when he saw that Growler’s working engine was sputtering flame from time to time, the slower and lower F-15 a perfect target for the radar-guided Greyhound missile. Reacting instantly, he called on the radio as he dropped back.
“Growler, pop chaff and keep going. No matter what, keep going.”
The ocelot tried to look around, but Ice was too far behind him. He had all he could do to maintain level flight. Looking in his mirrors, he could see the chaff, small metallic strips to confuse the tracking radar, streaming out behind him. His leader’s F-15 maneuvering and popping on his afterburner to lead the missiles away.
On his end, Alex rolled back over and began to track back and forth behind and below Growler’s chaff cloud, trying to get the SAMs onto him and off his wounded wingfur. Timing it out, he rolled back over and saw the missiles now tracking after him.
“Great! Now I just have to get ‘em off me.”
As the missiles climbed after him, he began to launch chaff and climb. The first missile wobbled a bit but kept coming. He kicked into afterburner and climbed. The F-15 is fast, but not as fast as a Mach 3+ missile. Timing was everything and just before the missiles got to him, Alex performed an old but vital maneuver. He broke hard right out of his climb. The first missile sailed past him and exploded, too far away for it to affect him. The second angled his direction. It still missed him but exploded just behind and above him. He felt the shotgun peppering of shrapnel across the back of his aircraft. His panel lit up like a Christmas tree, and he began to lose power.
“Tigerkaht One, Sightline, Mudhens report SAM launcher now destroyed. Report status?”
Alex gave the radio a sardonic look. “Sightline, Tigerkaht One, got the SAMs off of Tigerkaht Ten, but just got hit. Both engines on fire, going down. Be ejecting shortly.”
“Ice, Jedi, I’m coming over, anything we can do?”
“Jedi, get Growler home. I’ll be there when I can. Get Air Rescue headed my way if they can. Not sure which side of the line I’ll land on.”
“But Ice, we can--.”
“Just get him home, Ice out.”
Jedi was growling to himself. He arrived on scene in time to see Ice’s F-15 in a steep dive, trailing fire. He saw its death flash as it impacted near an oil refinery. It reminded him so much of a scene he’d lived out before, where his flight lead had sacrificed himself to save the young pilot. A recurring nightmare had him going down, fighting an aircraft on fire and watching his paws burn away. To his relief, he’d seen a parachute. He called in the location to Sightline, and after a few seconds got a response he did not like.
“Copy Tigerkaht Seven, that puts him behind the lines in the active combat area. They can’t go get him.”
“Copy that Sightline, we’re heading home.” Jedi bowed his head and said a prayer for his friend, and then focused on getting their wounded aircraft home.
# # #
Billy was at Helipro, going over the coming charters with Kath. Corrie was at her desk, working on the maintenance schedule. All three Angels, as their pilots were nicknamed, were out, One on a sightseeing flight, one flying Toyota executives up to Georgetown, and one flying a horse owner to the farm where his horse was kept. When the front door opened, Billy looked up. He then blanched, nearly falling. Kath looked up and let out a gasp. Two Air Force officers walked in, one a chaplain. Both prior service furs knew what it meant.
“Pardon me, we’re looking for William Panelli?”
Billy stood up and squared his shoulders. “I’m Billy Panelli.”
“Mr. Panelli, we were told by the Red Cross that instructions were left to tell you news about Colonel Alex O’Whitt so you could tell his family. I’m sorry, but Colonel O’Whitt has been shot down over Iraq. He is listed as Missing In Action. His F-15 was hit by a SAM, and although he was seen to have ejected, he went down behind the lines.”
Billy took a deep breath. “So, he’s listed as missing, not killed.”
“Yes, he is listed as missing. That’s all we have for now.”
A sound caught their attention. Turning, they were just in time to see Corrie falling to the floor. Billy and Kath sprang to her aid. The two Air Force officers just awkwardly turned and left.
As they worked to revive the fallen lioness, the two locked eyes. It was all they could do not to cry.
# # #
Alex drifted down under his chute. He had watched his stricken F-15’s fiery crash into a field. He’d slowed as much as he could and angled for the open space before ejecting. He was glad it had missed a neighborhood of houses just beyond. Directly below him was another open field. He was already scanning for somewhere to hide once he landed. At about a hundred feet, a sudden crosswind buffeted him sideways toward a field of piping associated with a refinery. He tried to stay up over it but landed awkwardly among the pipes. With the parachute dragging him sideways, he felt his left knee pop as it was trapped between two pipes. Before the chute could drag him farther, he released it and let it go. It snagged his vest and jerked it off him as well, managing to rip the zipper on it apart. The wind carried it on for over a hundred yards until it went out of sight. Along with it went most of his survival gear, including his pistol. He crouched down among the pipes and examined his knee. It was at an odd angle, so he knew it wouldn’t hold him up.
He was thinking quickly, trying to decide his next course of action, when he heard a shout behind him. Looking around, he found himself looking down the wrong end of an AK-47. He raised his paws. The fur, a scruffy-looking canid of indeterminate lineage, looked quite frightened as he motioned for the tiger to get up. Alex got up on one leg, pointing to his injured leg. The fur looked him up and down, and then motioned for him to come out of the pipes. Moving carefully, Alex complied. It apparently wasn’t fast enough for the fur, who hit him with the butt of the weapon across the shoulder. The tiger scowled and again pointed to his leg. When the fur saw that he had to hop on one leg, he seemed to understand. He yelled out something unintelligible to Alex, and two more furs showed up. He pointed to the injured tiger’s leg and said something, and the two came and took the tiger by the shoulders and half-carried him away. A short time later, he was deposited in a room and left by himself.
Managing to sit up, Alex carefully checked his leg. It was more dislocated than broken, and with careful movement he got it more or less lined back up. He’d had a couple OD green kerchiefs in his pockets. Casting around his makeshift cell, he found a couple of pieces of board and managed to splint his leg. It wasn’t perfect, but it did help ease the pain. He doubted he could walk on it, but it did help minimize any further damage.
They hadn’t searched him. The parachute harness had stripped his survival vest, so he had no weapon. He had some 550 cord, a survival food bar, a folding knife, and a couple more kerchiefs. Recalling his training, he stripped off his name patch and squadron emblem and hid them in a pipe under some debris in a corner. He determined that if they didn’t come back after him soon, he’d get his bearings and start trying to make his way back toward coalition lines.
That was not to be the case. The same three canids opened the door and two came in for him while the third covered him. They dragged him along and before long brought him into an open area. About a dozen more furs, all looking a bit scruffy and worn, and just a bit frightened, were standing in a loose formation. Along with them were two furs in regular uniforms. One had the stripes of an enlisted fur, the other the shoulderboards of an officer. The two dumped him unceremoniously in front of the group. The officer, a bulldog, looked him up and down.
“Well, not nearly what I expected for a Yankee Pig. You see, he isn’t ten feet tall and breathing fire.”
It had been said in perfect English. The enlisted fur smirked, and then repeated it in Arabic. The group laughed, but it sounded nervous and forced. Alex remained silent.
“So, my striped friend. Do you have a name?”
Alex had removed his name tag and hidden it in his “cell.” His rank emblems, shoulder flag and Air Force command patch he kept, but his unit patch he’d hidden as well. He simply looked at the fur.
“Well, so silent? You are required to give name, rank, and service number, no?”
Alex looked at him a moment, and then simply said, “No.”
The enlisted fur, a saluki by appearance, stayed silent. The bulldog’s eyes narrowed. He stood up and walked up to Alex and backpawed him across the face.
“Answer me, Pig!” the bulldog yelled, spraying spittle on him. Alex flexed with the blow, barely feeling it. He simply glared back, silent.
The bulldog snarled at him, and then half-grinned.
“The Yankee thinks he is tough. I am Ra’id Iwradi Benhusawaqi, Republican Guard, and I will show you how tough he is. He will beg me for death before I am done!”
The enlisted fur repeated his threat in Arabic, and the formation gave a ragged cheer. The bulldog stepped back and then in again, delivering a flurry of punches. Many of them Alex was able to move with, partially block, or avoid altogether. Many others he just had to take. The bulldog stepped back to come in from another direction. Just as he did, they heard the sound of artillery fire nearby. It was the outgoing sound. Alex realized that the lines were that close. The receiving end would be miles away. The formation nearly broke as the ragtag group involuntarily ducked. There followed a rapid discussion in Arabic between the enlisted fur and the officer. Alex had studied enough to recognize the rank the bulldog had called himself. Major. The discussion ended with the major thrusting his sidearm, belt and all, into the enlisted fur’s paws.
“Raqib Balquawri, hold my sidearm. I will show this one what it means to fight the Republican Guard.”
“Sir,” the saluki replied. “The Americans are just down the road. You heard the artillery, we should withdraw.”
The bulldog narrowed his eyes. “That, Raqib, is why we lose. You regular Army types run at the first sign of a fight. We were ordered to hold this refinery. That is what we will do. The Americans will not advance again until tomorrow night.” The Major saw the fearful looks on those he commanded and sneered. He apparently then thought the better of having them all standing in formation while U.S. artillery fired nearby. He spat in the dust and waved a paw.
“Put this back where you had it. The rest of you get to your positions. Hold through the night, and in the morning, I will show you what the Americans are really made of! Dismissed!”
The rest of the group scattered. The same two came for Alex, but now the enlisted fur accompanied them back. They put him down in the room and stepped back. The saluki squatted down to face him.
“American pilot, I am Raqib Benwazi Balquawri, of the regular Iraqi army. The fur who leads us is mad. It would do you well to answer him and play dead when you fight him. He is a boxing champion, and he will beat you to death. I will have water brought for you, but we have no food. We cannot attend your leg any better than you already have. The sun will be down soon. Do not make us shoot you trying to escape.”
With that, the furs shut the door. Alex could hear the occasional shuffle of a foot, telling him they had a guard posted on him. With nothing else to do, he took the 550 cord and began to wrap up his makeshift splint. It might help if he had to stand on it come the morning. The bruising he’d just taken didn’t help.
# # #
Scatcat Higgins was waiting on the ramp when the Tigerkahts arrived back at King Khalid. The crash trucks peeled away when Growler made a safe landing. The maintenance furs swarmed the F-15 and began repairs as soon as they stopped. Jedi taxied to his spot and shut down. When TSgt Oceloton put the ladder in place and climbed up to assist him, he looked at her sadly.
“Here she is, not a scratch on her, just as I promised. They…they got Ice.”
The ocelot nearly fell off the ladder. She looked over to where Barry Bastin stood, watching grimly as his aircraft did not return. He finally walked over to General Higgins and saluted.
“Sir, my aircraft has not returned, sir. Request permission to go punch something, sir.”
Scatcat looked at him. Another time, another war, he’d recommend the fur go get drunk, but alcohol was prohibited in country. He guessed punching something would be the next best thing.
“Permission granted, just make sure it can’t court martial you. Dismissed.”
Scatcat returned the salute. The Master Sergeant turned and walked off. Now Growler, Jedi, and Tails all walked up together. He pointed to the crew van.
“C’mon. I’ll hear the story while you debrief Intel. Let’s go.”
For his part, he also silently prayed for his friend.
# # #
Billy and Penny his tiger-fox wife, had brought Corrie to Jenna’s. Now everyone was home, and Corrie had finally exhausted her tears for now. She looked at Jenna, widow of Alex’s brother, now remarried, going through the motions of making dinner. Tia and Andrew her children were working on homework in their rooms. Corrie’s friends Patti and Joanne were expected about any time. Finally, she spoke, surprising Billy, Penny, and Jack, Jenna’s grey wolf husband.
“Jenna, how do you do that?”
Jenna looked over at the kitchen table full of furs and coffee. “Make dinner? Well, it helps if you have a plan first.”
Corrie smiled. Her first one in a while. “No, I mean deal with, well, this. Alex is missing.”
Jenna stopped a moment. “I know. Starving to death won’t change that. I deal with things better when I’m busy. We must have stood watch for missing pilots a dozen times when Jason was still here. Sitting and thinking too much is bad for you. Doing something is better.”
“I have been, I’ve been praying like crazy. I know it’s odd, but somehow, I know he’s still alive. Maybe not in good shape, but alive,” Corrie stated. Penny picked it up.
“Don’t ever discount prayer, or feelings. Alex is tough. If anybody can get through this, it’d be him.”
Bit by bit, the talk and company helped. The only thing Corrie was afraid of, was what the night would bring. As if reading her mind, Jenna stated.
“If this is becoming a slumber party, I’ve got couches, sleeping bags, blankets, and movies. Plus, lots of popcorn.” A murmur of agreement went up. That made Corrie feel better, too. Now if only Alex was doing okay. The arrival of Patti and Joanne helped, too. They rushed in and both grabbed the lioness in a fierce group hug. There followed a long stream of support and kindness as everyone settled in for the evening.
# # #
As the night had passed, Alex had prayed and then attempted to get some sleep. He’d slept fitfully and dreamed of home. Had Corrie been told he was missing? By morning, he knew one thing. He would do whatever he had to, to come home to her from this. He’d heard the artillery almost on a steady basis, and sporadic small arms fire in the night. He knew the lines were close. He’d observed his captors when he could. The scruffy regulars seemed ready to break and run, but they were held in place by fear of the Major. It was a bit after dawn that the two canids came for him. They half carried, half dragged him back out to the area he’d been at before. The rest were again in formation, with the bulldog in full regalia. Alex knew from his POW training that the more he gave, the weaker the enemy would think he was. Plus, the longer it took them to even get his name, the staler any info he might have would be. The standard thought in training was that even a commanding general’s info was no good after 72 hours. The bulldog would do what he planned to do, whether Alex talked to him or not. The way home, in his thoughts, lay through the bulldog.
“So, American Pig, will you talk this morning? Or do I beat out of you what I want to know?”
Alex remained silent. He was on his knee, his injured leg out to the side. The bulldog wasn’t wearing a sidearm, but he did have a long baton of sorts. He walked out and whacked Alex across his injured knee. Alex grimaced and grunted. It had hurt immensely, but the cord wrap had helped keep it from being unbearable.
“Still no? I can do this all day.”
Again, the tiger was hit on the injured knee. Again, he managed to hold his pain in.
“You are where you belong, stupid tiger, on your knees. Too cowardly to stand, too stupid to talk. Is that what all American pilots are like? What do they do, fly by remote control?”
Now the bulldog swung the baton higher, toward Alex’s head. He may be injured, but the tiger wasn’t dead, not by a long shot. He ducked the swing and glared at the bulldog.
“Oh! So you have some fight left. So, fight me, Pig. Stand up and face me.”
Alex recalled the words of the saluki, but he also knew one thing. The pressure was on. The unit would move, and an injured, beaten prisoner would score no points for them. Their leader Saddam had fled, hiding out somewhere now. If the bulldog was still in charge, Alex was a dead fur. He slowly raised to a standing position, leaning mostly on his good leg. He looked the bulldog directly in the eyes and Growled.
Fear dawned in the bulldog’s eyes. The American was taller than he’d thought. He’d also thought the fur too injured to stand. He could not lose face with the ragtag troops he commanded. He must take this tiger down. He stepped forward and took a swing with the baton at the injured leg again.
Alex leaned and took the blow down on his calf muscle. The bulldog was still too far away for him to do much. The bulldog began to circle him. Alex worked his way around to keep facing the Iraqi. The bulldog took a quick step and snapped a blow from behind at Alex’s knee. Alex spun the other way and hit the canid in the ribs. The bulldog chuffed and stepped back. He tried again. The baton sailed in as Alex spun, using his bad leg to counterbalance. The tiger grabbed the baton and snapped it in half, keeping one half for himself.
Now more evenly matched, Alex actually grinned at the fur. The bulldog sneered at him.
“Enough of this! Raqib, my pistol.”
The sergeant, which Alex had figured out raqib meant, looked evenly at the bulldog. He said something in Arabic, and the formation broke and surrounded the two furs. Now he spoke in English.
“No Ra’id. You boasted you would deal with the American bare pawed. You boasted we would hold this place with no problem. We lost two last night. Prove your leadership and word. Deal with the American or die trying.”
The circle of furs began to chant in Arabic. The bulldog looked all around. Finally, he said, “So be it!”
The Major tried to come at him with the half baton. Alex blocked the attempt easily with the half he now held. The bulldog pressed in, forcing him off balance. The tiger managed to wrap around and lock up the half baton, but as he fell back, both halves flipped free and away, landing several yards beyond the circle of still chanting furs. Alex pushed the bulldog back and managed to get back on his feet. The fur began to close on Alex, squaring up in a boxing stance. Alex faced him. The bulldog began throwing punches at Alex’s head and ribs. With limited mobility, Alex had to block and dodge, or absorb the blows as best he could. The thought of Corrie kept him going through the pain. The bulldog thought he’d close to a clinch, hoping to catch his breath, or perhaps get a grip and strangle the fur. The tiger was taking a lot more punishment than he’d ever thought.
The Major did not know Alex was a master at Panjitsu. He didn’t know Alex was a third degree Black Belt. When he tried to clench with Alex and grab his throat, the tiger grabbed the bulldog by the head with one paw. He snapped it back and used four precisely aimed claws to slice through the fur’s carotid artery and jugular vein at one strike. To most any other fur, the thick wattle of flesh on the bulldog’s neck would have protected him from the tiger’s claws. A rash swipe would have failed. In Alex’s case, four claws slid in with surgical precision.
The bulldog’s eyes were wide as Alex flung him away. Blood had spurted in gouts, covering both the tiger and the bulldog, quickly diminishing as the furs lifeblood ran out. The body twitched after it fell. The furs in the circle eyed him now apprehensively. The saluki called an order in Arabic. They all quickly dispersed, gathering up weapons and packs and moving quickly to a place toward the back of the refinery. Raqib Balquawri stepped up to contemplate the quickly dying Major, and then faced Alex.
“Thank you, my American friend. He was worse for us than anything your forces can do. I and my furs will likely melt away back to our homes and try to forget we ever served. I cannot give you aid, but I can wish you well. Allah goes with the brave.”
He then turned and walked away quickly. The whole group moved out, heading North as fast as they could. Alex hobbled back to his cell to get what he’d hidden there. On the way, he found a piece of pipe he could use as a crutch. Soon, he’d attempt the walk to coalition lines.
# # #
Captain Leo Leon surveyed the road they were set up beside. The front line of the coalition advance was part of their perimeter. They’d laid down a barrage supporting the attack on Fallujah the past two nights. Word was they’d be moving forward tonight. The lion actually had three gun-teams under his command, and they worked as a group, laying down fire wherever it was called for. This was his third combat rotation, after two in Afghanistan. There, he’d known what the fight was for. This time, he wasn’t so sure.
Normally, most of their activity happened at night, both fire missions and movements. He was awake now because he’d been on a conference chat via computer with the battalion commander. As soon as he was ready, he’d nap a bit before they began breaking down and getting ready to move forward a few miles.
Feeling hungry, he went to the box and pulled out an MRE. Among the improvements he’d seen in his time in the Army, the newer ones weren’t too bad, tasting marginally better than the cardboard and plastic they came in. He was just about to open the package when a call went up from the furs on perimeter guard.
“Someone coming down the road!”
Leo quickly dropped into a crouch and grabbed his rifle. Ranks Captain and below still carried M-4’s to go with their sidearm. Dropping down beside the one who’d called out, Leo spoke quietly.
“What have you got, Chavez?”
“Single figure, came out o’ the refinery. Looks to be limping and using a crutch. Jones says it’s a white tiger in a flight suit with blood all over ‘im through the scope.”
Leon looked askance. The word had been passed yesterday to watch for a white tiger who’d been shot down. This could be him, or it could be a trick.
“Hold fire and watch him. If anyone starts shooting at him, give him covering fire. Stay put for now, I want to make sure this isn’t a trap.”
“Yessir.” The malamute replied. The figure continued to make slow progress. No fire came from the opposite side and soon the figure could be clearly seen. When it was about ten yards away from the barricade, Leo called out from cover.
“Halt and identify yourself.”
The fur’s M-4 was leveled at the tiger, who’d stopped where he was.
“L, ah, Colonel Alex O’Whitt.”
Leo startled. “Col O’Whitt? Really? I heard a white tiger was MIA, but I didn’t think of you. What th’ heck happened.”
The fur grinned, showing sharp teeth. Leo could now see the tiger’s face was swollen and bruised. He couldn’t see a source for all the blood on his face and flightsuit. The lion motioned for two soldiers to help the tiger inside the barricade. Two furs hustled out and got on either side, helping the fur in. Once inside, they got him down on a stretcher. The fur now answered.
“Got shot down, spent the night as a guest of th’ locals. Didn’t enjoy their company much. Got a busted leg. The ones at the refinery there bugged out, by the way.”
They checked his kali tags and asked him his security question, which they pulled in by computer. Once they were sure he was who he said, they called for transport. In short order, a HUMVEE Ambulance came up and they loaded him on. Captain Leon just shook his head.
“Colonel, they always said you were something. Now I see what they meant. All that blood isn’t yours.”
Alex managed a shrug. “No, it isn’t. No, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Fair enough. Safe trip home.”
Alex blinked. “Home?”
The lion smiled. “With that leg, I’d say yes. Good luck, Colonel.”
“You too, Captain.”
The ambulance doors closed, and they began a bumpy ride back South.
# # #
The pilots of the 412th were setting around their common area, moping. They’d been temporarily pulled off patrol while the incident with Growler and Ice was investigated. Apparently, Growler was too tempting a target to pass up. His engine had blown a stage one turbine disk, possibly due to sand ingestion. The resultant shrapnel had compromised his other engine and part of the hydraulics. The aircraft was under repair and would be back in service within four days. Ice, on the other paw, had gone down on the wrong side of coalition lines, and was listed as MIA. Growler had been very quiet. Now he finally spoke.
“I can’t believe he did that. He took that missile for me. I was a sitting duck, and he lured the things away.”
Jedi spoke up. “Yes, he did. That’s who he is. They darn near didn’t get him then, either. He dodged the first one. The second one too, but it went off close enough to cause damage. I saw his chute. If they haven’t killed him, the Iraqi’s have him.”
“Yeah, and they treat their prisoners so well,” Growler groused.
Just then, the door opened, and General Higgins walked in. The pilots nearly killed themselves jumping to attention.
“As you were,” Scatcat tossed as he looked around. “My, aren’t you all a gloomy bunch. Who died?”
They all looked at him incredulously. Jedi finally managed an answer.
“General, all due respect, but Ice--.”
“Is right here.” A voice from the hallway outside called. Alex, sporting a cast on his left leg and crutches, clumped into the room.
After a few second’s stunned silence, a loud cheer went up. As the 412th’s pilots all swarmed the tiger, General Higgins stepped to the side, grinning.
“Honestly, the Tigerkahts and CO’s breaking their legs.”
As the uproar died down, Growler just wouldn’t let go of Alex’s paw.
“Colonel, thank you, thank you so much! I’m so sorry.”
“Wasn’t your fault, Growler. Nobody’s fault. This is what happens in war,” Alex replied.
“So, what’s the plan, Ice?” Jedi asked. Scatcat answered instead.
“Ice is headed home. After that cast comes off, they’ll re-evaluate him for flying status. That’s the bad news. The good news is King is coming in tomorrow. He’s back on flying status and back in command. Blackie is in command until King arrives. Now y’all get back in the air. There’s a war going on, y’know.”
Alex smiled and shook paws all around, accepting the greetings and goodbyes. Jedi simply saluted him.
“Until the next time, Ice.”
“Jedi, until then.”
Alex hobbled out, and on to his room to gather his things. He was going home!
# # #
The next day everyone was mostly gone from the gathering at Jenna’s. It was well past mid-day. Tia and Andrew were at school. Billy had gone in to make sure things were running smooth at Kentiger and Helipro. Only Jenna, Penny, and Corrie remained. The lioness was calm, but far from collected. They’d just finished lunch when the phone rang. Jenna went to answer.
“Jenna, Billy, put me on speaker, please.”
Jenna looked at the phone a second, and then shrugged. She pushed the button and held the pawset up.
“Okay, you’re on, all of us can hear.”
“Corrie, Penny, Jenna, those two officers were just here again. I’m at Helipro.”
Corrie let out a small gasp, and tears welled up, fearing what the tiger was about to say.
Billy didn’t delay as he continued. “Alex is no longer missing. He made his way to friendly lines this morning. He’s been injured, but not severely. He should be on his way home in a day or two.”
Jenna and Penny both leapt to their feet, overjoyed at the news. Corrie collapsed to her knees. All they could hear from her was a repeated, prayerful thank you.
It was over, Alex was coming home.
# # #
Six weeks later, Alex was sitting at home, contemplating the turn of events. He was on track for he and Corrie’s wedding early next month. He still held all his ratings for Kentiger and Helipro. He even still held his civilian Medical. What he didn’t have was his military medical. The flight surgeon had turned down his request to return to flight status. He had been officially re-retired as a full colonel, but his military flying days were over. They still wanted his expertise and training, but he’d be attached to the 412th in an advisory position.
He contemplated the cane he now used. It wouldn’t be needed full time, but he would need it when he would be on his feet a lot. He’d gotten word the Tigerkahts had been returned stateside, as there had been no air to air threat in the end to deal with.
“Ah well,” he mused. “Warfighting is a job for the young. Just hope I passed on enough to get them through it.”
For now, Corrie would be there soon. Since he’d been back, the lioness rarely let him out of her sight, except at night when she went home. He didn’t mind. It had been one of his closer calls. He’d been given a Purple Heart and been put in for an Air Force Cross. All that was well and good, but in the end, he didn’t want to make a big deal of it. He’d had to take a fur’s life, up close and personal. Not something he ever wanted to glory in.
For now, a quick nap was in order, as the doctors had told him he needed rest. Corrie would wake him up as she came in. It was very, very good to be home.
Author’s note: No F-15’s of either Air Superiority or Ground Attack versions were shot down in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Two F-15E Ground Attack variants were shot down during Operation Desert Storm, but the F-15C remains undefeated in air to air or ground to air combat. It took a very specific set of circumstances to be imagined to have Alex’s F-15 be shot down.