The right-engine warning light of Captain Ann Marie Alezio's F-16 started flashing bright red four minutes after the jet lifted off from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower. This occurred five nautical miles off the coast of Yugoslavia on the evening of February 2, 1994, during another "weapons hot" run on the Serbian artillery surrounding and shelling Sarajevo. Orders had come at 1800 to quiet the Serb guns following the death of two civilians in a Sarajevo marketplace.
Captain Alezio was flying in response position twenty feet off the wing of her flight leader, Captain Rick Romny. There were four other navy F-16s in the dusk operation. This was the twentieth time the 128th Fighter Squadron had gone "weapons hot" off the deck of the USS Eisenhower, sent inbound toward the Serb gunners around Sarajevo. There was a pool among the exasperated pilots, who were betting on the nautical mile at which they would once again receive orders from Admiral Warren to return to the USS Eisenhower. None of the pilots had ever experienced such command indecision in a military operation.
"Flight Leader," cut in Captain Alezio, "I've got a right engine shutdown." "Affirmative, Alezio. Keller, visual?"
Captain Wendy Keller dropped back from the formation and fell in behind Captain Alezio. Keller said, "Flight Leader, Alezio streaming gas."
"Showing full tanks," said Captain Alezio. "Left engine flameout, but repeat: full tanks. Those engines are full, Flight Leader. My crew chief topped them off this morning."
"Affirmative, Alezio is now cold," said Captain Keller. "Alezio is now engine cold, port and starboard."
"Switch to backup tanks," said Captain Romny.
"Flight Leader," said Alezio, "backup tanks read . . . no fucking way . . . tanks read . . . empty."
"Try the manual override on backup tanks," said Captain Romny. "Do not bail."
"Don't eject, Alezio. Follow emergency procedures," said Captain Keller. "Don't lose your bird."
"Negative recovery," said Captain Alezio. "Losing rudder control."
"Manual override?" said Captain Romny.
"It's . . . fucking . . . frozen," said Captain Alezio.
Captain Alezio's F-16 was eight tons of steel falling downward toward the Yugoslavian coastline at 650 mph. Keller watched it sliding sideways. "Eject now, Alezio," yelled Captain Keller. "Eject now!"
Captain Alezio's right engine sputtered for a split second, and the sudden tangential force kicked the falling F-16 into a cartwheeling spin. Captain Keller yelled out one last time, "Eject."
In a second the G-force shot up into the ten to twelve range, the blood pooled near Captain Alezio's chest, and she lost consciousness. The five members of the flight team followed the tumbling F-16 until it crashed in a fireball near the Yugoslavian coastline. The Sarajevo mission was scrubbed. As they flew back to the carrier, the F-16s passed the rescue helicopters and reconnaissance O-11 prop plane making their way toward the flaming remains of the jet.
When Keller jumped down from her jet to the carrier deck, her crew chief, Billy Larabee, came up to her and said, "Captain Keller, Seaman Alison Mervik wants to talk to you."
Captain Keller shook her head and said, "Not now, Larabee."
Captain Wendy Keller came up on deck the next morning at 0545 and stood watching the gray predawn sea.
With the death of Captain Ann Marie Alezio, Captain Keller was the only remaining female pilot on active duty over Yugoslavia. She tried to think through what was bothering her in a logical, military fashion until she tasted blood in her mouth and realized she was biting her own lower lip. She heard her voice replay, Don't eject, Alezio. Don't lose your bird.
The traditional navy memorial ceremony was held for Alezio at 0600 with all nonessential hands on the carrier's flight deck. A fireball of a sun rose in the east over the Adriatic, and a forty-five-knot wind raced across the flight deck. Keller stood at attention in her dress whites on the deck, looking up at Admiral Warren as he spoke of the virtues and bravery of Captain Alezio, and of the noble aims of their mission.
Keller heard a few men snicker as Warren went on and on about how they were helping the good people of the former Yugoslavia. One sailor behind her, in the first row of enlisted men, let out a fart. The squadron broke off into muffled laughter. She turned and glared at the sailors, wishing she knew who to report for disciplinary action. Keller had overheard a flight deck seaman that morning jokingly refer to their squadron, the Fighting Knights, as the Knights Without a Fight. She had chewed out the seaman for his poor attitude.
Admiral Warren quickly finished his speech, but made no mention of the circumstances of Alezio's death, other than to say it was under investigation. Captain Keller locked her eyes on Admiral Warren. It seemed like Warren was looking straight at her from the deck above. She watched as the four-plane escort flew over the USS Eisenhower, as the carrier band played taps. One jet broke upward, symbolizing the dead Alezio. Keller looked back at the ceremonial bandstand to see Admiral Warren saluting the flyby. She heard Alezio's astonished voice in her head, No fucking way . . . tanks read . . . empty. . . .
Admiral Warren had made no mention of the political discussion group called Balkan Watch that Captain Alezio had initiated on the aircraft carrier. The group had started with eight officers and a few sailors meeting on Tuesday nights as an alternative to the drinking/movie scene, and expanded into a series of lectures and small discussion groups involving over two hundred of the 1,500 sailors on board the USS Eisenhower. Alezio had been written up numerous times in the USS Eisenhower's newspaper, and recently had her work profiled in Navy Times. Keller had argued with Alezio about Balkan Watch, making it clear she saw something counterproductive about policy debates in the middle of an active military operation. Keller wondered what would happen to Balkan Watch now that Alezio was dead. Probably Alezio's friend Seaman Alison Mervik would keep the Balkan Watch group together. Keller shook her head. She knew Alison Mervik had been more than a friend to Ann Marie Alezio, but hadn't wanted to confront it.
As the seamen were dismissed, Captain Keller looked around for Captain Romny, Alezio's flight leader on the fatal mission. He wasn't present among the pilots standing in the shimmering heat of the flight deck.
After the flyby, Keller stood near the port railing to watch the sunrise slide upward into dark cirrus clouds and heard again, Don't eject, Alezio. Don't lose your bird.
Captain Keller found Captain Romny down in the life support shop.
Romny wore his flight suit open so that his gold jewelry was visible, tangled in the thick black hair of his chest. He wore a NY Giants cap on his shaved head. He glanced up when Captain Keller came in and sat down on a stack of parachutes. There were six enlisted men at work in the shop, as well as two enlisted women. Their job was to take care of the squadron's ejection seats, parachutes, and survival gear. Keller said, "You weren't at the memorial for Alezio."
"Better shit to do than cry over a fuckup."
"You calling Alezio a fuckup?"
"She couldn't move the motherfucking manual fuel override."
"She said it was frozen."
"Sure, and the gas tanks were empty. You ever heard of an F-16's tanks going suddenly empty? It was pilot error. Alezio lost an eight million dollar bird because she was incompetent. Driving herself into the Yugoslavian coast probably saved the navy a lot of money in the long run. You knew she was fucking up, Keller. You told her not to eject, to follow proper emergency procedure."
Captain Keller stood up. Ann Marie Alezio was one of her only friends on the carrier, even with their differences. The other fighter pilots isolated the two women, daily making it clear in small ways that they were neither wanted nor accepted in the 128th Squadron. Keller knew Alezio was a better pilot than most of the men in the squadron.
"And you know why Alezio was up there with us?" continued Romny. "She wasn't scheduled for the run, but she convinced your pal Captain Meredith to put her on the roster. Why? She wanted the 150 bonus bucks of hazardous flight pay for the month of July. Not because she gave a shit about these Balkan nutcases slitting each other's throats. Not because she wanted more time in her F-16. Because she wanted 150 bucks to buy her mechanic girlfriend Alison Mervik a birthday present. . . ."
Romny hadn't finished before Captain Keller surprised herself by jumping up, whipping a leg around and knocking him across the desk with a military-issue dress shoe to the side of the head. Romny fell over the desk, then stumbled to his feet and ran toward Captain Keller with his head down, driving her into the bulkhead wall. He flopped on top of her, and as she scrambled to get out from under him, Romny backhanded her across the bridge of her nose, and said, "The fucking golden girl of the navy loses her temper?"
Keller jerked upward, twisted to the side violently, and vomited. Romny fell backward in surprise, and Keller rolled off the parachutes onto her knees.
She felt hands under her arms, and a sailor helping her to her feet and sitting her back down on the parachutes. He held a towel under her bleeding nose and tilted her head back. Romny said, standing over her, "You better get control of yourself, Keller. You're acting like a bitch with bad PMS."
Captain Matthew Meredith walked over to her as she stood on the flight deck holding her nose. Captain Meredith was permanently grounded after fracturing his skull executing a reportedly premature ejection while serving as a test pilot at El Toro Air Force Base. He now served as senior flight deck officer on the USS Eisenhower and was dogged by rumors of cowardice. The pilots called him Captain Prozac for his depressed air and avoided talking to him, but he was one of the few male officers she could call a friend. Captain Meredith said, "You okay?"
Keller looked over at the steam rising from the catapult on the forward deck, watched the sailors scurrying around to ready it to fire the next jet skyward. Meredith slipped a folded-up piece of paper into Keller's hand and said, "Read this. It was posted in some of the heads on the ship the day before Alezio's plane went down. Sailors in the Balkan Watch group must have been getting tired of just sitting around and talking while Rome burns over in Bosnia, and they stepped over the line. I'm pretty sure that Captain Alezio was in on this, if she wasn't the one who wrote it."
"Do I really need to read this now?" said Keller. "You know how I feel about this political shit."
"I know how you feel about political shit," said Meredith. "But you need to read this now."
Keller crumpled up the paper in her hand and said, "Alezio is dead, Meredith. I kept her from bailing until it was too late. I told her not to lose her bird."
Meredith moved in close and whispered in her ear, "Read it. There's some shit brewing aboard the Eisenhower that you should know about." Before Captain Keller could say anything, Meredith had run off.
Captain Keller walked back to the edge of the carrier and unfolded the piece of paper. The corners were jagged, as if it had been torn down.
TO THE SAILORS ON THE USS EISENHOWER
The Serbs are raping thousands of women in their prison camps, including girls as young as six. After raping, they torture them as well as cut off their breasts, arms, and genitals or cut them open and pull out their intestines. In the camp God Sonje in Vogo dozens of girls were raped in the presence of their mothers. In the Vilina Vlas Hotel in Vilegrad the Serbs raped several hundred girls, killed them, and threw them into the Drina River. In the village of Jezero three hundred girls from the Center for Retarded Children were raped and slaughtered by the Serbs. The U.S. Navy has the power to prevent these atrocities. We must take action!
Captain Keller left the flight deck and walked down the steel-gray corridors back to her small cabin. She sat on her bed reading and rereading the Balkan Watch memo. Alezio had tried to get her to read this sort of material for months, until finally Keller shoved her up against a bulkhead and made it clear she wasn't interested in her politics. The two did not discuss Balkan Watch again until a few hours before the fatal mission, when Alezio had turned to Keller in the flight ops room and said, "Get your golden head out of the sand, Wendy, before someone shoots your ass off."
A seaman knocked on her door a few hours later and told her to report to Admiral Warren. Keller dropped the Balkan Watch memo in her trash can, and then bent down and pulled it out again. She pressed it flat on her desk with her hand, folded it with precision, and holding it between thumb and forefinger, absentmindedly flew the paper jet back and forth before her eyes. It was Alezio's F-16 she was flying, and she dove the paper jet down toward her knees and opened fire on the Serb headquarters with her 20 mm nose gun, her lips sounding ptt-ptt-ptt-ptt. She stopped and held the jet in her lap, and then crumpled it up with two hands and tossed it back into the trash can.
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