TYLER, TX (KLTV) - "This is actually my flight helmet from the 101st," said John Whitten, showing me his helmet. "This is the one I took to Iraq for the very first time."
Whitten was just out of high school when he joined the Army in 1988.
"When I was 12 years old, I knew I was going in the military 'cause I knew they had helicopters," said Whitten.
Within two years of joining, Whitten's love of helicopters was to take him to the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Storm.
"When we got there, we hit the ground running," said Whitten. "Midnight and it was over 100 degrees on the tarmac. It was so hot during the day you couldn't work on the helicopter. They would actually blister your hands. So, the temps did get to 140 degrees. It was nasty hot you know."
As it turned out, heat and sand would be Whitten and his Chinook Helicopter's biggest enemy during the first Gulf War. Thirteen years later, Whitten returned to Iraq for a different kind of war.
"It's a different experience," said Whitten. "It's one of the things I really don't like to talk about."
Although "kill or be killed" is the very essence of war, it's something warriors may not talk about, but never forget.
"Those are the days you really count your blessings, when you are taking fire and returning fire," he said. "You don't have time to think, training takes over."
As a flight engineer on a 60 foot long Chinook Helicopter in the Iraq War, Whitten and his crew would fly troops, ammunition and supplies to battle fronts all over the country. Many times, Whitten would return from missions not knowing his copter had been hit, until he saw the holes in it. Whitten says the U.S. "ruled the air" but there was always danger from shoulder fired rockets and small arms fire.
"I've got thousands of hours in the Chinook Helicopter," he said. "I've had several emergency proceedures where we've had to land the aircraft, otherwise it would crash."
In October of 2003, Whitten returned to private life, his boyhood dream of flying in helicopters finally fulfilled. Ironically, the name of John Whitten's Big Chinook Helicopter was "Nightmare".
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