'Tico' and 'Cujo' Back!
POW's release lifts the spirits of wing troops.
By TSgt. Louis A. Arana-Barradas
401st TFW Public Affairs
March 8, 1991
Maj. Jeff "Tico" Tice and Capt. Mike "Cujo" Roberts are free again after spending 45 days as prisoners of war in Baghdad.
Both were shot down Jan. 19, the tthird day of the Gulf War, while on a bombing mission over Iraq. They were released Tuesday to the International Red Cross. But because bad weather canceled their flight, they didn't reach Riyadh, Saudi Arabia until Wednesday.
News of their release fired up members of the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing (Provisional) and lifted the cloud which has hung over the unit since the day the two 614th Tactical Fighter Squadron pilots were shot down. But, the wing's men and women never wavered -- they were sure that the two would be returned.
The POW's release had residents of Tent City buzzing. Many knew or worked with the pilots and were glad of their release. The general consensus of the wing's enlisted force: "It's really over now."
Col. Jerry L. Nelson, 401st TFW (P) commander, is visibly more relaxed now that his two pilots have been released. "We just about have then back," he said. "But we still don't have them. It's frustrating, because we're not a whole unit until they're back with us."
The colonel said wing pilots knew they might get shot down in combat. "But when it happens, there's really no way to prepare for it," he said.
"When our pilots got shot down, it hit us hard. With everything we did, we remembered those two guys."
A ritual quickly developed. Before every mission, pilots stepping out of the operations building would slap the top of the door, above which is painted, "God bless Tico and MR." Fellow pilots called Captain Roberts "MR."
The two pilot's tactical call signs became the names for squadron flights. "Tico and Cujo flights flew every day," Colonel Nelson said. "They were with us all the time. We just wish that they would have known what waas going on."
The 614th TFS commander, Lt. Col. Bruce Wright, said getting the pilots back meant everything, in
terms of winning the war. "We fought the war for those two guys," Colonel Wright said. "Getting them back means we've won. Although it was a victory for the United States of America, for the 614th TFS, winning this war means getting those guys back with us."
"When we see their faces, and we know they're back with us again, then were ready to go home. But not until that happens," Colonel Wright said.
The squadron commander said when the two men were shot down, it was hard to accept. "It's tough for any fighter squadron to lose an airplane, certainly to lose friends. What you feel can't be expressed in the English language."
However the squadron rebounded quickly. It had to. The unit's members knew they had an important job to finish. He said though the pilots were not here, they were an inspiration, leaders in absentia. "We just came back the next day and pressed on," he said.
Maj. Emmett Tullia was in the two-ship formation with Major Tice the day he was shot down. Split up while dodging Iraqi anti-aircraft fire and surface-to-air-missiles, he was about two miles behind Major Tice when he saw his F-16 Fighting Falcon take a SAM hit.
Major Tullia said he dodged 12 SAM's on that mission. Fittingly, he -- now nicknamed "Dodger" -- and Capt. T.K. Moore, flew to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to welcome the POW's back. He was excited about seeing his friends again.
"I'm relieved because it sounds like they're in pretty good shape," Major Tullia said. "I'm honored to be able to pick them up and take them home." When he sees his friends, the major said, "I'm going to give them a beer and a big ol' hug."
TSgt. Bill Hinchey was the dedicated crew chief on the aircraft Major Tice flew on his last mission. He remembers the day well that his pilot went down. "Just before the jets landed, they told me that it was my jet that went down," he said. His initial concern was for the pilot. "At least we knew that Major Tice was safe. That was the important part. We can replace an aircraft."
But like all crew chiefs, Sergeant Hinchey started thinking about his lost jet. "We work so hard on the planes. A lot of times we spend more time with then than we do with our families. You develop a bond. Losing the jet upset me, but it upset me more having lost Major Tice."
Sergeant Hinchey said Captain Robert's crew chief, Sgt. Tom McClung, transferred with him to the 401st TFW from Moody AFB, Ga. He said that it was almost spooky that both their birds went down the same day.
The sergeant said after learning the pilots were safe that, "It was a matter of keeping them in our prayers." Now that the POW's have been released he said, "It's awsome. We went in, did what we had to do in a minimum of time with very few casualties. And knowing that our pilots will be back with us and soon able to fly with us again is great."
For Capt. Preston "Gummi" Thompson, the shooting down of his friends became personal. Flying in the four-ship formation directly behind the one Captain Roberts was in, "We saw MR take the hit."
"Jinking" (evading triple-A and SAMS) heavily, the captain remembered thinking at that moment, "Oh my God, this really is war. We're not invincible."
Captain Preston said that though their mood blackened, the unit's mission in Qatar didn't change when the two men were shot down. He said that the reasons were right and that Iraq couldn't be allowed to get away with what they did in Kuwait. "That's not the American code of honor."
"It made it more personal, brought it closer to home -- into our unit. We weren't fighting just for other people now, we had a personal stake in it too," he said.
The POW's release, Captain Preston said, was like the lifting of a huge weight off their shoulders. "The 614th is a family and we were missing two of our members," he said. "We weren't whole -- complete -- until we got our two buddies back. We aren't going anywhere until we get our family together and take those two guys back to their wives."
"There was no one happier to see them released than me," SSgt. Mark A. Cornell, a Combat Cameraman from Detachment 3, 1367th Audiovisual Squadron at Rhein-Main AB, Germany, said. The sergeant, who flew five combat missions over Kuwait and Iraq as the backseater in the squadron's lone F-16D, said, "I knew the guys, and understood the hurt the pilots felt at losing them."
To Capt. Joe Battaglia, a fellow 614th TFS pilot, word of the pilot's release was, "the best news we've gotten here." He said that to a man, "We wanted to fly to Baghdad, put them on our plane, and bring them back ourselves."
"Since they went down, getting them back has been foremost in our minds," he said. "Dropping bombs and winning the war was important; but getting our two guys back was what we had in the back of our minds."
The captain said afer hostilities ended, pilots watched CNN awaiting news of the POW's release. "I can't describe how we all feel now that we know they're coming home. There was a part of us with them all the time they were in Baghdad. I wish we could have all gone to meet them."
"I guarantee there will be a big celebration when we see them back at Torrejon," Captain Battaglia said. "We're damn glad they're out of there."