There Are Some Fates Worse Than Death: Mike Drowley at TEDxScottAFBFeb 27, 2020
I'm Lieutenant Colonel Mike Trolley and I'm here today to tell you who I am now in standard air force briefings and presentations. I will dazzle you with my PowerPoint skills. I would have a good overview explaining to them what I value in speaking. Today and for my bio, I would go over what my assignments were, the education I had, the awards I won, but instead today I'll just tell you exactly who I am. I am a rifleman in the navy. I am an army infantryman. I'm a Navy SEAL. Now
someof you are probably looking at me right now. kind of a scarf your hair looks amazing you sir are a fighter pilot but i am going to discuss that last point with you for just a second i am NOT a fighter pilot i am actually a attack pilot i drive the a-10 warthog and be strike pilot means i stand up for
something bigger than myself to me i am all those people i have an extreme am amount of empathy for that infantryman being shelled by artillery by that marine rifleman standing there alone guarding a hill for that Navy SEAL who's about to kick down the door of a building where he has no idea what's on the other side I try and put on my own shoes and each of those people's shoes, that it's what makes me an A-10 attack pilot and it sounds fun to say, but empathy is probably one of the best skills I have to be able to do that mission. so to me there are three world three words that can stop my world in a heartbeat those words are troops in contact and what they mean troops in contact is that friendly forces are taking direct and effective fire that someone else is trying to hurt my friends who are on the ground and when I think of troops in contact when I'm in a training scenario trying to prepare for the actual fight it sounds a bit cheesy but what I think of is the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan the day D when the ship goes down friendly forces try to storm the beachhead they are taking that constant relentless fire that is what i try and think of those forces going through the ground every second and my world counts so i can protect and help those guys. on the ground and when I hear troops in contact that mind clock that opening scene starts ticking starts ticking in my mind it was August 16, 2002 when I heard the words troops in touch for the first time in a combat situation I came across the radio was doing overnight support for a team that had just captured a high value objective they were coming out of a valley with the high value objective we are trying to get to a safe house the weather wasn't great that night it was stacked several thousand feet and a cloudy deck over the weather everything was fine it was like flying over a blanket of snow there were stars out the moon was out but talking to the team on the ground under the weather deck they anticipated the clouds to be about a thousand feet above the ground they were right in the middle of a valley it was blowing windy there was dust there were very intermittent rain storms going on and while i was drinking and talking or with them about their situation, the feeling I was having is that they didn't feel that things were going well there were indicators that were making them nervous certain things they were seeing in the city led them to believe that others were aware of their presence, so they as this was going on I checked in with my watchdog agency and said, "Hey, I'd like to try and run a weather reduction to get under weather just so I can see this team, so if something happens, I can get ready, I can be there to support them and as I was doing that coordination all of a sudden those words were heard on the radio troops in contact we are taking direct fire and what surprised me is that I could actually hear the gunshots and explosions in the background when the team member tried to talk to me and tell me that I was under fire at the moment, that was all I needed.
So I told the monitoring agency that I am now going to run a weather advisory. down and i'm going to go down there so that way i can help my friends so running a weather slowdown isn't the most fun procedural in the world when you think about it at the time in 2002 we didn't have actual pictures of the country no we had really detailed maps all it had was a russian map from when the russians fought in afghanistan it wasn't written in english no numbers i could recognize but that's what we used to orient ourselves it had a gps point it would start .
I would hold a very specific heading, reduce power for an allowed period of time and then when that time expired I would have hopefully run out of the weather and if I hadn't then I would execute a maximum recovery climb and try to get far from any terrain lied on the other side so i came in at my starting point told my wingman to hold fast and now i started running my weather reduce power try to hold that exact heading and now i come in in the cloud cover, it is very turbulent. about the place and while I'm doing this I'm doing probably one of the fastest instrument cross checks I've ever done. instrument instrument instrument exterior instrument instrument instrument exterior and as I do it a little mantra starts like I'm going through it and it's please let this work please let this work please let this work and after what seems like forever , it just happens to be 10 to 12 seconds.
I shoot out of the north end of the valley under the weather. I was about a thousand feet above the ground and I asked myself the eternal question why didn't I listen to my mom when she told me to go work at the local grocery store and the reason came back on the radio when the troop started saying we're taking m More and more fire We need help now so I go into a high G turn. I tell my wingman to stay high. There's no way I can fit you into the fight right now. your face goes in if you try to turn around and now i'm trying to look down the valley and what's spread out before me is probably one of the most incredible gunfights i've ever seen there's an infrared beacon going off that It shows me where the friendly position is and then there's tracer fire going back and forth to the east and from the east towards the convoy I'm trying to support and then halfway up the mountainside right at the bottom of the clouds there's a flash with a corresponding explosion on the ballot from some sort of mortar team trying to damage my friendly forces down there so now I'm cruising down the valley at 300 knots which is pretty fast for a -10 I'm trying to get in touch with the friendlies the team member is having trouble talking to me because he's so immobilized by the fire that he hides behind the truck and can only show up once in a while to Trying to get a line of sight with my plane so that I can hear while this is happening, I'm asking a question, are you shooting at Easter?
He has received fire from the west. Which? Where is he shooting? Where is it getting the fire from? it's we're taking fire from the east so i put my cross gun on the tree line and get in to about six thousand feet then hit for two seconds which rips a hundred rounds into that tree line and when i come out it blinds me . the effect of my gun, the 30mm shot, which reduces my envy, jeez, I almost have to throw back, a high G, to avoid hitting the side walls of the mountain, which brings me back to the weather and what greets me the radio is probably the worst close air support an a-10 pilot you can hear on the radio at that point it's complete silence a thousand things are running through your mind at that moment i just shot my own friends the guys have been invaded they just got shot at the guy that was on the radio you have no idea what's going on in that time period and then finally when i'm back in the weather i call the radio probably the best radio calling a storm.
I like to get good hits. the valley tries to get back under the weather and then it's another high g maneuver to get back down and that way I can support those friendly forces another tree line arms run back into the coming weather and all what i keep doing the radios keep calm and keep coming and it's amazing because the tracer fire doesn't stop, it doesn't slow down, usually once you show up and do a flyby, contact is broken and you can go home, but this day the enemy had something afoot. and they knew it was a good thing and now they were trying to do as much damage as they could to those friends of mine that were on the ground.
I made two more passes at the tree line, broke it, and now switched to the mortar. position when friendly forces finally began to break contact and are now moving out of the valley. I got my wingman together. We provided support for about 45 more minutes and were finally able to leave and return home once they arrived safely. I made it out of the valley and now we are heading back to their safe house as I think back on that day and what I did to help those guys. From time to time I am asked the question how could you do that? how could you? make a weather disappointment with a semi reliable global positioning system semi reliable russian map in the weather in mountainous terrain to try to help those guys and the answer is always quite easy for me because there are destinations that are
deathand in My letting something happen to my brothers and sisters on the ground is one of them.
It's something I've sworn I'll never let happen. It's what I've built my entire life. the terrain you fast forward to 2003 and you asked who I am and the first scenario is I am a strike pilot in 2003 on March 23 I would answer I am a mission commander I am a Strike Eagle pilot I am a viper pilot I am a helicopter crew from rescue hh-60 because march 23 was not a very good day for our friendly forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom a M c-130 convoy train of M c-130 they were boarding to ha While doing a special operation in Phil they got pretty bad shots, the convoy that PFC Jessica Lynch was in had taken heavy fire and POWs came out of that convoy and then there were two 64 year old attack helicopters that were shot down, one just outside Baghdad, that's the role I found myself in on March 23rd.
I was supporting a special ops mission when I heard the comlink was coming to watch that an attack helicopter had been shot down. how often they've been hit they don't know where they are they're falling and you can't do anything about it I asked my special ops mission for help and they gave it to me so I could regain the role of mission commander so now I go and try to do a search and rescue mission for these helicopter pilots that had been shot down I got an initial set of coordinates from where we calculated their beacon and initially it went off and we could hold about 70 miles south of Baghdad that was our only safe area where we felt that We weren't going to get any kind of enemy fire when we checked in to stop my partner and I must have been doing the same thing at the same time we were scrolling up our navigation system.
I waited to see where that location was and as we looked up, our system tells us that this is where those coordinates are. There is nothing but threats in the air. Anti-aircraft artillery. Surface-to-air missiles. from enemy threats that were in the north i remember going towards myself i go back to where i'm holding the container come back showing me there's everything your place back to the target threats back to where i am back to the target is and from a wingman everything the smell i hear is where we're going i got up let's shut it down it's time to go to work so at this point everyone wants to help we have f-16 checking in we have strike eagles checking in we have rescue helicopters ready to go and in these rescue helicopters there are a couple of rescue teams there are about 14 to 20 military that are in that helicopter ready to go anywhere and do whatever I tell them to go pick up those friendly forces and so my wing Me and I try to move forward to the north and immediately began to receive anti-aircraft artillery fire.
Ground-to-air threats are closing in on us. We haven't gotten more than ten miles north before we start taking all this fire. and while we're trying to get there, I'm trying to get in touch with the helicopter crew and I'm really breaking down on limited communication. something is tampering with the microphone. someone is trying to talk. almost captured and i'm like we have to do this now we have to get there or else they're going to get captured that's all and from the ground the helicopters that are hovering and waiting for me to make the call are saying the same thing we have to go we have to get there now I'm fine this is the moment it's urgent we have to get going let's gostart to go I'm going to try and clear your way and start pushing it north and training shots with as many threats as possible.
Possibly I can and all of a sudden there was a third person moment I got where as I was sitting there sailing north my wingman breaks away and his own threat reaction and I remember seeing a fireball from a threat feet away of his plane in his a10 just going away and that's when I thought. I'm about to kill 40 Americans if I send everyone there I'm going to kill more people than I'll save today I remember it's the worst call I've ever had to make in my entire life I called the helicopter crew and I said abort and that it's like swearing on the radio it's like swearing in church I understand what I said abort I'm going to lose more of you than I can save today and it's the worst feeling to go I can't make it happen and I'm about to leave two Americans behind I learned shortly after in that radio chatter silence that I had initially heard from the moment I said let's do it that the crew had been captured, they spent 18 days in captivity before they were repatriated as prisoners of war, but the only thing I kept thinking was another Sometimes there are some
deathand one of those
fatesis me sending 20 Americans to what would be certain death as the commander in charge of the mission and that's my rule now, d fter doing those two operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom I had the opportunity to go to the weapons schools and the pilot instructor and finally had time to reflect on the missions that I had accomplished and as I was thinking about those missions something hit me in the head. face and that was an incongruity with what I was living in my life oddly enough it happened to me one day when I was getting out of my plane a crew chief standing there looked tired and it irritated me I was like hey come on we have to take off let's go out it's time to get going and when i got back i was doing my later flight i think i could still tell i was irritated that he wasn't fully with him for the day i remember him coming up i was like you know what , mister?
Sorry I didn't sleep much last night. I'm taking night classes. My wife just had a new baby and all of a sudden she hit. I was like I'm interested in the service when I get the jet service leadership going I'm the guy on the ground getting bombed I'm interested in that Navy SEAL who's about to kick down the door but in me I'm all What about Airmen who are about to deploy for the first time? I'm all about that petty officer studying for his next test? leadership isn't just an AFSC it's not a specialty code it's not just a job it doesn't happen when you start the engines it doesn't end when you come back and pull them to the chocks it's a second by second minute -minute by minute service owed to everyone and every one when in a leadership role, so when people ask me who I am, I still believe Eva, I'm a pilot intact, I still believe I'm a mission commander and now my answer is pretty simple.
I say I'm Lieutenant Colonel Mike Trolley and I'm an Airman, thank you.
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