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WEB EXCLUSIVE
Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Letter from Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana

By MIRO CERNETIG
Globe and Mail Update
Friday, January 24, 2003

It's 5 o'clock sharp and the speakers crackle to life. Eight thousand men and women suddenly freeze, spin on their heels to face the nearest speaker or flag, as the sound of the Star Spangled Banner wafts across these 34 squares miles of Louisiana. A few even stop in the middle of the road, presuming, one supposes, that the cars will be doing the same.

It's called rendering respect and it's just part of the daily drill on the Barksdale Air Force Base, where the country's largest collection of B-52 bombers is getting ready to wage war in Iraq. Across the fences are the grey silhouettes of more than 60 of the massive bombers. Above the base's stately groves of magnolia and oak trees, a B-52 lumbers skyward, its eight engines trailing tendrils of black smoke.

"Man, that's freedom," says one of the local TV reporters from nearby Shreveport, a town that is appreciative of the fact that the US Air Force is what keeps the local economy chugging along.

The main assignment for reporters who came to the Barksdale AFB on Jan. 14 was to chronicle the hearing of the two US F-16 pilots under investigation for the friendly fire bombing of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan on April 17, 2002. The pilots accidentally killed four members of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry and injured eight others when they mistook the Canadians for enemies firing at their jets.

But the 12-hour days, much of them full of mind-numbing minutiae and legal wrangling, also offered up a rare glimpse inside the US war machine, where patriotism, starchy discipline and jingoism all fuse into a can-do culture all its own.

"We're always ready to go to war, sir, and the time to go is getting near, sir" said one of the guards who met reporters at the gate each morning, herding them into a van that dropped us into a stark room where the heating never seemed to work.

As the days wore on, the airmen dropped details of life on the 70-year-old base. As he drove "the civvies" past the massive aviation fuel tanks with the words "We Pump With Pride," the hangars labelled Warrior One and the B-52s readying for take-off, our driver started talking about one of the popular bumper stickers on the base. It shows a ground's eye view of a B-52 passing high in the sky, its gunmetal grey fuselage and swept-back wings forming the shape of the peace sign made famous by anti-war activists during the Vietnam War.

"Peace... the old fashioned way," it reads.

There were secrets here, too. And the US Air Force did its best to keep them. Nobody wanted to talk about whether there were nuclear bombs on the base, ready to be loaded into the B-52s.

"Where to they keep the nuclear stuff?" a reporter asked.

One of the escorts looked away, paused a moment, and then changed the subject: "Darned cold weather we're having this week, sir, ain't it?"

The hearing, to determine if the two US Air Force pilots should face a later court martial for involuntary manslaughter and up to 64 years in jail, was broadcast on massive white TV screens, the kind you usually see at a sports bar. But they would flash on and off repeatedly, every time military officials thought a secret might be leaked.

Even a telephone call could be a national security issue. "DO NOT DISCUSS CLASSIFIED INFORMATION," declared a sticker on the bank of telephones at the back of the media room that were set up on formica counters. "This telephone is subject to monitoring at all times. Use of this telephone constitutes consent to monitoring."

But despite all their precautions, one secret almost got out.

During the hearing, the Air Force handed out copies of a transcript of the radio conversations between the two F-16 pilots and their flight controllers during and after the friendly fire deaths. Dozens of copies were given to reporters just before lunch when they were deemed unclassified material.

That changed over the lunch hour. When journalists returned to their workstations, they found that somebody had ripped off the top portion of each transcript, which contained radio codes that were deemed secret. "We need to see all your pages," ordered an official, who strode to the front of the room. "Some of you still have classified material."

She then began making her way through the room, seizing the transcripts and tearing off the verboten material. "There's one missing," she advised. "Whoever it is, please bring it to us."

And that's when I had my little moment of panic. I had gone off the base at lunch for a submarine sandwich, carrying my then-unclassified document out with me. And now, when it was again deemed top secret, I couldn't find it. Thoughts of customers passing it around in the local submarine shop flashed through my mind. Had I dropped it in the parking lot? Could my court martial loom?

And then I reached into my raincoat and found it, folded in with some napkins.

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