(The following story was written in May 2012 and being re-posted for Memorial Day 2013).
“We had been flying for three straight days, and had picked up a lot of prisoners of war. But I never had to shoot my rifle, or use my weapon in my helicopter,” he recounts as he stares at the floor in his office at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park following a morning practice. “On that day, we had received gunfire early on. It didn’t last long, but it freaked everybody out. We had finished our flights for the day and later come to find out that one our Unit’s helicopters didn’t make it back. They had taken gunfire to their hydraulics and crashed into a radio tower.”
To listen to Colorado Rapids Head Athletic Trainer Jaime Rojas talk about his experience as a Specialist in the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq, you would think he just came home. His experience – from the minute he made the decision to enlist to become a helicopter mechanic, to the countless training exercises, to the heat of the Middle East, to the unfortunate sights of war – are still fresh in his mind. For Rojas, every day is Memorial Day.
Among those that perished in that helicopter was Officer Robert Hughes, who had been teaching Rojas how to play the guitar. Also lost were Specialist Brace and Staff Sgt. Garrett, as well as Rojas’ commander, Major Marie Rossi, who would later be recognized on People Magazine’s Top Influential People for 1991.
“That was really hard on everybody,” he says. “You never want to lose anybody. Some guys went out to see the crash site, but I couldn’t do it. One of our guys volunteered and took the bodies back to Dhahran (Saudi Arabia) in their caskets. I couldn’t have done it, it was too tough.”
Born in Chicago to Colombian parents, Rojas grew up in Miami, Florida. When he was 17-years-old and entering his senior year of high school, Rojas enlisted in the Army on the delayed entry program.
He originally thought he wanted to be an architect, but after watching a video at the recruitment office that showed what the life of a draftman specialist was like, he changed his mind. The next day, he walked back in to his recruiter’s office and told him that he wanted to be an army ranger – Special Forces.
“He looked at me and said, ‘when’s the last time you saw Rambo,” Rojas said, with a chuckle. “I told him a couple weeks ago, and he said, ‘no, you don’t want to do that, trust me.’
After more consideration, Rojas realized one of the things he liked to do was to fly. He couldn't become a pilot without a college degree, so the recruiter suggested to give being a mechanic a chance. And that’s what he did.
Six days after his high school graduation, Rojas arrived at Fort McClelland in Anniston, Alabama for eight weeks of basic training. He then went to Fort Rucker in southern Alabama for advanced training and spent four months working on the art of helicopter mechanics.
In December 1987 he was assigned to the B Company, 2/159th Aviation Unit at Hunter Army Air Field in Savannah, Georgia. Not long afterwards, he became a Crew Chief on a Huey and Chinook helicopter.
For nearly two and a half years, Rojas’ Unit traveled extensively, but never in combat missions. They did air shows around the country, and disaster relief efforts, as well as a special mission at an Air Force base in Honduras.
In early August 1990, in his fourth and final year of enlistment, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Rojas’ unit was designed for - and trained in - desert warfare. They were put on high alert and flew all 16 Unit helicopters to Wilmington, North Carolina, met up with two other sister units, and shipped the choppers along with support vehicles and fuel trucks to Saudi Arabia.
Two weeks later, Rojas and his Unit boarded a flight that took them from Savannah to Canada to Scotland to Egypt and finally to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
His family had seen him go into alert before, but never felt the nerves they did this time around. In between shipping the vehicles and his departure, his parents came up from Miami and his brother, Sergio, flew in from California. They spend a weekend together in Savannah.
“Everyone was nervous,” Rojas said. “But this is what I trained for, so I felt comfortable. I thought we’d get out there, and they’d see the amount of military we brought over, and that Iraq would pull out and we’d come home.”
If they were lucky, they could 'cool off' in the shade, where the temperature would drop to around a 120 degrees in Saudi Arabia in late August.
When the ship arrived, the Units' put the helicopters together and flew them to King Fahd Air Base. A month later, they moved to another station that was built by the airport.
“They laid out a tarmac in the middle of the sand with asphalt,” Rojas said. “It was huge! We had at least 48 Chinooks, Hueys, Blackhaws, and Apaches, it was extensive.”
From September through January they flew troops around in Saudi Arabia, did combat training, and flew the press around to see dignataries like Secretary of State James Baker, Vice President Dan Quayle, General Colin Powell.
“The rumor was that if by January 15th (Iraq) hadn’t pulled out, we were going to start attacking and getting forces out,” Rojas said.
They flew the helicopters to a highway in between the cities of Riyadh and Dhahran, getting in position in case Iraq tried to retaliate on Dhahran.
A little after midnight on January 17, while listening to the Armed Forces Radio in the helicopter, they hear that NATO Forces had commenced attacks. They didn’t need the radio know that Operation Desert Storm had begun.
“We could see the jets flying over us, heading north to Iraq. We didn’t see what people saw here on CNN, but we knew the bombing was starting to happen.”
After three days and without an Iraqi retaliation, the Unit returned to Dhahran to pack and prepare to move to another location.
“There were four of us in our barracks room when we heard a little rumbling," he says. "The rainy season was supposed to be coming up, so we thought it could be thunder. The next sound was a huge explosion. So we all put our chemical gear on and could hear bombs going off left and right. It was the Patriot missiles intercepting the Scud missiles.”
With the sand eating up the engines, from January 19 to February 23, there was no flying. Not much of anything, other than waiting.
The afternoon of the 23rd they were told that the ground war was going to start the following day. All the flight crews were called in to a meeting in the command desk in a tent and split into three Units. Rojas would fly with Unit C (Charlie) to on the western side of Saudi Arabia, bordering Iraq.
“Our mission was to fly the rangers in and support the artillery – tanks –that were going in that night,” he said. “We flew from 6 in the morning until 8 at night, doing laps. We’d go into northern Iraq, drop off rangers, come back down, refuel, reload, grab fuel and ammunition for the tanks, food for soldiers, and fly it back into Iraq, wherever the soldiers were."
For four days of the ground war, SGT. Pauling, SGT. Quinn, and SPC. Rojas flew their helicopter, a CH-47D Chinook 84-24179 nicknamed "Bad to the Bone," into Iraq, going futher in on each lap. (PHOTO above: left to right, courtesy Jaime Rojas)
“The Road to Basra,” he says, slowly shaking his head. It’s an image that Rojas can’t erase from his mind.
The Iraqi military had begun retreating from Kuwait, heading down a highway towards the Iraqi city of Basra. The American forces launched a overnight assault, bombing the highway and everything on it that moved. It was a horrific scene that Rojas described. That would be the last day of fighting; a cessation of hostilities was then called.
“That next day, we were placed to go in and help clean up that road. There was a tremendous public outcry from that, and the President took heat, but it was our job to clean it up. I didn’t agree with it, but we had to do our job. We had to pick up body bags and put them in our helicopters and bring them back.
“That day, I was angry about having to go do that, and I was humbled by having to do that. Because, the Iraqis, as much as I disliked them because I know they wanted to kill me, and I’m just defending myself and doing my job, they are humans. They were probably being told something they had to do, and were doing their jobs.”
Later that evening, Rojas learned of the deaths of his own fallen soldiers.
It wasn’t until May that Rojas would return to the U.S., having to stay to withdraw all the troops and supplies that were brought into Iraq.
When he got back he took his leave and returned to Fort Hunter in the middle of June. His military exit was on June 30, but he was given orders to take an early out or re-enlist. During his leave he had applied to the University of Florida and had been accepted. He took the early out and went to school. He is now in his 8th year as a Head Athletic Trainer in Major League Soccer.
As for Memorial Day...
“I think about the soldiers all the time,” Rojas said. “I have friends that just retired. They spent 20+ years in the military. I still have a very close connection to the military and I wish I could do more.”
Rojas is hoping to work with The Wounded Warrior Project, as well as soldiers that are still serving.
"The soldiers have a sense of duty and a sense of pride," acknowledges the now married father of two. "But, I also think about the sacrifices their families make, and how difficult and hard it is for them.”
Rojas continues to play the guitar. He brings it with him on many of the Rapids' road trips. He remembers and thinks of his colleagues every day.