On Veteran's Day a young aviator dropped in to share dinner and swap war stories at the David Ketchum American Legion Hall.
Joe Miczulski, a retired Sonarman First Class who hunted submarines on a destroyer during the Korean War, was excited to hear what the soft-spoken Capt. Donna Kohout had to say about her missions as a fighter pilot over the deserts of Iraq.
"She flies the F-117," he said, eyes filled with respect for the driver of the Stealth Fighter, a close cousin of the Stealth B2 Bomber. As a former "ping jockey," Miczulski knows something about finding the enemy and precision strikes, although heat seeking, radar, laser and infrared guided missiles have largely replaced the torpedoes of his era.
Kohout has the equivalent of a Ph.D. in aviation, but she started her career as a Colorado ski bum, a civilian pilot, then a mountain flying instructor. The experience helped her follow in the steps of her father, also an Air Force pilot.
"I love flying. I love having a mission," Kohout said, sporting a "Black Sheep Stealth Driver" patch for the 8th Fighter Squadron on the sleeve of her green jump suit. Kohout is attached to one of the operational squadrons for the F-117 Stealth Fighter out of Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. She has flown missions in Korea and over the deserts of Iraq.
Former Post Commander John McDonald, a retired helicopter crew chief, introduced his guest, whom he met last year after she ran in the Sawtooth Relay from Stanley to Ketchum, as a reserved, shy person. But, he said in terms of the next generation of the armed forces, Kohout "is one of the people we can depend on."
Kohout expressed her respect for veterans who had fought in what she referred to as "the real wars," explaining that through her study of air power, she was impressed with the contributions of former pilots.
One of the first questions people ask Kohout is if she has flown in combat in Iraq. The answer is yes. During Operation Southern Watch Kohout flew missions in F-16s. She showed pictures of jets refueling in the sky en route to southern Iraq from the Prince Sultan Airbase in Saudi Arabia and images of Baghdad International Airport as seen through night vision goggles.
Showing pictures of Army grunts in the trenches in Iraq, Kohout said that, although multiple combat sorties could be grueling and last anywhere from three to eight hours, she felt guilty when she returned to the relative comfort of her pilot's quarters.
During Operation Iraqi Freedom Kohout was flying the Stealth Fighter.
Despite Kohout's apparent shyness, she also has a sense of humor.
Another dramatic image--shot out the passenger side of a car--showed a road sign, "Baghdad 35 km" and an attack helicopter reflected in the side view mirror that had the familiar words, "Objects in mirror are closer than they appear."
Kohout said that, although she enjoys flying the Stealth Fighter with its unique platypus tail, it has to fly flat and upright. Her first love is the F-16 because of the challenge of flying a jet that can go everywhere and fly upside down.
"There is something going on all the time," she said.
Retired Col. Ed McGowen asked a question about military rules governing women in combat. Kohout replied that the rules have relaxed and that restrictions for women are now mostly related to submarine combat.
She added that aircraft technology helps to even the playing field between genders. But all things being equal, and as long as pilots are being judged on their skill, women are as capable as men.
There was also the question about how she feels about current U.S. military engagements overseas.
"It is great that this is a free nation where we have the privilege to vote, voice our opinions and write initiatives," Kohout said, explaining her perspective on what it means to fight for freedom in the face of perceived terrorist threats. "The terrorists' strategy is to keep fighting until we break. As a citizen who's been over there enough, regardless of how you align yourself politically, to have the security we have now we have to keep the war where it is."