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WHITTLE: Tenn. Guard sustained life for war refugees

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Foreign war correspondent Dan Whittle gets ready for a nighttime air drop in Bosnia. (Photo submitted)
Apparently, one never completely gets over being in a war zone where live ammo tears through flesh and ends lives.

As a foreign war correspondent in war-town Bosnia in 1995, I spent multiple sleepless nights due to dangers I witnessed there.

I can only imagine what combat soldiers feel while experiencing war's sustained reality of losing comrades, or being wounded themselves.

As Serbs were killing mass numbers of Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, Bosnia, in 1995, brave Tennessee Air National Guard airmen from Murfreesboro, Smyrna, Milton and Milton were flying dangerous relief missions to sustain lives of people they would never meet.

Now retired Public Information Officer Lt. Col. Hooper Penuel, of Lascassas, was in charge of making arrangements (safety, food, travel) for news correspondents.

Penuel recalls the mission: "The Old Hickory squadron delivered 3,000 tons of critically needed medicines and water, on 535 missions. They made the dangerous missions look easy, even when two out of our three C-130s were hit with enemy fire. They were professionals."

Fast forward to the present.

On July 11, news broke worldwide that hundreds of mourning Muslims were in Srebrenica 17 years after Europe's worst genocide since World War II to attend a funeral for 520 newly identified victims.

My assignment had been to cover the warzone missions of the guard's historic 118th Airlift Wing, assigned to fly day- and night-drops of life-sustaining food, medicine and water to refugees.

It was the toughest, emotionally draining assignment in 45 years of reporting news.

Srebrenica was supposed to be a United Nations-protected Muslim town that became besieged by Serb forces during the 1992-1995 civil war.

July 1995 was when Serbs, led by Gen. Ratko Mladic, overran the town and separated the men from women, leading to the execution of 8000 defenseless men and boys.

U.N. troops were out-gunned and did not intervene in the massacre.

Today, Mladic is facing a tribunal in The Hague, on multiple charges, including genocide that left more than 100,000 people, mostly Muslim, dead.

How dangerous were the night-drops by the guard?

Sgt. Benny Atkinson, of Smyrna, was flight engineer of a C-130 as we circled  Sarajevo, where multiple bullets hit the plane's fuselage. One bullet came within a foot of Atkinson's head, as he prepared pallets of food, medicine and water to go out the back-end of the aircraft.

"We're taking enemy fire from the ground," described Penuel as  three C-130s were approaching the Sarajevo airport.

 "All news media put your flak jackets on immediately," Penuel barked firmly.

He didn't have to repeat the order.

Sgt. Rob Crawford, of Smyrna, served as flight engineer on pilot Capt. Hoot Gibson's C-130 that took on Serb fire from the ground as Maj. Randy "Hunk" Jones, of Murfreesboro, performed crucial navigation instruction for his flight crew.

Upon safely returning to Tennessee ahead of the C-130s flight crews, I remember praying for their safety, and smiling upon seeing Purple Hearts painted on the planes fuselages as the flight crews finally touched tarmac safely back at Nashville's Berry Field.

I made lifelong friends of airmen, such as Master Sgt. "War Baby" Burton of Milton and Master Sgt. John Garrett of Murfreesboro.

I recall seeing smiles on flight crews' faces as they attached donated T-shirts from former U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon and Toot's restaurants to the pallets of life-sustaining pallets in the war zones.

Our world gets smaller and smaller, as evidenced during a news assignment I had in 1997 at Stone Mountain, Ga., where my wife, Pat, and I were having breakfast at a hotel restaurant when this waitress with an unusual accent – to a Southerner – asked for our order.

When asked where she was from, the server replied: "A little town in Bosnia you never heard of."

After advising I'd been to Bosnia, she said, "Srebrenica was my hometown."

I advised I was on the airplanes in 1995 that flew over Srebrenica, dropping relief pallets of food and meds.

What she said next floored us.

"We got some of those medications dropped from the planes, for critically ill Mother that night. The next morning, Father went to the town's only remaining working water fountain. … As he was getting water for Mother, a Serb sniper shot Father between the eyes."

She explained that she had moved to the Chattanooga region for safety and to have freedom to worship along with several other surviving family victims from Srebrenica.

Tagged under  Bosnia, History, Journalism, Media History, Politics, Voices, War

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