Many have heard Rush Limbaugh relate the story of an American Flag I flew on five missions over Iraq during the 2003 Shock and Awe air campaign in his honor. He has retold the story several times, the latest two weeks ago when I called into his show.
As with all stories, there is background information and context people don’t hear. I felt it was time for the Paul Harvey moment, as he always said, “Now… for the rest of the story…” of how this idea started, and what Rush’s Battle Flag endured during the month it flew on five combat missions.
Battle Flags remain a long-standing US military tradition. Stuffing American Flags into soldier’s rucksacks or pilot’s helmet bags has gone on for decades. The flag I gave Mom and Dad flew on a Lockheed U-2 spy plane above 70,000 feet, my father having worked for a company designing and building the Dragon Lady’s flight control actuators. My In-Laws flag went into Iraq on an F-16CJ Wild Weasel, hunting and killing Surface-to-Air Missiles sites. Battle Flags are then given to family and friends to honor them with something from the battlefield. During Iraqi Freedom, one tanker crew took thirty American Flags, carefully folded and laid in a box, on a refueling mission into Iraqi airspace. The crew then signed certificates for each flag, so the new owners knew what airplane it flew on and where it went. Most tanker crews took ten or more American Flags on every mission.
I’ve been a long time listener to Rush’s show. My next door neighbor at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Japan got me hooked in 1991 right after the first Gulf War. His mother sent a VHS tape every week with six of Rush’s TV shows recorded on it. My neighbor pollinated several of us with those taped shows. We couldn’t wait for the next week’s injection of Rush, watching each show several times. We wore out FIVE VHS tapes sending them back and forth to his Mom. I think it was about a year later Armed Forces Network began broadcasting the first hour. The Excellence in Broadcasting show became our lunchtime staple when time permitted. I was hooked for life.
One day during the Shock and Awe campaign I thought “why not send a Battle Flag to Rush Limbaugh?” The only address I found was his New York office, but I knew if the flag went FedEx, it will eventually land in his hands. Researching his website while still deployed, I found the New York address. All kinds of fighters, tankers, and intelligence and surveillance aircraft spread across Prince Sultan Air Base south of Riyadh Saudi Arabia. There were plenty of planes to fly on. The first unit flying Rush’s flag was the World Famous 67th Fighter Squadron, the Fighting Cocks from Kadena where I spent five years. I drove to the Cocks squadron building with an American Flag bought in the Prince Sultan Base Exchange, a really nice embroidered one which surprised me. The BX had hundreds to buy.
I folded the flag just as taught in Boy Scouts, dropping a note in the plastic bag stating who the flag is for. Handing the flag to Lt Col ‘Tiny’ Dixon, he stared at me with a stern look…
“Really Sluggo! Really! This flag is going to Rush Limbaugh!?!”
“I swear to you Tiny, I’ll make sure he gets it!”
“I have his New York Office address…”
“I want to make sure he gets this. Here is my email address at Kadena. You EMAIL me when you mail this thing off!”
“Can do, Tiny.”
Out the door Tiny went with Rush’s flag in his helmet bag. Hours later, I collected it from him after he flew a defensive counter air mission to Baghdad, hunting for Saddam’s MiGs. He signed the certificate stating when it flew and who flew it, handing me the plastic when done. His last words to me…
“You EMAIL me Sluggo when you send that off!”
Tiny was the first flier I contacted dropping the flag off at FedEx when I got home.
The 77th Fighter Squadron Gamblers squadron building was not far from the Fighting Cocks. The Gamblers from Shaw AFB South Carolina fly F-16CJ Wild Weasels. Their job is hunt enemy air defense radars guiding missiles at our aircraft. They fire missiles appropriately called HARM. Standing at the Operations Desk, Lt Col Clam Bearden was just getting ready to step out to a Weasel Viper for a mission.
“Really Sluggo!?! This is for Rush Limbaugh!?!”
You see the trend developing here…
“Yes Clam, I’m REALLY going to send this to Rush!”
The next words out of Clam’s mouth are classic fighter pilot attitude…
“Then I gotta KILL something today!!! I can’t fly Rush Limbaugh’s flag and not FIRE something today” as he searched a target list on his mission line up card.
“Clam, just take it up and I’ll collect it from you when you land.”
Clam walked out the door with a lot of enthusiasm… not because he was going to get shot at, but determined to SHOOT something because of carrying Rush’s flag in his cockpit. And there were plenty of things to shoot at during the air campaign.
Sure enough, he told me the story of how he killed two SAM sites when I came to pick up the flag…
“Yea Sluggo! This site came up and BAM… I shot a HARM and it went off the air dead. Then another one came up and I killed it with my last HARM! His flag flew in anger today south of Baghdad!”
A couple days later I stopped by the Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler squadron, an electronic jamming airplane causing confusion and noise on radar screens and communications equipment. And the trend continued…
“Really Sluggo… this is for Rush Limbaugh?”
“Yes, this flag is for America’s Doctor of Democracy!”
“Well then… we are going to have to jam and maybe even kill something on our mission today.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“We can’t fly a flag for Rush and not jam the crap out of something or kill it with a HARM!”
After the mission, the Banshee’s certificate of authenticity gave quite a bit of detail where they went and what happened on the mission. I thanked the crew and walked out of their squadron building. The air war was growing in intensity as coalition forces moved closer to Baghdad, putting a cordon around the city in search of Saddam and his sons.
The last two airplanes Rush’s Battle Flag flew on were tankers. Prince Sultan Air Base was home for thirty-eight KC-135s, twelve KC-10s, and nine Royal Air Force VC-10s. Dropping the flag off at the 363rd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron build, my Squadron Commander Freddy Krueger (RIP) was behind the Ops Desk looking over the schedule. Same trend…
“This is really going to Rush Limbaugh?”
“Been a listeners since 1991 Freddy.”
Freddy handed it to a crew going out to refuel a bunch of airplanes. Ground forces moved closer to Iraq, fighters and bombers needing more gas to stay airborne. I gave all the tankers callsigns beginning with ‘T’, so if any aircrew needed gas, they knew a tanker callsign began with a ‘T’. Prince Sultan’s tankers used the callsigns ‘TAINT’ and “TITUS’.
Weeks later I was home and waiting to hear if Rush got the flag. A number of friends called me one day saying they were listening to Rush’s show about the flag I’d sent him. That night my wife and I were trying to get our five young kids settled around the dinner table while listening to Rush’s radio show through my computer. The phone rang and twelve-year-old Ryan reached around to pick it up.
DAD! It’s Rush Limbaugh on the phone!”
Get out of town son, he wouldn’t be calling here!”
Dad… it’s the SAME voice coming through the computer!”
Ryan handed me the phone and in typical military fashion I answered,
“Lieutenant Colonel Mark Hasara, may I help you Sir or Ma’am?”
In his very distinctive voice, Rush said “Hey Mark, It really is El Rushbo!”
I almost dropped the phone…
I told him most of the story I’ve related here. At the end of the conversation he gave me an email address and the admonition to contact him if we every needed anything.
In December of 2009, my family met with Rush and Kathryn at his home in Florida. My family had a great time taking pictures in front of the flag, enjoying a great conversation around the dinner table.
Now you know the story of the pilots flying the Battle Flag and the combat missions it flew on during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Here is Rush announcing the publication of Tanker Pilot on his show the day before it showed up on the shelves.
About the author, Mark Hasara
Author of Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit, Mark Hasara is a retired US Air Force pilot with 24 year in the KC-135 airborne tanker. He is a speaker and aviation industry consultant in campaign planning and cockpit architecture. Follow his weekly newsletter “On the Nations DIME”.