Exactly two decades ago, Kim “KC” Campbell, now a newly minted author, was a fledgling U.S. Air Force A-10 Warthog attack jet pilot, deployed to a base in Kuwait, and counting down the hours until the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom — the U.S.-led invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The fighting that followed was ferocious, including for KC, who would end up being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism after successfully recovering her battle-damaged jet after an intense close air support mission. This is KC’s story, including her personal journal excerpt from that April 7 mission, shared for the first time with The War Zone.
The following account intersperses excerpts from KC’s personal journal, which appear in italics. With that said, we will hand it off to KC:
We arrived at Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait on March 1, 2003, in preparation for Operation Iraqi Freedom. It’s hard to believe that it has been 20 years since that day…
As we landed and taxied in, I was shocked and amazed at the number of aircraft lining the ramps. I had been to Al Jaber Air Base a year prior in support of Operation Southern Watch and this display was nothing like I had seen before. A-10s, F-16s, F/A-18s, and rescue helicopters lined the parking ramp as far as you could see. It was clear we were prepared and ready to go to war.
Despite the heavy buildup of aircraft, we sat for two weeks watching the news, getting intelligence briefings, and guessing about what might happen and when. We spent our days studying threats, building maps for the squadron, and mission planning for different scenarios.
During our downtime, we had open and honest discussions with each other about the potential threats to our missions. We knew we might lose some airplanes and we may not bring everyone home. My squadron commander told us that to fly, we would all have to write letters home so if we did not make it, then he would have letters from us to give to our families.
On March 17, President George W. Bush declared an end to diplomacy and issued an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, giving the Iraqi president 48 hours to leave the country. On March 19, we all gathered to listen to the President’s address to the nation. We were ready. It was go time, and we all knew it.
March 20, 2003
It’s now 6:00 a.m. on the 20th of March in Kuwait. We spent most of the night taking a series of naps due to the continuous alarm reds [an alarm indicating that a missile attack was imminent or in progress] almost every hour. Everyone here is ready for the air war to start so we can get business done.
The first alarm red was yesterday morning with an actual missile in the air on its way somewhere in Kuwait. It definitely makes your heart beat a little faster. It’s even worse when you hear the sirens in the middle of the night. At least we’re all getting pretty good at putting on the chem [nuclear, biological, chemical protection] gear now. We’ve been watching the news as much as possible when we’re not busy mission planning. We all got together to watch the President’s speech, so we’re ready and we’re fired up. It’s really just a matter of time now waiting for the execute order. We know it’s going to be soon.
I’ve finally finished writing letters to my family. Those have been the most difficult letters I’ve ever had to write. I just hope they never have to get them. We all try not to think of that as much as possible, but writing those letters makes you sit down and think about life after you’re gone. Not something anyone wants to think about. After all, we’re supposed to be invincible.
It’s time to start a new day. Hopefully, this will be it.
On March 21, the war officially kicked off. Our primary task was to support the U.S. Army as they made their way to Baghdad. As we held high overhead, monitoring the situation, we could see a line of dust as our friendly forces pushed their way into Iraq. It was an impressive sight.
March 27, 2003
It’s 9:00 p.m. on Thursday. We were back in the air today. We took off with plans to go to Karbala, just south of Baghdad. Threats in the area, as long as we stayed out of the super MEZ [missile engagement zone], were Rolands [a short-range air defense missile system] and an SA-2 [a high-altitude air defense missile system] that had already fired guided missiles. Before we stepped, we talked about our plan if we got hit and had to eject. We would limp the jet back to friendlies south of Karbala by about 40 miles if we could make it. At least that was the plan. Then we moved on to better topics like how we would plan our attacks, a much better subject.
Anyhow, we took off, got gas, got passed to the GFAC [ground forward air controller], and then once again found no targets in the area where they had us look. We had to bingo out [depart for fuel] fairly quickly since we had to have enough gas to divert to PSAB [Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia] since the weather was so bad at Jaber.
We ended up getting gas again on the way home to make it back with enough fuel to divert. Even then, I had to get waived below my [weather] minimums to land. That was probably the worst part of the mission, the actual approach. I felt more stress during that landing than I did flying near Baghdad.
We could actually see the smoke over Baghdad from where we were, very strange. It’s almost unreal to think about how far north into Iraq we’ve been flying. Lots of RWR [radar warning receiver] indications so far, but no missile launches or AAA [anti-aircraft artillery]. Either we’re not seeing it or we’re just lucky. I’ll take it though!
April 2, 2003
What a day! I’m exhausted, but it’s been a busy day, so I need to write it down before I forget. I ended up flying three sorties today with the first sortie going into Tallil, Iraq. It was pretty amazing to land in Iraq and then walk around the base, especially considering we were there not too long ago taking out targets.
After Tallil, we flew to a kill box [a three-dimensional area used to identify a certain location on a map] just outside of Baghdad. It’s definitely the closest to Baghdad that I’ve ever been. We were sent up there to kill 20–40 tanks, but they were nowhere to be found. We even had SEAD [suppression of enemy air defense] support and targeting pod assets. It’s too bad they weren’t there; it would have been great to remove those tanks from the battlefield.
We ended up going to the MEF [Marine Expeditionary Force] area to an open kill box and had a military compound as our dump target. We hit several enemy vehicles, some in revetments and some out in the open. I fired 640 rounds of the gun and dropped four Mk 82s [500-pound bombs] — it was a good day!
April 6, 2003
Well, today was a pretty good day. Bino [Lt. Col. Rick “Bino” Turner, commander of the 75th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at the time, and Campbell’s flight lead in a combat pair] and I flew up to Baghdad today and were immediately tasked to work with a GFAC who had a target area north of Baghdad city center. When we got to the target area, we realized it was an old SA-2 site in the traditional setting. We were looking for tanks, but all we found were tank tracks.
The GFAC also gave us clearance to take out the building next to the SAM [surface-to-air missile] site that was supposed to be an HQ building for a mech [mechanized] infantry division. We dropped eight Mk 82s on the buildings and got some amazing secondaries, missiles were cooking off everywhere, good thing we weren’t too low.
After that, Bino put an EO Maverick [electro-optically guided AGM-65 air-to-ground missile] into a bunker door below the SA-2 site and we watched it blow everything out the backside of the bunker. It was awesome. And then finally we both strafed two HETs [heavy equipment transporters] in the middle of an open field, one carrying a tank and the other with a launcher on the back.
Not a bad day overall.
By Monday, April 7, 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom had been underway for almost three weeks. Though Coalition troops had reached Baghdad, the city was not yet under complete coalition control. On April 5, units from the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division (ID) arrived in Baghdad to conduct a series of raids to probe, isolate, and destroy the last of the remaining Iraqi defenses, in an action subsequently popularized as the Thunder Run. As part of the Thunder Run, April 7 would see some of the heaviest fighting when units from the 3rd ID conducted simultaneous offensives to capture the government center — the Green Zone — and secure all the major expressway intersections leading in and out of Baghdad.
April 7, 2003
It’s been a long day. The day started with plans to refuel and then push to Baghdad. After fighting with the weather on the way out, it took us forever to find the tanker. We were in the clouds the whole time which made for some pretty good spatial disorientation. We finally found the tanker, got gas, and pressed north.
After holding for about five minutes, we were sent to work with a GFAC in northern Baghdad. On the way to the target area, we got word of a TIC [troops in contact]. We were quickly diverted to an area just north of our original target area where our guys (3rd ID) were trying to cross a bridge over the Tigris River and were taking fire from the enemy on the other side of the river hiding underneath an overpass.
With the clouds, we got below the weather and immediately picked up our guys on the west side as well as the overpass where the Iraqi Republican Guard was hiding. Bino rolled in immediately with guns and strafed the north side. Most of the enemy was on the south side so we adjusted our roll-ins from there. Bino and I both made rocket passes again from the south side and the firing stopped.
After my last rocket pass, I felt something hit the jet. At the same time, the jet rolled left and nose low. The hydraulics were gone instantly, and I had no control of the jet. I think there was some serious temporal distortion going on because I remember a lot of different things at that moment.
I made a quick radio call to #1 to let him know I had been hit. I tried to isolate the hydraulics, but they were already gone. I noticed all the lights on my caution panel and my hydraulic gauges read zero. But my engines were good. In that instant, before I could get the jet under control, I thought about how shitty it would be to eject over Baghdad. That was definitely something I didn’t want to do. I looked at the ejection handles just in case the next step didn’t work but thank God it did.
Once I got the jet in manual reversion [our emergency backup flight control system] it worked as advertised and started climbing away. Bino told me to get west and at that time I couldn’t get the jet to turn or climb very well so he told me to get rid of all the ordnance on the jet. Then all I could do was concentrate on getting the hell out of Baghdad. I turned west over the friendlies and then south doing my best to keep my jet moving. Bino said they were still shooting at us from all different directions as we slowly made our way over Baghdad. Thank God they didn’t hit me again because I pretty much had nothing left.
We finally made our way out of the city and up above the clouds … much more comfortable. Now we had the one-hour trek back to Al Jaber Air Base with a lot to think about.
Bino took a look at the jet and saw about 100 holes as well as a football-sized hole on the tail of the jet. There were also holes in the back of the right engine and the fuselage [later, it would be discovered that a surface-to-air missile was responsible for sending shrapnel into the fuselage and tail, damaging the flight control systems].
Not really a good day.
The next decision to be made was whether or not to eject or try and land the jet. The checklist says to land in manual reversion only under ideal conditions. During Desert Storm, one pilot was killed trying to land in manual reversion and another jet was destroyed … not a good history. The jet was flying so well though I couldn’t even think of jumping out. So, we planned for a landing and hoped for the best.
I had a lot of time to think on the way home, too much time. I thought about a lot of things and really could only picture a good outcome. There was still too much I wanted to do in my life, I had to get that jet on the ground. We went through all of the checklists so we would be ready when the time came. Once we crossed the Iraq/Kuwait border that was another sigh of relief. Now if I had to eject at least it would be in friendly territory. We did a final controllability check, and the jet was flying well. I got the gear down with the alternate gear extension and prepared for emergency braking.
We talked to the SOF [supervisor of flying] and he had the Jollys [rescue helicopters] standing by in case I decided to eject, that way it would be a quick pick-up, especially if we were still in Iraq when I had to eject. The Sandys [A-10s designated for combat search and rescue] were also on alert to help with any pickup. So, everything was ready for me, and I was ready to land.
It was probably the smoothest approach I’ve flown in a long time. And the touchdown was almost flawless. I couldn’t have asked for a better-performing jet. It was such a relief to touch down and feel the jet come to a stop, some serious emotions at that point. I heard a lot of guys come up on the radio saying: “great job.”
It was such a relief to be back on the ground.
The emergency response crew met me at the jet, and I was finally able to shut down. I just wanted to get out of the jet and see what the jet looked like since I couldn’t see any of the battle damage from the cockpit. I still couldn’t believe it when I saw all the holes, they were everywhere. There were even holes in the back of the right engine which was why Bino kept asking how my engines were. It was a pretty amazing sight to see.
I got a ride back to the A-10 ramp and was so surprised to see all the people out there waiting for me. It was so good to see them. A lot of people have come up to me today to say great job and congratulations. I think I’ve told the story 100 times, but each time I remember new things.
I think I’m definitely coming down from my adrenaline rush, I’m exhausted. I at least got to talk to Scott [my husband] today and my parents too. I couldn’t tell them much, but they at least know that I’m okay. That’s the important thing.
That mission and our deployment were a success because we worked together as a team. We knew we had to support each other if we were going to succeed. From the newest wingman to the most experienced instructor, we understood how each of us played a unique role on the team and how our contributions were critical for our shared success. From those who designed, built, and maintained the airplane, to the pilots who flew it, everyone had a critical role to play. Landing safely from that mission was a true team effort. That mission showed us the importance of being prepared, being decisive, and taking action even when there was risk involved. We learned to respond to unexpected situations, adapt, overcome, and face our fears.
So many lives were changed because of Operation Iraqi Freedom … lives were saved and lives were lost along the way. So many of us will never be the same. I am thankful for my brothers and sisters who served our nation in a time of war and for those who gave their all.
Portions of this article are excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Flying in the Face of Fear: A Fighter Pilot’s Lessons on Leading with Courage by Kim “KC” Campbell.
Kim “KC” Campbell is a retired Air Force Colonel who served in the Air Force for over 24 years as a fighter pilot and senior military leader. She has flown 1,800 hours in the A-10, including more than 100 combat missions protecting troops on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2003, Kim received the Distinguished Flying Cross for her actions during the April 7, 2003 mission described here.
Since retiring from the Air Force, Kim has shared her inspirational story and lessons on leading with courage with business and corporate audiences as an executive coach and keynote speaker. Kim's new book, Flying in the Face of Fear, went on sale on March 8, 2023. Connect and learn more at https://kim-kc-campbell.com/book/
Contact the editor: email@example.com