A third-generation military aircraft mechanic, Shayne Carter recently completed his first tour of wartime duty at Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan. From September to Nov. 18, 2004, Carter was responsible for maintenance repairs to the ugly but lethal A-10 "warthog" jets after bombing runs against Al Qaeda terrorists hiding in the mountains.
Tall, broad-shouldered and affable, Carter is a former resident of Montana and has lived in the New Orleans area for three years. He is at home around the jets and hangars of the 926th Fighter Wing. In fact, it seems his life has taken him from one air base after another. His grandfather worked on B-17 bombers during World War II. His father was a crew chief on trainer jets. And Carter himself was born on Laughlin Air Force base in west Texas. Before joining the Air Reserve, he worked as a civilian welder on military aircraft for contracting giant Lockheed-Martin Corporation, a job that took him to air bases around the country.
And when his wife, a former Pentagon employee, transferred to the naval air station at Belle Chasse to take a civilian job with the 926th Fighter Wing, her career move piqued his interest. For one thing, it was an air base that Carter had not seen.
He was considering joining the Air Reserve when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, shut down air travel nationwide. At the time, Carter was working at an air base in Madison, Wisc. "It was kind of odd," he recalls. "You see all these 737s and 727s from United Airlines, Delta and Northwest Airlines landing at this little bitty Air Guard base."
Angered by the attacks, he joined the Air Reserve by the end of the month, on Sept. 28. He enlisted at the headquarters of the 926th Fighter Wing at Belle Chasse -- across the hall from where his wife had just taken a job as a civilian personnel officer. "I had been mulling it over for a while, but 9/11 was the hammer that drove the nail home," he says, somberly. "Before, I was thinking about retirement and education (benefits). After 9/11 it was just for the country."
Carter received three years of training before being deployed to Afghanistan on Sept. 13, 2004. His departure was hectic. His wife was three months pregnant. The day he left, she was forced to evacuate their home outside the base as Hurricane Ivan took aim at Louisiana. "And there was nothing I could do," Carter says. He would not know that she had safely escaped until he arrived in Afghanistan -- two days later.
His first days at Bagram were busy. Al Qaeda was trying to disrupt Afghanistan's presidential elections. Shortly after his arrival, there was a skirmish outside the gates of the base. "We had to carry an M-16 everywhere we went and had to keep a vest handy, until the threat level went down," he says. Meanwhile, the A-10s he maintained were flying sorties every five and a half hours. The "flight lines" were constantly moving. Carter worked 12-hour days, repairing and overhauling the jets. "There were four aircraft in the air at all times then, either escorting convoys or bombing targets," he says.
Carter says he felt relatively safe on the base but spent a lot of time trying to calm anxious family members who were upset by news reports. Morale at Bagram was high, he says. "The best part was the experience -- not just the work with the aircraft, but with the people and the whole system." Active service members and reservists worked as one team, he says. The military was helping the Afghanis build two schools, he says, and the locals were friendly. Carter returned to New Orleans on Nov. 18. Today, his wife is more than six months pregnant. Because the all-volunteer Air Reserve works on 18-month rotations, Carter says he does not have to worry about being called back to war before his child is born. And if called to serve again in Afghanistan, he says: "I wouldn't mind going back."