To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true.
—Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
Rich jade mountains unrolled beneath our flight path. In my periphery, the mountaintops emerged out of the mist, the scooped terrain like high-backed horse saddles. I took my eyes off the instrument panel to look out the cockpit windows. Our aircraft was descending over twenty thousand feet from the clouds.
This is Sarajevo? I thought. From the air, it looked nothing like a war zone—nothing like what I’d expected from the preflight Intelligence briefings. Instead, the undulating mountains were breathtaking in their deep emerald hue—a type of green I hadn’t seen before and haven’t since. The tops of the peaks looked like velvet.
I’d arrived to fly NATO-led missions into Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and other European countries in and around the Balkans. The year was 1996, and my Air Force squadron deployed to Germany from Texas. We left the quiet town of Abilene to join Operation Decisive Endeavor—a multinational peacekeeping force.
I was a pilot assigned to fly the C-130 Hercules, a four-engine turboprop known for its versatile role operating in and out of remote destinations with little ground support. The C-130, nicknamed “the Herk,” is known as “the Air Force workhorse.” Serving in a range of missions, versions of the plane could fly into the eye of a hurricane to measure wind speed; land on dirt strips only three thousand feet long; open the back of the plane mid-flight and drop Special Ops paratroopers from over ten thousand feet. A crew, on a search-and-rescue mission, once found my friend’s ten-year-old son who was lost in Lake Michigan. He’d spent the night adrift in a kayak.
I was flying “in theater,” as we called the region of our deployment. I didn’t know yet the precise contents of our cargo bay. But on this particular mission, I’d soon learn, we flew into Sarajevo with a special shipment for the children that had survived the war. Our payload was aimed at helping them survive peacetime.
We were bringing specially designed comic books to the war zone. Forty-two thousand pounds worth.
My alarm startled me at 0245 hours on the day of this flight, long before a slit of sun would appear in my windscreen. I pushed “brew” on my one-cup coffee maker before I was really awake. A slow drip over strong grinds filled my single dorm room with the familiar. An aroma that cued reveille. I spread cold peanut butter over German bread I’d purchased at the base commissary. By adopting an unwavering pattern in my personal routine, I made every morning of every deployment habitual. I applied eye makeup, even though it felt silly to do so if I thought about it too much. I mimicked my stateside routine. In no time, I referred to my “quarters,” wherever I was, as home.
Before I entered the matrix of complex mission variables in-flight, this adherence to habit allowed me to not have to make a single decision before I arrived at work. My black boots tightly laced, winter flight jacket zipped, and blue flight cap stowed in my left calf pocket, I was ready. I grabbed my thermos and stepped outside into what still looked like night.
Once we arrived at our flight operations center, a whirl of activity stirred under the bright lights. Crews on duty had been up all night planning details around our mission. They were over-caffeinated, appallingly alert. Officers went to the Intel briefing, and enlisted crew members, to the armory. Our division of labor began.
Flying into a war zone—I learned from training and then reinforced upon arrival to our staging base in Germany—had a meticulous order to it. Make one mistake—forget to turn your aircraft lights off at night, slow down too early on approach, speak on the wrong radio frequency—and you could become an easier target. Easier because we were already a slow and defenseless aircraft. I was hoping for an ordinary flight, unremarkable. I was hoping not to make the news— neither for something I did, nor for anything that might be done to me.
Under the early morning fluorescents, studying the weather and route of flight, I felt a heightened sense of adrenaline, fear, and excitement. This, after all, was what I’d trained for in the Air Force a full ten years by the time I first slipped an arm into my olive flak vest. I wasn’t so much afraid of flying into a war zone as I was of screwing up. Of embarrassing not only myself, but those who had supported repealing the long-held law from 1948 that had barred women from flying into combat zones.
The Intel brief, a requirement before each mission, felt like entering a PhD seminar on Bosnia-Herzegovina’s war after inadvertently missing the first crucial years of the program. I was in the dark. Literally. We stepped into a secure room for the mission briefing, a “Classified” sign was affixed to the outside, and someone pulled the door shut and locked it. With a flick of the wall switch, the lights went off and the room went pitch black. Standing near each other in our warm winter flight jackets in the early morning hours, it was hard not to be lulled to into a sleepy haze with the lack of light.
Although it was obvious how much time Intel spent putting together the daily briefings, it felt strangely removed from our flights that always followed. Intel officers would click through slides that boiled down thousands of years of complex history into a PowerPoint presentation attempting to explain where, on this particular day, the current threat was to the plane I was assigned to fly. The answer: everywhere, nowhere, anywhere.
Things changed so much from briefing to briefing, flight to flight, it became hard for me to track the intricate details of the war and the seemingly fragile peace that the Dayton Accords, penned in Ohio, had chartered. I didn’t retain much of those predawn briefings other than this: whatever you do, don’t get stuck on the ground: get in, get out, come back. My mind, instead of tracking the political situation, was focused on the things I could control.
We took off from Ramstein Air Base in the cool, gray light. Once airborne, the sequence went like this: climb to cruising altitude, run the “combat-entry checklist” as we approached the invisible line in the sky that marked the combat zone below, and contact “Magic.” A controller on another plane, Magic, served as an airborne command post. Circling the sky for hours, Magic orchestrated the movement of planes into and out of the combat skies like a giant game of Red Rover. We’d call Magic over a secret, encrypted radio for permission to enter the war zone. Magic would either let us cross over or deny us entry and send us home.
Running the combat-entry checklist meant we prepared ourselves and our plane to be shot at. We “sanitized” our uniform by removing our name tags, personal items, and all our patches that identified our squadron. If we were shot down, we didn’t want them to know who we were. We donned bulky flak vests around our torsos and exchanged our comfortable Bose headsets for flight helmets. Snapping our helmet chin straps, we then reviewed important mission details and protocol for when we were on the ground. We secured loose items in the cockpit and cabin that could become projectiles if we had to maneuver. One of the last items on our briefing guide was to talk through bailout procedures—how many parachutes were on the plane and who would go out what aircraft door in the event of an imminent crash. Although I went through the motions of this briefing, I could never actually imagine leaving the flight controls, buckling into a parachute, and jumping out.
I looked down at the lower cockpit windows to affirm that yes, “Check,” there was Kevlar—a material stronger than steel—placed in a way that would hopefully protect us from bullets or shrapnel. After running the checklist, our crew communications were reduced to essential information only—we called it a “sterile cockpit.”
The combat-entry checklist was also an emotional cue. A sterile cockpit meant the normal chatter ceased. The silence drew our adrenaline and our focus.
With our checklists’ language of sanitize and sterile, it was as if through our particular vernacular, we could pretend war was clean. It would be years before I’d think about the connection to this mission and the way it functioned as another type of cleaning or clearing. The comic books we were ferrying were designed to educate children on land mines that remained behind. The comics would serve as educational guides. In that way, it was as if we were following conventional weapons of war like a shadow—trying to sweep up carnage preventatively.
Although the Dayton Peace Accords were signed, an estimated four to six million land mines were laid during the war. Another three million unexploded ordinances were scattered throughout the region. Many of these explosives were called “butterfly mines.” To children, they look like green toys. Their construction was mainly nonmetallic, so they often avoided standard mine detection methods. To make matters worse, they lay scattered in the open fields where children were drawn for play. At the time, land mines were killing upwards of forty people per month in Bosnia, seventy-five to eighty percent being children. Worldwide, eighty percent of all land mines initially used by warring factions inflict harm on civilians, not military members. Children are among the majority of those victims.
When I researched land mines later, I learned they are designed to maim rather than kill. The “butterfly mine” is particularly good at carrying out that mission. They explode with only a light touch—even more of a risk to children. By severely injuring the populace during wartime, they put more of a strain on the enemy’s infrastructure: hospitals, medics, transportation. I thought also about the visible trace of success they leave in their wake. Bodies continue to suffer. And in that way, land mines are successful on multiple fronts—continuing to incite fear through the survivors. In this way, they served as psychological weapons, too.
After landing in Sarajevo, I walked down the aircraft stairs to exit the plane. Although I was accustomed to flying into a range of cities within the designated war zone, this was the first time I’d deplaned in Bosnia. The cold wind caught my breath. I walked toward the back of our C-130.
The air was buzzing with the high-pitched whine of the auxiliary power unit. Pallets of cardboard boxes sat stacked and ratcheted down with bright yellow canvas belts, like ribbons tied around packages.
“Here.” The loadmaster handed me a Superman comic book. In a quick glance, I recognized the familiar superhero from the comics I’d read as a kid. The loadmaster passed them out to the whole crew, who curled over, reading.
How did he get these? I’d never seen anyone open cargo amid a mission.
Then I saw the slit on the top box of the pallet. I was shocked he’d opened the seals. The loadmaster smiled.
The comic book was lightweight and glossy like a magazine. “Superman” was printed in a wave of yellow and red lettering across the cover, but the rest of the words were in Cyrillic script. The signature red cape unfurled against a blue Bosnian sky. On the front, Superman stopped two children reaching for a rocket mortar on an emerald-green field. On the back, Superman flew through the air with the children in his arms.
The two “boys” depicted on the cover did not look like children. The “child” closest to the threat, the one in the foreground reaching his hands out for the land mine, was dressed in a collared shirt underneath a sweater. His hands were drawn almost as large as Superman’s. I wondered later if drawing these boys as young men reflected a collective consciousness that finds it hard to visualize, let alone admit, the atrocities children face in a war zone.
Superman, it had been decided, would teach the children about the dangers of land mines. Researchers within Bosnia had determined that Superman was identifiable and compelling to children within the affected war-torn region. More than half a million copies were printed by the U.S. government in what was touted as a unique collaboration between the entertainment business and international relations.
Holding the comics and thinking about the children who would read them was the first chink in my armor of compartmentalization. This mission didn’t require exceptional flying skill. But it did require exceptional emotional detachment: to distance myself from thoughts about the plight of these children and their suffering.
I took the comic from the loadmaster’s outstretched arm but didn’t linger over the pages. My priority at that moment was finding a place to pee. The C-130 had only a urinal on board, so I had trained myself to seize any pause in action, like this one, to find a real restroom, or at least a port-o-potty. From start to finish, a flight to Sarajevo and back, with ground time, could be over ten hours. And that was without mechanical delays—often a rarity with a plane manufactured in the 1960s and seventies like ours.
I looked left at a row of white, nondescript double-wides. Flags from NATO countries lined the compound. Thirty-two nations were participating in the operation. I recognized the colors of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada, and the U.S. alongside the IFOR, or Implementation Force, banner. The flags reminded me that I was only one out of the approximately eighty thousand international military members assigned to the Balkans as a NATO Peacekeeper.
I rounded the bend on my search for relief and nearly bumped into a NATO worker. He wore a flight suit, too, but the color of his was more moss-green than the olive one I wore.
“Bonjour,” he said. He smiled with his whole face. His wide expression and eager eyes took me aback.
“Bonjour,” I replied. My French was limited. I immediately scrambled for conjugation, trying to recall Mrs. Garcia’s French III class. Returning his smile, I asked, “Restroom?”
“Of course, follow me, Mademoiselle.”
Mademoiselle, I thought. The word dripped off his tongue like sweet chocolate, and I forgot for a moment that I was in a combat zone. He started to wind a path like a maze through the white trailers. Finally, we arrived at another white bungalow. He turned, smiled, and held his hand out, pointing to the door.
“For you,” he said, smiling wide. “I wait here, Mademoiselle.”
Wait for me? I was never treated with such cordiality in my entire career during any of my other searches as a woman in need of a restroom. Not before this moment, nor in the years afterward, was anyone as kind and as understanding of my physical predicament as my toilet escort in Sarajevo.
I walked back to my parked plane with my French escort, who was speaking his language as if I understood. I kept smiling as if I did. He was excited. After he repeated “première femme” a number of times, I realized the core of his excitement—I was the first “lady pilot” that he’d met while deployed to the Sarajevo outpost.
Just as I was a seeming outlier to the French military member, so, too, was this particular Superman comic to me—it was like no other comic book I’d ever read.
The comic starts as the children’s dog is injured by a concealed land mine. Superman flies the kids and dog to the hospital, where the dog dies. In that same hospital, the children meet their badly injured friend, Frank. He explains, as the reader can clearly see, that he has lost his right leg from the knee down. Bandages cover his head, and he’s missing his left eye. He blames himself for playing soccer in an empty field and venturing off the play area. Years later, I would track down one of these comic books printed in English. Superman stands with his muscled arms crossed. “I know it’s not fair,” he instructs them. “But War never is!”
When I acquired the English translation, I also learned the book’s subtitle. A two-word phrase was scrawled below Superman’s crimson cape: “Deadly Legacy.” The children of the region had lived with sniper, rocket, and mortar attacks for forty-four months. And the land mines spread throughout the war zone could remain active for fifty more years.
I grew up with a stream of stories about a childhood spent in the throes of wartime. My dad was born in a blacked-out hospital in the center of London during World War II. It was December—Christmastime. After the nurses cleaned and swaddled him, they brought him to my grandmother. Standing in a semicircle, with the red lining of their winter capes flipped over their shoulders, the nurses gathered around her bed. They held long candles and quietly sang “The First Noel.”
Again and again, Dad told me the story of being a baby when a 550-pound bomb landed on a neighbor’s home. The blast force sent him rolling. He flew, in his pram, down the cobblestone lane in front of his house. “Where’s Noel?” my grandmother yelled. She was digging her other son, a three-year-old, out from under ceiling rubble.
As a toddler, Dad learned to walk amid air raids. Both my grandparents were Air Wardens. He was eventually sent with his brother to live in the country, as many other London children were. But instead of relative safety, they found risk there, too: soon, a rocket landed in the field attached to the farmhouse where they stayed. After that, his parents brought him back to ride out the war in London. He survived. And so did the stories of near-misses during the wartime of his childhood.
I knew that if anyone could appreciate my flying of this particular mission, on behalf of the children, it would be Dad. A few days after this flight, I made a trek to the post office on base and mailed my copy of Superman to him. My initial impulse for sending was that I wanted him to be proud of my role. I also knew he’d preserve it, in the slim but ever-present chance I didn’t return.
But now I realize, my comic-book flight was the closest I came to understanding the tenuous threshold upon which he entered this world, and the way he survived it. He made it past close calls, but other neighborhood children were not so lucky. Only in thinking about the Bosnian children did I come to understand the decades of Dad’s stories. The survival, the odds, and the mind still at work to make sense of it all.
In the days of flying into Bosnia, I acted as if I was attached to almost nothing. But truthfully, I was attached to the idea of legacy—something my dad often talked about. At the very least, I thought, this comic book, in the hands of my storytelling father, would make for one.
When I researched the comic’s origins, I learned that Madeleine Albright had initiated the comic book project along with President Clinton. The U.S. military, I discovered, has a long-standing history of employing comic books, beginning with World War II. Comics were used for everything from patriotic propaganda to promoting U.S. policies. To enlist DC Comics for the use of Superman, Albright reached out to singer Judy Collins, a special envoy to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), who, in turn, coordinated with Warner Bros.
It would be years before I examined my role as an arm of peacekeeping. Before I considered the consequences of imperialism or the international relations behind NATO countries deciding what peace is worth keeping and what isn’t. Before I realized that peacekeeping wasn’t free from the same complicity that warfare brings, nor the lasting complexities that swirl in the exhaust of turbine engines, long after I flew my plane and payload out and across the borders.
Although I wasn’t a combatant in the Bosnian war, the reality of my military status brought a sense of reckoning with my profession-at-arms in viewing damage from war—up close.
The planes I flew into Bosnia had been used in the Vietnam War. In Laos, over half the country is still covered in unexploded ordinances from that war. Cambodians, too, continue to experience casualties from the four to six million land mines left behind when the war ended. The U.S. spends billions of dollars trying to help eradicate many mines it once freely scattered in places around the globe. In these Southeast Asian countries, people go without food because available land cannot be farmed due to the risks of land mines and unexploded ordinances. A 2022 report determined that the U.S. has spent more than $4.2 billion since 1993 on land mine and ordinance clearing.
The cycle of war, followed by the costly process of trying to clean up the aftermath, is like a beating drum, still echoing from the battlefields.
I experienced the war zone of Bosnia-Herzegovina not so much in hours or days but in moments. On one of my first flights into Tuzla—the main hub for our IFOR operations—I held the aircraft yoke and glanced down at the rocky, war-torn field below us. It was littered in rubble. The plane was low enough that I could see someone on the ground. We flew over him with our helmets on and flak vests cinched, with bulletproof Kevlar lining our lower windows. We flew in silence. I was afraid of him—a fear that early morning Intel briefs had instilled in me. And yet, below me, I saw someone who wasn’t holding a surface-to-air missile. He was a farmer holding a plow, starting anew.
The perseverance of his spirit overwhelmed me. He heard us and turned his face to look up at my side of the cockpit. Our eyes locked. In a half beat of a partial second, I flew into the interior of this war, the plight on the ground—one that was not my own, one I would only understand in fractions, one I couldn’t comprehend, even with a team of Intelligence analysts preparing me each day with thorough briefings. But I grasped some portion of it in the time-sliver of that moment. I blocked my tears and returned my eyes to the cross-check of the cockpit and the landing point on the runway: aimpoint, airspeed; aimpoint, airspeed.
When I returned to the C-130 after my restroom break, refueling was still in progress. I walked toward the crew entry door and stood under the left wing. Snow had started to fall again. The air was sharp with winter. The scent of wet earth and new snow filled my lungs. A steady wind traveled up the cuffs of my flight jacket and down the opening of my flight suit. The long reach of the Herk’s wing was like an outstretched arm over my head. I stood beneath it for a moment before I returned to the busy pace and duties of our preflight.
As I reflect on this mission, I realize that the business of war keeps you from looking directly at it. The urgency of our duties and of trying to get back into the air directed our gaze away from the damage just beyond the runway. Remnants of war lingered in our periphery—softened as if by a haze.
In the Air Force, pilots often operate within a narrow ambit of war, instead of in the thick of it. We soar above the battlefields instead of tromping through the centers of them. We exit combat airspace within minutes—often returning to life among civilians quickly. Drone pilots can fly their aircraft into a combat zone and drop munitions from a continent away. Unlike naval ships at sea or the Marines and Army in remote deserts and jungles, many Air Force missions don’t even require us to land. And that is precisely why the environs of Sarajevo, from thousands of feet above, looked beautiful to me. As a transport pilot, my affiliation with this combat zone was taking people in, then taking them out. Quickly.
Only because of my need to find a restroom had I stepped out of the movement of people, pallets, payloads. Only on this mission did I linger. Did I have a chance to truly look.
As I stood on the tarmac, I first watched the crew in action. The loadmasters were busy looking down—strapping belts and ratcheting canvas fitting to secure new cargo. The flight engineer was looking up, watching the fuel level rise on the gauges as gas transferred to fuel bladders inside each wing. The navigator was looking down at charts, headings, and wind readouts for our plane’s mountainous departure and return. Normally, I’d be in the cockpit, strapped in and readying for takeoff. I might be looking down at my departure procedures, or straight ahead at the instrument panel. Or glancing at my watch, ever mindful of our timeline.
But today, under the shelter of a long wingspan, I looked in the direction of war. The homes were so close to the concrete strip. I’d felt their presence in my periphery on landing rollout once our wheels had touched down and I gradually decelerated the plane. In the U.S., homes weren’t built so close to major runways, and it felt perilous—the same way it felt unsafe to stand on a platform too close to an approaching El train in Chicago.
I looked across the tarmac and beyond the empty runway. In one home, a missing roof. In the next, a chunk of the left face—gone. To the right, windows missing. As my eyes scanned the row of homes, I traced a visible line of loss. I was pulled toward each missing spot. The winter landscape highlighted the openings. White snow made bombed-out sections even more apparent. The absence of windows marked hollow spaces, highlighting empty cavities. Wherever a bomb had impacted, part of the structure was jagged—or completely absent, like a body with no limbs. Into those sections, I watched the snow fall and disappear.
I stood next to the transport-category aircraft I’d hoped to fly since my early days in Air Force pilot training. When I filled out my “dream sheet” and listed the type of plane I longed to fly upon graduation, I wanted a chance to travel. And I was drawn to the C-130 because I admired its vulnerability— a plane that could fly, unarmed, through combat zones. I longed to have as much confidence as that mission seemed to imply.
I’d carried the comics across countries. But I hadn’t counted on my payload itself, the forty-two thousand pounds of comics, and my rising concern for the children in this aftermath—to carry me. I found myself transported out of my Peacekeeper role. Into what—I’m still not entirely sure. I only knew that the absurdity of war had been crystalized in me.
To be a Peacekeeper in Bosnia, I realized, was to be inextricably linked to the opposite weave: war.
I studied the neighboring homes. Marked by dark, cavernous spaces, they were lined with ripped sidewall, absent roofs, shattered frames. Exactly like the houses in the comic books.