Pilot overcomes adversity through faith

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Eric Schloeffel
  • 23rd Wing Public Affairs
While held as an Iraqi prisoner of war for nearly five weeks during the Gulf War in 1991, Col. (ret.) David Eberly relied on faith to help him endure uncertain times and traumatic events.

Colonel Eberly's faithful trust was the theme of his speech during Moody's annual Prayer Breakfast Feb. 1. As the guest speaker, the colonel spoke to the crowd about his experiences prior to and during his captivity.

Flying the F-15E, an aircraft with little prior combat experience, Colonel Ebert was anxious to help coalition forces defeat the Iraqi Army after their invasion of Kuwait.

"People like me, who grew up in the shadow of the Vietnam War, looked forward to go forth and stand up for this country," said Colonel Eberly, then the 4th Fighter Wing director of operations at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. "How naïve we were of the events that would unfold over the next seven months, and for many would continue at an almost never-ending pace."

Colonel Eberly first deployed to a forward operating location on Aug. 9, 1990. In late November, he moved to Al Kharj Air Base, Saudi Arabia, approximately 400 miles from the Iraqi border.

Nearly five days after Congress authorized use of force to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait, the colonel participated in the initial strike of Operation Desert Storm. Despite early mechanical problems on Jan. 16, 1991, Colonel Eberly pressed on with his first combat mission of the war.

"When we started flying north, I realized my low altitude navigation and targeting infrared for night system wasn't working, but it didn't matter to me," said Colonel Eberly. "I waited 20 years for this opportunity and was going regardless."

While flying deep in enemy territory during the mission, Colonel Eberly noticed an unexpected occurrence - his target area was still lit up and easily seen from above in the dark night.

"We proceeded to our target area; an airfield that still had all its lights on," he said. "(Saddam Hussein) didn't think we had the courage to launch the attack. Well we did, and after the first airplane (dropped its munitions), the whole place lit up."

Colonel Eberly's first combat mission in the Gulf War was a resounding success, but it was his second sortie on Jan. 19, 1991, that led to his unfortunate experience in the following weeks.

"(After my first sortie) I didn't get a whole lot of sleep, but I wanted to fly again," said Colonel Eberly. "I figured in my mind, we'd probably level the place and there wouldn't be any action left."

Before the flight, Colonel Eberly was informed his mission was to take out a scud site and a number of storage facilities. But from 15 miles outside the target area, he realized his F-15 was being tracked by enemy radar.

"I looked down to the right to what could have been an oil well fire burning in the black desert void below - but training told me otherwise," said Colonel Eberly. "It was the burner plug of a surface-to-air missile that had locked on to our aircraft."

The veteran pilot put his training to the test and managed to dodge the first missile. But before he was able to get back on track, his aircraft experienced a major impact, he said.

"We were consumed by a brilliant flash," he said. "It was a stunning situation that paralyzed our souls."

Colonel Eberly ejected out of the F-15 and parachuted thousands of feet onto the cold, desolate desert surface.

"The next thing I remember was kneeling upright and staring at another orange ball on the horizon," he said. "With the little bit of moonlight, I could see my raft was floating on the desert in front of me. I started to chill, so I wrapped my parachute around my shoulders for the warmth of the silk and headed off like an old barn-stormer who had crashed a biplane in a Kansas cornfield."

While contemplating his unfortunate situation, Colonel Eberly counted on his faith to quell any negative thoughts about the inherent dangers of his position.

"In the midst of all the chaos and loneliness, I knew my shepherd was on guard," said the colonel. "I changed my mindset and knew I had the strength to get through this."

Colonel Eberly soon met up with his co-pilot and evaded into the Iraqi desert. Three days later, they were captured at the Syrian border under a barrage of automatic weapons fire.

Once caught, the pilots were taken to higher command authority in Baghdad. For the next 43 days, Colonel Eberly lived in isolation except for a brief span when a British military member was held captive in the same cell.

"Over that time, I knew my mission had certainly changed," said Colonel Eberly. "I was forced to transition from the hunter to the hunted, and now I was the target."

But while dealing with constant interrogations and abuse, the colonel focused on spiritual fulfillment and managed to stay positive.

"This would never be a situation I would wish on anyone else," he said. "But without being bothered by all the day-to-day things, I had a chance to have a lot of quiet time and soul searching. It was a great opportunity to spend time on prayer and reflection."

Colonel Eberly was repatriated March 5, 1991, with allies from five other countries. His efforts earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

While taking on a spiritual adjustment through harsh tribulations kept Colonel Eberly in the right state of mind, he also helped other Airmen stay on track in the face of the enemy, said Lt. Col. Robert Sweet, 435th Flying Training Squadron commander. The then-first lieutenants' A-10 Warthog was shot down during his 30th Gulf War mission, and he was held at the same prison with Colonel Eberly.

"Colonel Eberly was the senior ranking member in the jailhouse," said Colonel Sweet.

"In any military endeavor, effective leadership is leading by example. Colonel Eberly's calm presence, steadfastness through adversity and rock-solid demeanor in the face of the enemy was spot on. As a young lieutenant, if I saw the boss do it, I knew I could do it too."

Though Colonel Eberly's experiences as a prisoner of war occurred more than 16 years ago, his story still evokes emotion and inspired those at the prayer breakfast, said Senior Master Sgt. Dawna Kinsman, 23rd Logistics Readiness Squadron first sergeant.
"I am constantly amazed at the sacrifices by our military members - most we never hear of," she said. "Colonel Eberly embodies the spirit of why we fight, even though the results of the fight can sometimes entail such unfortunate events."