Photo by Michael Buckelew
CONYERS -- In his third tour of duty in Iraq as an Army helicopter pilot, 1982 Heritage High School graduate Thomas "Tommy" Golden said the heat is one of the toughest things to get used to.
"I never get used to the heat; you just bear it, day in and day out," he said. "I'm not a big fan of flying at night, either. Even with night vision goggles, the terrain contrast is horrible; it's still very dark and very dangerous."
The days aren't much better.
"The dust storms present a huge challenge because flight visibility goes down significantly, and that makes our job flying extremely difficult and challenging even for the most seasoned pilots."
Golden flies as the pilot for the 4th Infantry Division's Commanding General. "When the general says 'Go,' we go," he said. "We cover the northern sector of Iraq, but the enemy activity is nowhere near the level it was on my previous tours."
He has experienced his share of rugged combat as an Army helicopter pilot in Iraq. He returned for his third tour in November. However, flying dignitaries is also part of his job. One of his last flights included U.S. Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham and the American Ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey.
"I flew Sens. McCain and Graham to outlying bases to visit our troops and key local leaders," he said. "The mission was successful and the weather was great, but still a bit taxing when you're flying an ex-presidential candidate around a war zone."
Golden was born near Philadelphia to Richard F. and Joan A. Golden. His father's job as an executive for Air Products and Chemicals kept the family on the move with transfers to several states. Roots took hold with the last transfer to Conyers.
Military service and helicopters have been a big part of Golden's life. He attended DeKalb Community College after high school and then joined the Georgia Army National Guard in 1984 to train as a technical observer in the OV-1 Mohawk helicopters. Shortly afterwards, Golden attended the Warrant Officer Flight Training Program at Fort Rucker, Ala., to become a helicopter pilot.
"I've had a number of exceptional experiences in the military during my career," he said. "In 1992, I was in command of the first helicopter sent from the reserves to Hollywood, Fla., to assist the local population after Hurricane Andrew."
In 1993, Golden responded to the flood that struck the state of Georgia, and was part of the support for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and the Paralympic Games that followed. Immediately afterward, Golden helped the FBI scour the mountains of North Carolina for Olympic park bomber Eric Rudolph, a mission that ended in 1999.
Then on Sept. 11, 2001, four passenger airliners hijacked by terrorists changed our country forever, along with Golden's assignments. In 2002, Golden began the first of 41 trips to Tbilisi, Georgia (the country), to train their air force pilots in the use and capabilities of UH-1 "Huey" choppers. In 2005, Golden was sent to Fort Drum, N.Y., with the 48th Mechanized Infantry Brigade for additional training to become the first National Guard Brigade Aviation Element to be certified for combat.
His combat training was immediately put to the test.
"I was deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, in February 2005 until April of 2006," he stated. "A war zone is unlike anything I'd ever experienced. I was on the ground with what I call the 'Real Army.' I was used to the life of an aviator, a bit more comfortable than my Band of Brothers humpin' it in the dirt wearing out their boot leather. But suddenly I'm in ground convoys traveling to outposts and forward operating bases teaching guys the use of UAVs, helicopter support, gunship support and most importantly medevac support."
Sent for his second tour in 2007-08, his experience in Tbilisi paid off in a big way.
"I worked closely with our coalition partners from the country of Georgia in the Wasit Province in Al Kut, Iraq. The cultural and political challenges were the most difficult of any assignments I'd had up to that point," Golden said.
Colorful service ribbons above the left breast pocket of military personnel's dress uniforms illustrate their accomplishments. CW4 Golden has what is referred to as a "fruit salad" of decorations, 26 to be exact, including two for the Global War on Terror, and two Bronze Stars.
Golden is just one of our many civilian soldiers serving their country with honor and dignity, answering their call to duty, and doing their job in harsh conditions, time and time again.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of "A Veteran's Story," a regular feature of the Citizen.
Correction, June 16, 2011: The photo caption of this story was revised to read Tommy Golden appearing second from the right. Also, erroneous information given misidentified the helicopter which is actually a H-60 Black Hawk. The Citizen regrets the error.