Nelson Krueger may not be in the military, but he has flown with the U.S. Army to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, three times in the last three months.
As a pilot for the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, Krueger, a 22-year Lawrence resident, has been transporting U.S. troops to Dhahran, about 150 miles from the Kuwait border.
"I want to play whatever role I can in stopping the aggression and growth of a people who think they can run over someone just because they are the bully," Krueger, 43, said of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
"I jumped at the chance to take our troops over there," he said.
Krueger, a pilot and flight engineer who has flown planes for TWA for 23 years, got the Middle East assignment as part of his regular job.
The Civil Reserve Air Fleet, he said, comprises all the commercial transport planes at a time of war or crisis. Krueger said the military airlift command didn't have enough planes and pilots to accommodate the rapid deployment of American troops to Saudi Arabia, so it activated 1 percent of the civil reserve fleet, including two 747 Boeing TWA jetliners, to take U.S. troops to the Middle East.
When the military commandeered the commercial planes, Krueger volunteered to take members of the 2nd Armored Division from Fort Hood, Tex.
KRUEGER said the process of getting the troops to the Middle East is a type of Pony Express system. He flies the last leg of the trip, Rome to Dhahran, which is six hours of a flight that takes about 20 hours.
Since the first flight from Fort Hood, Krueger has flown two more flights to Saudi Arabia. In September, he flew a group of quartermasters from Fort Lee, Va., and in October he transported combat engineers from Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
Next Sunday, he is scheduled to airlift another group of soldiers, but TWA and military command do not tell Krueger who his passengers will be until the very last minute.
No matter which group Krueger transports next, he said he will be proud to get them there.
"The troops are the most thoughtful and courteous passengers I've ever had," he said. "I have to admit, however, it's incredible to see almost 400 young men and women board a 747 dressed in fatigues and carrying the rifles. These are the only flights I've been on where the attendant asked a passenger, `Could you please pick up your gun from the aisle so I can get my cart through?'"
KRUEGER said his relationship with the military passengers has extended beyond just dropping them off in Dhahran. The company commander from Fort Hood has maintained communication with Krueger and written him about developments within his unit.
And, Krueger has tried to improve morale among his passengers.
"When I see that one of the passengers didn't have any friends or family to see them off to the Middle East, I arrange for the flight attendants to keep them company and set up a pen pal relationship," Krueger said. "I get letters from the attendants telling me they still keep in touch with their pen pal."
When Krueger and the troops arrive in Saudi Arabia, he sees some members disembark the plane in tears, but once they get more than 50 feet from the plane it's business as usual. The troops fall in and form rank immediately upon arrival.
What was most overwhelming during one of his landings, he said, was seeing three C-5As, the largest transport plane, and seven 747s sitting side by side on the runway.
"You really get a sense of what's going on here," he said.
KRUEGER also said the F-15 fighter escorts that lead the transport flights from Jedda, Saudi Arabia, to Dhahran, certainly made him realize where he was.
Taking soldiers to Saudi Arabia hasn't been Krueger's only assignment. In September, Krueger said he received his first hint the crisis would escalate when he flew the children of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia from Los Angeles to Paris, so they could return to their homeland.
"After that, I knew it was getting serious," he said.
It was another flight, transporting "officials" to Istanbul, Turkey, that may prove most interesting. However, Krueger would not elaborate about that November trip.
Krueger said he first got the "bug" for flying after seeing his cousin, a U.S. Air Force pilot and a Korean War prisoner of war, in his blue flight suit. A pilot since the age of 13, Krueger never joined the military, but acted as an Reserve Officer Training Corps flight instructor at Kansas University.
Krueger says he will not forget the troops he took over there.
"They (soldiers) always say to us when we depart Dhahran, `Hurry back and come get us.'"