Name: Gabriel Marchi
Rank: Senior Airman E4
Date of Birth: 1985
Place of Birth: Chicago, IL
War: Afghanistan and Iraq
Date of Service: 2006 – Present (as of interview)
Branch: US Air Force
Unit: 16 Special Ops Squadron
Location: Florida, Afghanistan
Prisoner of War: No
This is Fidencio Marbella with the Melrose Park Public Library. Also present is Heidi Beazley with the Melrose Park Public Library. Today we will be speaking with Gabriel Marchi of the US Air Force. This interview is being conducted for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress. Ok lets go ahead and get started, Gabe, why don’t you tell us when and where you were born, and a little bit about your family.
I was born here in Chicago. Lived in the city of Chicago and then moved to Elmwood Park. May parents are from Italy; they are born and raised there, then moved out here. And I have a little sister who is 12, goes to school around here, born here.
Where did you go to High School?
High school, I went to Holy Cross in River Grove.
Ok, why did you decide to join the Air Force.
I just got sick of being at home, I just wanted to get up and leave, so I figured I would join the Air Force.
How was your parent’s reaction to joining the armed services?
Well, my mom flipped out probably as anyone else’s would. But uh, she later accepted it so.
How did your dad feel about it?
He was a little uneasy about it too, but they both came to terms.
So when is it you joined the Air Force?
I went in; it was, January 4th of 2006.
So where did you first go for your training?
Basic training was in Lackland Air Force base in Texas which was 6 and a half weeks. And then once I got out of there I stayed at Lackland for a class called Unlisted Air Crew Undergraduate class which is just a basic synopsis of just air crew stuff that air crews would sooner or later get to know about, get involved with.
So this would be for like for crew members on a larger air craft?
Just, basically anyone in a plane or helicopter that flies in either of them so just a synopsis, an overview of what aviation is like in the air force.
What was it first like when you landed at Lackland, when you got there, what was your first impression?
Oh, um well we were all a little scared and nervous because we didn’t know what to expect, but,
Is it like you see in the movies where you have these drill sergeants yelling at you when you get off?
They do for the first couple of weeks…
Yeah, you know, once they get to know who they are training, they calm down a bit but for the first couple of weeks, yeah, they get what you see in the movies. Maybe not as hard core as the marines and the army.
So what was that training like, what did they have you do? Just calisthenics? or Physical training?
A lot of it was physical conditioning and then just air force, general air force knowledge…
Like policies and procedures?
Yeah standards and things like that, how to wear the uniform. How to transition from civilian to military life, all the customs and standards that apply when you are talking to other people.
How big of a group did you have in training down there?
Well, the group that I was with was probably about 50 some guys that I got to know. There were a few hundred that graduated with us.
Did you have a whole graduation ceremony?
Yeah they did for everyone that came in at the same date, they graduated together. It was a huge ceremony.
Did your family come down for it?
Yeah they came down.
What was that like, did they enjoy it?
Yeah, I mean it was San Antonio, and it was cold…
Really? What time of year was that?
Mid February. So, it was a little cold, but we did what we could with the time that we had.
So then after those what, six and a half weeks, what happened next?
I stayed in Texas, I just moved to a little annex, that is a smaller part of Lackland, that’s attached to it, and that’s where I took that enlisted aircrew undergraduate class and I think that was about less than a month that I was there for that.
Now at what point did you start specializing or determining what you wanted to do in the air force? Have you reached that point yet?
Yeah I mean I got my career already, I didn’t get that until I got to uh, Albuquerque, that was my last part of, that was the last step of training before I moved to Florida where I would be stationed at. So I needed to pass the basic aerial gunner course…
They taught you how to shoot?
Uh, not, just more about the, cause we could either be on helicopters or AC130 which is a C130 with guns moded on the left side of the plane so they just gave us a general overview of the helicopters and the gun ships and once we passed the final test there we got to go to our designated aircraft.
Did you get to pick which one?
Why did you pick the AC130?
I just didn’t want to be in a helicopter!
Wanted to be a little bit higher?
So then you ended up in, where in Florida?
The base is Hurlburt Field, Florida, its um in Fort Walton beach, to the west is Pensacola, to the east is Panama City so we are right in the middle between them. And right on the beach,
How long where you there?
I’ve been there since August of ’06.
So that is where your unit is stationed?
And what unit is that?
16th special operations squadron or the 1st special operations wing.
So after you were assigned to Florida, you had to transition over seas at some point?
Well I finished my training for the gun ship in Florida and then it is pretty much where I stayed because we are only at that base. Then after x amount of time being in the squadron, and getting the hang of flying, then they send you out.
What’s the gunnery training like in Florida?
You get a couple of weeks of class in a classroom environment and they just talk to you about everything about the guns which is a 40 mm gun which is an old World War II gun that they took off the boats, and then a 105mm howitzer which is used by the army in the field, so they just modded it to our plane.
That’s a pretty big gun to put on an airplane, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s a little big, yeah.
How do they handle that on a plane? Isn’t there a lot of recoil?
Yeah there is a lot of recoil, but they just fix these boards underneath the plane to absorb all the shock and all the recoil.
So you learn how to shoot both?
Now the 40 mm is that a gatlin, or just a single barrel?
It’s a single barrel, clip fed. 4 rounds a clip.
You have to feed them in yourself?
Yeah. Its right on top of the gun, so you just set them in, throw them in.
So at what point did you go to Afghanistan for your first tour?
First tour was, we left the end of May of ’07 and were there 90 days, came back beginning of September.
How long did it take you to get to Afghanistan to Florida?
Uhm, about, well we made a few stops along the way, overall travel was about, a couple of days.
Did you fly in the AC130?
No, we take a contracted airliner, which picks us up right off the base and takes us.
Where you met up with your plane?
Where in Afghanistan where you assigned?
The base is Bagram.
What was your first impression when you stepped off that plane in Afghanistan?
Well, it was, I believe it was nighttime, couldn’t really see the area, but its just like, I’m in Afghanistan now…
Kinda freak you out?
A little bit, didn’t know what to expect. Yeah, very dusty and mountains are everywhere. Um, just took it as it came and eventually just grew on it, and well, I’m here for another 90 days, so I have to put up with it.
What were your quarters like?
They had these wood huts built already from the beginning of the war I believe. 8 rooms in each pretty much and we had a little living area where we had half a kitchen and some TVs and Xboxes and PS2s and all that.
All the necessities of life?
Yeah pretty much. They’re not bad, for, compared to what everyone else has to live in.
Its not tents.
No, no tents.
How’s the food?
Well the food they could probably work on….its not the best of food but it’s, you gotta eat it cause it’s the only food there, so.
Now, is that supplied by the civilian contractors? Or air force cooks?
They are contractors, I don’t know exactly who they are, they look more like people from the local area, not necessarily Afghanistan but from other countries around it and they just cook our food for us.
So can you tell us anything about what missions are like in general, like from start to finish?
No, no I can’t unfortunately.
Ok, did you have much contact with the afghan civilians at all?
No. They do work on base, but you really don’t talk to them.
So when you weren’t in the air, what would you do?
If we had nothing going on that day we would all just stand around watch movies or play video games, or just, they got a gym there, go to the gym or just hang out and wait for something. Do something to kill the time.
Di d you have any other responsibilities when you weren’t flying?
No, we just sat around until something came up.
So would you know ahead of time that you were going up? Or were you pretty much on call?
Majority of the time is on call but sometimes we have something planned for the next day.
How did you like flying in Afghanistan? Was it any different from over here just because of the mountains?
It’s a little bit different not just because of the mountains, but because of what goes on in there….
The fact that you might get shot down over there, not here?
Yeah. That’s just about the big change.
Can you tell us a little about your crew mates, what they are like? And what their responsibilities are?
Well on the plane there are 4 gunners, pilots got 2 of those. Well, we all know each other because we are only on one base so we all know each other, we all work in the same building, we all do the same thing.
So you fly with the same crew on every mission?
Yeah. So I mean even when we are not flying we’re all together bs-ing, you know. It’s the perfect time to get close with other people that you work with, and if you’re new, it’s a good chance to throw your name out there. When we aren’t doing anything, its always the E’s, the enlisted, against the officers, we always play them in Halo, so its just a way to bond.
A lot of times it’s the enlisted.
So you did a 90 day tour in Afghanistan and then you came back to the states?
Now what did you do back in Florida after you did your 90 days? More training?
The training ended, well I guess every flight can be considered training, but its always the same profile when you go fly in Florida, um, so its I guess its every flight can be considered training because your always doing something, your always doing what your job is as a gunner, your always going to be up there, your always going to go shoot. So and when we are not shooting there is the time to where you know if there is a malfunction on the gun we’re the ones that clear it out so we also do malfunctions in the air.
Now what’s it like trying to reload these guns when your flying around in Afghanistan at night probably.
Well we don’t have the lights on, so part of the training that we did in the beginning to be a gunner on the gun ship is we fly around in the dark, and we put glow sticks just to know to where we gotta put the rounds in and just a general, put a little bit of light around the guns just to know where everything is at so we don’t mess it up or anything. It can get a little tricky, but, especially being on oxygen the whole time, it does get a little tricky, but we get trained to do that, so you get used to it.
How long do the missions generally last? Are you up in the air for a long time?
From, uh, yep the whole night.
Wow. So are these planes are they pressurized?
No. They are unpressurized.
So, how’s the weather?
Summer it can get a little cool up there. Winter is going to be way below freezing, way in the negatives up there.
So you’re bundled up having to reload these guns at night?
How hard is that?
I haven’t experienced the winter yet.
When is their winter there, is it the same as ours?
So January/February is their winter as well.
Yeah, maybe a little bit earlier since the elevation is a little bit higher, it gets colder earlier. Yeah its going to be cold.
Now is it going to be winter on your next deployment?
How can you prepare for something like that? Is it just a simple matter of training?
I’m just going to bring a lot of cold weather gear to keep me warm. A lot of thermals.
So this will be your 3rd tour coming up?
What was your 2nd tour like? Did you go to the same place, Bagram?
Same place, yep. That was same time, left the end of May for June and July. Only 60 days now because they changed our rotations from 90 to 60. We will be gone more frequent, but its not bad.
Not as long.
Now, when you are in Afghanistan are you able to have much contact with your family back home and friends?
Yeah, there’s a lot of time. Especially when were not flying there’s plenty of time to always get on the internet and send some emails out. Even after a flight is like a perfect time to call back because it would be in the evening time around here to call. Yeah, there’s plenty of time.
Do you ever ask your family to send you a care package?
I don’t really have anything sent out there cause I pack the least the amount when I leave and I expect to return with the least amount of anything I would have…
Yeah, the least the better. If they do send anything it is just like candy and junk food that you really can’t get out there.
Now do you think you are gong to stay in the air force for 20 plus?
I’m not to sure about 20 yet. I have another 3 years on my enlistment I will probably reenlist and just then I’ll just see what happens after there.
Is it for 6 years each?
6 or 4.
How do you like air force life in general?
It’s not that bad, I mean the pays good, the benefits are great. Can’t really complain about it. I like it, I enjoy it, met a lot of cool people a lot of good friends. We all go out hang out all the time. The work environments just really laid back.
Yeah I heard that about the air force.
Yeah especially our squadron. It’s really laid back in there no ones ever over your shoulder watching your every move. A lot of us young guys in there, we mess around with the a lot of the older guys who are in there. It’s a good environment.
What are your officers like?
They’re actually not as stuck up as people might seem. A lot of officers are just as laid back as the enlisted are. You might get one or two of the officers that…you know…
Like any organization there will be some bad ones and a lot of good ones.
Yeah. There’s a couple of those officers you really don’t like to be around or talk to or anything. They’re everywhere. But a lot of the officers yeah their just relaxed and you know, none of them are uptight.
They don’t really act like officers?
Now what’s your rank? Your current rank in the air force?
Its senior air man which is a E-4.
Now what else to you hope to do in the air force? Do you want to stay a gunner, or would you rather try different things?
Uh, I‘d like to stay for now I really don’t know what I would like to go into later, but, this job is fine right now. I’m having a lot of fun doing it.
Now is the air force pretty flexible as far as if you want to change your responsibilities?
Uh, yes, as a, they call it a first term airman where you’ve only been if for either, your coming up on your enlistment and this is your first enlistment, so you have the choice to where as a first term airman you can cross train into a another career field. If you wait til your second one you don’t have that much leniency, but your pretty much guaranteed to cross train to a different career before you reenlist for the first time.
Have you learned any skill in the air force that you think would help you out in your civilian life down the road?
Probably not so much as being a gunner. I mean, you get the whole your in the military…
The team work aspect?
Right and you get, they look at, when people look at a resume and see you have had military experience for x amount of years, yeah it gives you a little extra boost above everybody else but as a gunner career field…
Career opportunities are a little limited,
Yeah. That’s the only downside of the job.
But like you said you have the flexibility down the road of changing if you want to.
How do you feel about going back to Afghanistan over and over again. I mean we hear stories on the news media all the time about veterans getting tired of being deployed all the time. But how do you like it?
Uhm, I don’t mind it so much. You know, its only 60 days, and with the type of squadron that we are, we are always deploying and you know sometimes staying in Florida, you do want to get out of there and leave so going overseas isn’t all that bad, its not for a long time, you got plenty of things to do out there, you get away from all the stress related work back home. I don’t mind it too much, guys that have been doing this for 15 plus years yeah they might a have a little different to say but its not that bad I don’t, mind it.
Now in future deployments is it pretty much guaranteed that it will always be Afghanistan or will you ever end up in Iraq or somewhere else?
Is it because they kinda specialize in different things? I mean is your unit specifically trained for the Afghan environment?
Um well, there’s two gunship squadrons. There’s ours and there is another one which is a newer model and they’re the ones who go to Iraq.
What’s it like flying in an AC130? Tell us about the airplane and what its like.
Its noisy windy, its cold depending on the time of year, uhm
Cause these are propeller driven?
Yes. Yeah it’s a fun plane to be in because there are 13 other people—13 people all together in the plane so there’s always someone there to, you know, and there’s always 4 gunners so. Uhm, the plane its just really loud. It’s a fun plane I mean it doesn’t really go so fast but, yeah, I mean, whenever we shoot its fun you know around back in Florida its always fun. Its about the highlight of the whole flight.
Do you always fly at night in Afghanistan? Or do you have daytime missions to.
No, not if Afghanistan. Just at night, and back home there’s daytime and nighttime.
Now you mentioned about flying pretty much all night, does that mean you have to get refueled in the air from another plane?
What’s that like? Air to air refueling? It just looks awfully dangerous when you see it on tv, especially with propellers!
I don’t think it looks dangerous its just a little probe that comes to the top of the airplane right above the nose.
From the tanker?
So the tanker flies above and ahead of you?
And they drop a probe down to your plane.
Now how long does that take to refuel your plane?
Ah, it depends on the pilot. Maybe 15- 20 minutes.
And this is being done at night?
I think it looks dangerous!
It may look, but it doesn’t ever feel dangerous.
I imagine you must have pretty good pilots then,
Yeah, they’re pretty decent they’re pretty good.
Do you have anything else that you might like to share with us?
Nah, I got nothing.
Ok, well thank you very much for sharing your memories with us, and thanks for your time.