Those who find their direction in life can often point to one influential figure that provided the inspiration for their success. Charles Ramirez, a veteran of nine deployments to date, found his inspiration through his fourth grade teacher.
“He was a fighter pilot during Vietnam and he continued to serve in the reserves,” explained Charles who was a student at Saddle Rock Elementary School in Great Neck at the time. The teacher, Mr. Allen, had piloted the newly introduced McDonnell Douglas F15 fighter jets. “Our core curriculum in the fourth grade was aerodynamics and geography. We were learning basic engineering because of this teacher and it stuck with me.”
Charles enlisted in the Marine Corps before he graduated from South Side High School in Rockville Centre. His plan was to fly for the Marine Corps and then get his commission through them. He was 17 years old when he was sent to Parris Island, South Carolina for training.
Giving his all, Charles pushed the limits and sustained an injury to his leg that was so severe he opted for a medical discharge in 1984, the same year he enlisted in the Corps.
Undeterred by the setback to his career path, he enrolled at Dowling College. While pursuing an aeronautics degree at The School of Aviation, his friend told him about “this unit in Westhampton.” One sunny afternoon in July of 1986, the two friends drove out to the Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing. “My friend enlisted and I reenlisted,” said Charles who noted that it took one and a half years for him to obtain a medical clearance.
“My goal was always to get an aeronautics degree and fly for the military,” he said. “my first job with the Airforce was as an aircraft mechanic .” As it turned out, he was beyond the age to become an Air Force pilot when he graduated from Dowling College in January of 1993 with a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics.
An opportunity arose for Charles to transfer to the 102nd Rescue Squadron just prior to his commencement from Dowling. He was hired and began training. “I fell in love with the career,” he said explaining that he is an Airborne Mission Systems Specialist.
Then, as now, he handled all of the tactical communications, command and control, and worked specialized equipment when searching for survivors. Being the communications hub of rescue efforts at such a young age was amazing to him. But he was working part-time for the 102nd and needed to supplement his income.
“I became a district manager for a ski shop,” he said. With an office in Hicksville and stores spread out between White Plains and Sayville, he juggled both careers until a full-time position opened up on base. “The family owned business wanted me to leave the military. The commitment to being aircrew was over 100 days a year; it was hard on the family business.”
Operation Desert Storm followed Operation Desert Shield and occurred in response to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s army crossing the border into the tiny, oil-rich country of Kuwait.
Although Charles doesn’t consider it his first deployment due to the location and short duration of the mission, 10 days, he was sent to Iceland to provide rescue coverage over the north Atlantic during Operation Desert Storm. “It was my first experience flying international. We worked our tails off on the HC130s,” he said.
Operation Northern Watch was headquartered at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. The United States along with coalition partners – United Kingdom and Turkey – formed a combined task force that was charged with enforcing the no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel in Iraq and monitoring Iraqi compliance with several UN Security Council resolutions.
“We were rescue coverage for fighters who were patrolling the northern no-fly zone in Iraq,” Charles said of his 1999 deployment. But during a stop at Aviano Air Base in Italy, he witnessed two F-117s take off for operations in Kosovo. “One of those pilots was shot down and recovered before we got to Incirlik.”
From Incirlik they were sent to Kuwait. Just three days before they thought they were going home, a Presidential recall redirected their unit to Operation Southern Watch in Kuwait. “I spent an additional month there before new crews were sent there. It was a great deployment,” he said.
Witnessing the awe inspiring power of F-117s accelerating off the runway during his first Operation Northern Watch deployment was eclipsed by the turn of events prior to his second deployment to Turkey in 2002. “We had to cancel our full wedding plans due to the deployment,” Charles said smiling and shaking his head. The happy couple exchanged vows in the brand new Southampton Court House on January 25, 2002, instead. It may be a fitting start to married life when one partner is active military. “In some respect I think it is easier on me when I deploy, I’m always working so it’s easy for me to focus. My wife has to deal with all the home and family issues alone.”
After his second Operation Northern Watch deployment, he had two weeks at home before being sent to the Dominican Republic for joint training. It was only ten days but he was still a newlywed and on his return he received orders to return to Kuwait for a new mission, Operation Southern Watch. “I had just seven days to pack and figure out a way to tell Cindy,” he said.
Operation Southern Watch established a no-fly zone over southern Iraq to enforce United Nations Security Council Resolution 688. This resolution primarily directed the protection of Shiite Muslims from attack by Saddam Hussein’s military forces.
The desert landscape felt like being on the moon according to Charles who provided rescue coverage for fighters in the southern no-fly zone during two deployments in 1999 and 2001. “It’s a little surreal when in the Middle East because outside the city there are plastic bags and garbage all over the place while the city is spotless,” he recalled. The sand storms also left an impression. “You see it like a thunder storm in Florida – a wall of rain moving toward you. It’s like a cloud and then you’re in it and it’s completely different from anything you’ve experienced.”
Operation Iraqi Freedom was authorized to rid Iraq of Dictator Saddam Hussein and eliminate his ability to develop weapons of mass destruction.
While providing rescue coverage for all fighters in Iraq, Charles had an adventure that he never wants to experience again. “We were restricted to base except we went out the perimeter to this make-shift market early one morning,” he said explaining that they saw young army guys in the dining hall and invited them to see the planes. “These kids were amazing. It was their job to be in the element where bullets are flying. I was on a midnight and we took them out to the airplane, showed them the equipment, and they asked if we wanted to go outside and see the market.”
Charles got off duty at 6:00 am and three Army guys in a Humvee with a turret-mounted machine gun picked him up at 7:00 am. They had told Charles and his friend to bring their armored vests and helmets but they didn’t think to check out weapons. Fortunately the Army guys brought extra weapons. To get off the base there were three checkpoints: the first was to make sure no one was under duress, the second was a weapons check point where one of the Army guys got up to man the machine gun, and at the third it was lock and load.
“Right outside, a quarter mile off base, they were selling Iraqi money, uniforms from the Republican Guard, and rotisserie chicken. The thing that sticks in my mind is the guys we were with knew the merchant of this store. We figured we would buy money from him. The merchant was living close to the city during the invasion and he lost his arm in a coalition bombing,” he said. He looked right at Charles and told him he was so grateful for them being there. “The injured were medevaced out to Germany and they just appreciated it. The store merchant interpreted this as his price for freedom.”
The group made it back to base without incident but seeing the armed coalition vehicles and realizing the danger just a short distance off base kept him from venturing beyond the perimeter again. As a way to thank the young Army guys, Charles gave them a roll of duct tape and a bag of tent lines. “It was like giving them gold,” he said in amazement. “The guy couldn’t believe I was giving them a whole roll of duct tape.
Operation Enduring Freedom – Horn of Africa was the military operation authorized to combat militant Islamism and piracy in the Horn of Africa.
Charles was deployed in 2007, 2009 and 2015 to provide rescue coverage for joint forces in Djibouti and the surrounding area. “The navy runs the base and the base started to look more like a ship as the years past,” he said describing the tents they lived in during the first deployment, the tents turned into shipping containers during the second, and then stacks of shipping containers when he returned in 2015. That year he had a penthouse suite at the very top of a stack with a nice view of the runway. “I was always on night duty. At eight in the morning I would be woken up by the French Foreign Legion fighters taking off on the runway.”
Despite nine deployments to date, Charles’s most intricate rescue effort occurred out of the Westhampton Beach base. “I just came in to fly a night training line. I got a call from my boss and he said we have a rescue going on. ‘Could you be on it?’ Absolutely,” he stated.
They took off at nine o’clock at night to go into the middle of the ocean. Once on scene, it was around one o’clock in the morning. The captain of a 55-foot sailboat had recently had surgery and his kidneys were shutting down. Three pararescuemen, a boat, and medical supplies were deployed. Charles coordinated the pick up with a tanker that was in the area. Fortunately, it was an English speaking crew, out of Australia, but they almost got killed getting on the tanker. “We saved his life but none of that makes news. There is something about being the anonymous guy that I like. I learned that from senior folks that were around me early in my career, especially Don Cannet,” Charles said speaking of VFW Post 5350 member and employee.
A Future Deployment
Charles is currently planning for his tenth deployment. As with his previous nine deployments, he can’t talk about specific engagements or locations of missions. It is enough to know that his training and experience help to provide a safer world for his fellow airmen and those of us who enjoy the freedoms they defend.