On his first flight for operation Provide Comfort on April 8, 1991, one week before a ceasefire would be reached in the Persian Gulf War, U.S. Air Force 1st Lieut. Chad Hennings of the 92nd Tactical Fighter Squadron was maneuvering an A-10 attack plane over northern Iraq, searching for Kurdish refugee camps. Hennings, cruising 5,000 feet above a valley floor at 350 mph, was making sure the area was safe for three C-130 airlift planes to bring food, tents and medical supplies to the Kurds.
"We were flying into the unknown," Hennings recalls. "We knew there were Iraqi Republican Guard troops in the area, but we didn't know whether they'd fire on us. Anytime you fly into a situation you've never been in, you have no choice but to be brave. You have to laugh in fear's face. But if you don't respect the danger of the unknown, you'll get killed."
Following a sensational senior football season at the Air Force Academy in 1987, when he won the Outland Trophy as the nation's top interior lineman and was named a consensus All-America at defensive tackle, Hennings entered the elite Euro-NATO pilot program, in which the Air Force trains its top pilot candidates. For the next three years he dreamed of testing his piloting skills in a war zone—and of exploring the depth of his courage.
As he flashed above an Iraqi convoy in his A-10, he was finally experiencing the moment he had been waiting for. His adrenaline was pumping. But the Iraqis did not open fire, so he doubled back and helped escort the three supply planes to a relief area. As crate after crate parachuted to the ground, he circled overhead and kept an eye out for the enemy.
"All those people on the ground scurrying for supplies looked like ants crawling over picnic food," Hennings says. "The Kurds were devastated by dysentery and diarrhea. Little kids were dying. Families would drive up into the mountains to escape, abandon their cars at the snow line, then walk further into the mountains. So many didn't survive.
"Coming out of the Academy, I was really gung ho. I wanted to die for my country. I wanted adventure, risk, to roll the dice and see if I'd win. But, to be honest, it takes a certain spirituality to give up your life for your country, for a friend or for someone you don't know, which is the biggest sacrifice. I wasn't totally convinced I had that until I flew in the Persian Gulf. Then I knew I had what it takes."
Hennings flew 45 Operation Provide Comfort missions, totaling 195 hours of flight time during two three-month deployments covering April to June 1991 and October '91 to January '92. He earned medals for humanitarianism, air achievement and being a member of an outstanding unit. On June 1 of this year, he was promoted to captain.
Now Hennings, 26, is on another mission, trying to find out if he has the right stuff to succeed in the NFL. When the Dallas Cowboys open training camp next week, Hennings will be the most decorated and longest-awaited Cowboy rookie since Navy quarterback Roger Staubach showed up in 1969 after completing a four-year military hitch, which included shore duty in Vietnam. Dallas hadn't invested much in Staubach—a mere 10th-round draft pick in 1964—but wound up with a franchise player. Staubach took the Cowboys to six NFC title games, four Super Bowls and two NFL championships in his 11-year career.
Dallas has great hopes for Hennings, who also slid well down into the draft because of his service commitment and wasn't taken until Dallas selected him in the 11th round in 1988. Four years later, the 6'6" Hennings reported to the Cowboys for a workout weighing 272 pounds, 12 more than at the Air Force Academy, and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds. Although that's .15 of a second slower than his best time as a senior, it was faster than the times posted by all but one defensive lineman at the NFL scouting combine last winter. Hennings has been penciled in at backup defensive end, behind nine-year vet Jim Jeff coat.
"Because of the position Chad plays, the timing and skills he may have lost are not as big a concern as they would be with a quarterback, receiver or defensive back," says Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson. "Those are finesse positions, with more emphasis on hand-eye coordination and ball skills. The defensive line is physical, down-in-the-trenches, hand-to-hand combat. With the right attitude, you can jump back into it."