The sorties are "grueling"—three hours just to get to the target—so the whole wing has to refuel three or four times en route. "Imagine a gas station in the sky, with 10 cars turning in...at once," he wrote. "You can't get out of the way if anybody screws up. If you run out of gas, you crash. And they won't be coming to pick you up in an ambulance."
From planes with I LOVE NY written on the tail, he and his squadron drop bombs night after night. I asked him if he ever thinks about the fact that he may be killing people. "No," he wrote. "When you deliver weapons, it's just a target. It's not about taking human life. It's about breaking their will to wage war."
Then there are the nighttime landings onto a ship that looks like a Kleenex bobbing in the black sea. "Man, my heart is beating like crazy," wrote Chip, a former linebacker at Randolph-Macon College outside Richmond. "It's kind of like heaving a game-winning Hail Mary at the end. I know that's when I'm like those athletes, I'm in the zone."
I asked him if he's scared. "Nervous, maybe. Proud. Not scared. I haven't had time to think about myself. I've got five other Tomcats and 20 other support planes out there to worry about."
It's been more than three months since he's seen his wife and three daughters. "Every time I talk to my wife, she breaks out crying," he wrote. "It's been hard on the kids. I worry about our youngest. This is the first deployment that she is really old enough to understand. Unfortunately, she understands too much."
Last Friday night his middle daughter was crowned a homecoming princess at her high school. "Her swim coach is driving her around in my ' 65 'Vette," he wrote forlornly. "God, how I wish I could be there!"
His e-mails have changed me a little. Now, when I find myself sweating stupid stuff, like a hotel room on too high a floor or whether I'll be able to take the guy in seat 14C, I think about Chip dodging Taliban missiles with his gas needle on E. I thank God there are men with that much guts and skill wearing the uniform. I also worry that one morning the e-mails will stop.
"How's Michael Jordan look?" he asked in his latest one. "That guy's my hero."
Yeah, well, over here, some of us are finding new ones.