War Story, the last. Part One.

I highlighted this memory in Chapter 12, but I thought I’d provide a little more of the details.  


Do you know what they call an undergraduate Air Force pilot who graduates last in his class?  “Drone Pilot.”  How hypocritical of me even to suggest.  Hey, I’m retired, I’m on a government pension; what the hell?  I shouldn’t talk.  I never even made it to pilot training.  I flunked out.  Not even a drone pilot.  I never got to be “last in class.”    

Before I go any further, it’s important to realize that the drone pilots of today are heroes.  Heroes because they do our nation’s dirty work.  Nobody wants to know what they do.  About 100 drone missions are flown every day.  365 days a year.  While most missions are ISR only (that’s lingo for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), a fair number of them are for hunting.  Yes, hunting.  Monitoring high-value targets.  Hunting terrorists who are determined to do us harm.  Another drone strike last night?  Was it Somalia, Yemen, or Afghanistan?  A few more HVTs (high-value targets) are dead.  Most of the drone pilots are 10,000 miles from their targets.  Working from air-conditioned vans in the Nevada desert, these pilots work in the safety of an Air Force base.  They get to go home after their shift.  They also get PTSD.  

Many of them continue to suffer from the realities of the war they face every day.  They suffer even if they’re half a world away from the war zone.  These pilots are at war every day they go to work, but they are not eligible to join the “Veterans of Foreign Wars.”  To join the VFW, you need to have served in a war zone.  The Nevada desert is hot, but it is not a war zone.  So, nobody buys them drinks at the Legion.  

After four years in D.C., I left the Imagery Ground Station and landed a job in the NRO’s R&D group.  I got to stay another four years in D.C.  The brigadier general who hired me wanted a senior lieutenant colonel for the position.  Preferably one with a Ph.D.  I explained that I hoped he would rather have someone who could do the job.  General Don Walker sat back in his chair and hired me on the spot.  Don was known throughout the NRO as “Vapor Man.”  The rumors were that some of his ideas were so far out there nobody could believe they’d work.  Don managed a large headquarters staff of which R&D was a relatively small group.  I would be overseeing the “exploitation budget.”  My account or portfolio was a significant chunk of $150 million.  After all, I was the junior person on the staff, why give me serious money? 

The R&D group was truly a group of absent-minded professors, and they were all literally rocket scientists. I, on the other hand, was an Air Force major with a degree in psychology. On my first day, I strolled around introducing myself and meeting all the Ph.Ds. I noticed that their offices had bookshelves full of old textbooks and reference material. Most of it, probably written by Einstein himself. In my office, by contrast, there was nothing. A desk, a window, and of course, an empty floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. What could I bring? Maybe my textbook on abnormal psychology or the organic chemistry book where I proudly earned an A. Nope, just didn’t seem right. The next day I showed up with only two books. On my floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, I placed only two books. The first was “365 ways to cook hamburger.” and the second was “How to buy a used sailboat.” At least my books were things you could use. 

I was about seventy years younger than most of the other members of R&D, and we had almost zero in common.  Each of the major national laboratories was represented, Sandia, Los Alamos, the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins.  Only the Chief and I didn’t have our doctorate.  Our boss, the Chief, was Lee Hammerstrum.  Lee was a senior executive-level scientist from the Naval Research Lab.  He had only a bachelor’s degree but was a certified genius.  Rumor was, sitting at a bar with a few of his friends, Lee worked out the technical details of flying a cluster of satellites in close proximity.  This was crucial if you cared about “time difference of arrival.”  With satellites closely coupled, and the right radar placed on board, the Navy could now track hostile ships across the seven oceans.  Lee was a genius, a hero, and my boss.  

Back to my millions of dollars.  About $20 million went to fund Eastman Kodak for the various work they did on optical systems and research into film and various exploitation efforts.  Another $20 million went to Eastman Kodak for the NRO’s film and chemistry needs.  I flew to Kodak in Rochester, New York weekly.  I never bought a meal.  

The rest of my money, your tax dollars, went to various projects at various “think tanks and skunk works” around the country.  To distribute the money, I sat on numerous panels to review proposals and vet projects. Technically, I couldn’t allocate funds unilaterally.  There was a process to make sure it was fair.  Then the Persian War happened.  Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait and steal their oil.  Now, Iraq already had the second-largest oil reserves in the world, but I guess you can never have enough money or be too skinny.  We were going to war.  

A funny thing happens when our nation goes to war, the laws remain, but the rules get thrown out.  I remember sitting in Don Walker’s office with Lee.  No need to bring a pencil, I wouldn’t need notes.  Don proceeded to explain to me the concept of finding what couldn’t be found.  I should say at this point that calling a general officer by his first name, while it was customary in the NRO, was a bit disconcerting.  Anyway, Don “Vapor Man” Walker told me to go to Bethesda, Maryland, to this small office building and talk to an old guy named Tom.  

This was ten months before the first shooting in the first Gulf War.  The good Iraq War.  The war to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.  And so, I was briefed on the early plans to liberate Kuwait.  We were going in, not if, but when.  I knew the plan.  It wasn’t public.  I quietly built up the infrastructure to fight a war.  

After my meeting in Bethesda, I reported back to Don.  

What a bunch of cuckoos,” I said.  

The CEO looked like an unmade bed, and one eye had a habit of looking in the other direction from his other eye.  All they wanted to talk about was crop yields, grain reports and pork belly futures.  

“Put them on contract,” Don said.  

“The money would be better spent if Lillian and I went to Jamacia,” I replied.  

“Probably so,” he agreed.  But I did put them on contract.  Even if you can call a general officer by their first name, they can be very persuasive. 


  1. Gary, what did you do to poor Eastman Kodak? In the 1990s, it was a successful company, stock at an all-time high. A decade or so later it is bankrupt.

    This is probably the same question: I have been reading all of your blogs and all I see is film, film, film. Hasn’t satellite imagery gone digital?


    p.s. Are you in LA yet?



    • Good questions

      I started working at the NRO Ground Station 35 years ago.  The satellites and data from space was all digital.  This had replaced the film systems I worked on until then. 

      Once the digital data was received at the Ground Station, we would write it onto film for distribution to customers.  This was the cheapest way to get data to the hundreds of customers we had.  It would take 15-20 years for all the customers to convert to all digital. 

      I know it sounds a bit crazy but when I started with the NRO in 1986, only one or two images would fit on a reel of tape.  In the 35 years since then, data storage, image compression, displays and transmission rates have improved quite a bit.

      Gee thanks George, I now feel really old.

      From: Bound for Glory Reply-To: Date: Tuesday, October 5, 2021 at 12:47 PM To: Gary Zelinski Subject: [Bound for Glory] Comment: “War Story, the last. Part One.”


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