After Iraqis shot down Ron Young’s helicopter in hostile territory, he spent 23 harrowing days in captivity before being rescued. To get his story, Townley caught up with this veteran adventurer for a run on a wooded trail along Georgia’s Chattahoochee River and learned that the young soldier never abandoned the values he’d learned in Scouting.
Perched in the front seat of his Apache Longbow attack helicopter, Ron Young flew north into Iraq. It was March 23, 2003, two days after the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Silver light from the Arabian moon illuminated the suburbs surrounding the town of Karbala and painted the landscape with the shadows of 18 American helicopters, which were skimming treetops and pounding homes and fields with the downwash from their rotors.
As the helicopters flew farther north, red tracers from Iraqi antiaircraft installations began streaking upward, sporadically at first. Then everything changed. “All of a sudden, all hell broke loose,” Ron explained. “I don’t know how else to describe it; just a wall of lead. [It] didn’t let up for 25 solid minutes.” A bullet finally punched into the fuselage, and the Apache lost its weapons system. Ron continued to guide Dave Williams, the back-seat pilot, through the maze of tracers as best he could. “I’m screaming at Dave, ‘Turn left, turn left! Okay, turn right, turn right!’” the 26-year-old combat rookie remembered.
“All this time,” Ron continued, “the Iraqis are getting better and better. Bullets are getting closer and closer. I’m still yelling at [Dave], ‘Faster, faster, lower, lower!’ All of a sudden these tracers come up to us, and the aircraft shakes, shudders, yaws to the left, and leans back. I said, ‘Dave, what are you doing? Don’t slow down!’ He screamed at me that we lost an engine. I start smelling smoke and powder. Dave screams out, ‘They got me in the foot!’ At that point, I pretty much knew we were going down.”
Their Apache slammed its tail into the field below, and then its nose came crashing down, mercifully leaving the aircraft upright. The two crewmembers scrambled out of the cockpit and started running. “We’re pilots and we’re on the ground,” Ron explained. “That’s a baaad situation! We probably ran 20 feet and Dave screams, ‘My foot, my foot!’ Dave’s 5 feet 9 inches; I’m 6 feet 4 inches, and I grab him by his vest and start screaming at him and tried to instill the same fear of God in him that I’ve got in me. There ain’t no ‘I can’t run’ at this point!”
Getting shot down in Iraq just stoked chopper pilot Ron Young's quest for adventure: on a trail, on a bike, or in the mountains.
The two pilots sprinted through the chaos around them and dove into a ditch as an American jet laid bombs into a tree line close by. Shooting and explosions were everywhere as Iraqi forces aimed up at American aircraft, and the aircraft rained ordnance down at the ground. The two fugitives hurtled through fields and waded across irrigation ditches, trying to put distance between themselves and the search parties forming at their disabled helicopter.
“Finally,” Ron said, “I heard something and hit the ground and looked up and saw a bunch of Iraqis moving toward us. I’ve got this 9 millimeter pistol, and I remember thinking that I didn’t want Dave to be mad at me for getting him killed. ‘What do you want to do Dave,’ I asked. ‘Want to take off running, want me to start shooting, or want to give ourselves up?’ They’ll kill us if we start running, I have 15 pistol rounds against an Iraqi patrol with AK-47s, so I really couldn’t work with that, and we felt the only way to live through it was to give ourselves up.”
Minutes later the [Iraqi] patrol reached the downed aviators. A boot connected with Ron’s head, and he blacked out. When he came to, he found himself bound, lying on the ground, and looking at Dave. A soldier had pulled Dave’s head back by the hair and had a knife pressed against his throat. Ron instantly understood what they were facing.
The patrol dragged their bound captives from one house to another, trying to avoid the bombings. The treatment was rough, and the interrogations sometimes brutal. The Iraqi troops were scared and angry. Regardless of what decisions had been made to cause the war, the reality was this: Their hometown was under attack. American bombs endangered their families, their homes, their businesses, and their lives. The two airmen they had captured had been dropping those bombs.
To make them even angrier, the bombing became more intense over the next week. “Finally, I was thinking this is it—the real it. Being in the cell after getting interrogated, realizing we’re getting close to these guys just executing us and walking away. Every day the bombing was getting worse and worse. Everything was going up around us.”
Fortunately for Ron, death never came, although he spent each day thinking [that] he wouldn’t see the next sunrise.
As we took a break from our run, I asked him, “Really, did you think you’d make it out [of Iraq] alive?
“Oh, no,” he said without hesitating. “I was just hoping it’d be quick.
“You know a lot of people would think that it was enough adventure for anybody for a lifetime,” I commented, looking out at the river, knowing full well that Ron has only picked up his pace since returning from Iraq.
“No, what you find is exactly the opposite,” Ron said, giving [his Labrador] Mabry an appreciated rub behind the ears. “It’s like the same feeling I get just before I go head-first over the handlebars on my mountain bike!”
“I always had that streak where I had to have something to keep the adrenaline going,” he explained, remembering his days in Scouting. “From the time I was young, I really saw my life being about the quality of experiences I’d have. The only things you’ll always carry are experiences, so you always need to challenge yourself.
“When I was in China [as a student], I felt like I was alive. When I was on the river [as a rafting guide] I felt like I was alive. When I studied engineering, I felt like I was alive because I was achieving something and pushing myself forward. That’s an Eagle Scout trait, I think, wanting to be alive like that.”
Ron’s experiences in Scouting had shown him what life could offer and reminded him how he wanted to live. “This’ll sound weird,” he said, “but I do things based on the questions: ‘Will my grandkids want to hear about this?’ ‘Will they be intrigued by this person who is their grandfather?’”
(Read more about Ron’s adventures at home and abroad in Spirit of Adventure.)
As Townley and Ron neared the end of their run along the river, Ron reflected on his ordeal and the challenges faced by his fellow soldiers, including a friend who lost his life in combat.
“There are a lot of people in our armed services that are willing to make those kinds of sacrifices on behalf of people who will never even know or understand the sacrifices people make for them on a daily basis. And the reason they do that is because they grew up with certain values, like what we take from the Scout Oath and Scout Law.”
Ron almost didn’t live to see the age of 26, so he is one of those rare people who truly appreciate each day. Townley found his story and appreciation for Scouting particularly important, and saw those values echoed in many other Eagle Scouts. One was Burton Roberts.
Yours in Scouting Service
Great Alaska COuncil
Eagle Scout OA Brotherhood Member
NSJ '05 WSJ '07 '11 Philmont AA '08