Captain Robert R. Safreno
Updated: Jul 12, 2020
I recall being in grammar school one day when the teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. Inspired by an old helmet sitting around at home, I proudly declared that I wanted to be a pilot. Years later, after becoming a navigator, I earned my pilot’s license. In college, I attend Air Force ROTC, and upon graduation, I was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant. As a result, rather than graduating in a cap and gown as most students wear, I graduated in an Air Force uniform.
I didn’t have any problems at all adapting to military life. There just wasn’t anything I felt
was harder than learning any other job. They teach you a lot of information, a lot of which you
use and some you don’t use. I went to navigation training in the southern tip of Texas.
Depending on your classroom standing you get to pick your assignments, and I wanted to go back to California. I decided I wanted to become a navigator in a B-52 bomber.
After five years, they sent me to North Dakota to train and command Minuteman missile systems. I arrived early and was part of the crew that was testing and accepting most of the missile sites at the base from the Boeing Aircraft Company. I learned almost every aspect of them; from how to control the missiles and how to launch them to a designated target. I spent almost five years there before receiving orders to deploy to Vietnam in a Gunships.
During my one year deployment, I was in an AC119-G gunship, and my duties were to navigate rain or shine in a country that’s almost all jungle. Our chew expended over 5 million rounds of bullets, and countless flares to save numerous lives and stop attacks by unfriendly troops on the troops we were trying to defend. I remember once in Cambodia when I was flying, we were going to help some troops on the ground who were completely surrounded by “bad guys.” I saw countless mortars and
machine guns, with tracer bullets lighting up the field. We readied two Gatling guns and I looked through my night scope at the field with two triggers and thumb switches. I controlled the searchlight and the pilot could see my crosshairs with his gunsight. Once he puts the two sights together, he could aim his gun accurately and pull the trigger. It looked like a big flame spinning in the circle; I can see now why they called it “Puff the Magic Dragon.” When we started shooting, I didn’t know we were caught in a trap. All of a sudden, six machine gun sights locked on us and we were getting shot by tracer bullets all around us. My sights closed, which only happens when the sun comes out. As it turns out, a rocket had just gone by us and exploded. We pulled off target, reorganize went back in, shot all of our bullets, and got the hell out of there. However, we were back on target three more days. This was only the first mission of four days of intense combat that I witnessed. In the end, a newspaper
reported that there were over 2,000 bodies found in the river nearby. After I flew about 225 combat missions I was sent home.
Upon returning back to the United States, I became a bombardier on a B-52; in other words, I was the officer that drop bombs. After completing training again, my crew went for temporary duty Guam. From there we flew into Vietnam, where I dropped over 1 million pounds of bombs and completed another 40 combat missions. The military services were going through a reduction in military service members. Because I did not gain a promotion, I was discharged from Military service.
Army recruiters were interviewing my three boys about going into military service. They talked to me about completing my service in the National Guard to get Military retirement pay. I spent 8 years in the National Guard and retired as an O-3 or Captain.
My service didn’t really affect me adversely. I never had any post-traumatic stress nor
the nightmares that many people suffer. In fact, after my training, I found my work easy to do.
The trouble is, I did so much classified work (in Vietnam), you get into a whole different philosophy. The government can do what it wants or needs to do, but the only people that knew what I did were the troops that were with me and a branch of the government. Nobody else on the base knew what we did. I found this crazy; how many other people are out there doing this kind of work without the civilian world knowing what they were doing?
One thing I learned is that if you go into a Military service, you need someone to guide your career, to take you under their wing. If you don’t, you’ll make mistakes, and if you make mistakes you won’t get the promotions you need to keep going. Though the military looks for educated people, there was a man I knew who was a full Colonel (O-6) without a college degree. He had someone take him under their wing and next thing he knew, he was getting assignments from the Pentagon.