War From the Pilot’s Seat
Almost a decade ago, Marine Corp Harrier pilot Maj. Michael Franzak was sitting in a C-130 transport carrying him and VMA-513 “Flying Nightmares” from Yuma, Ariz., to Cherry Point, where they would fly their single-seat jets half-way around the world and several millennia back in time.
As he considered the months ahead, Franzak thought about Odysseus and his adventures.
“I wondered of my own tale, and what fate had in store and how it would unfold,” he says. “If it was already written and if so, could it be changed or not. And if given the last chapter would I read it, or simply ask the number of the final page so that I might gauge the thickness.”
It was then that he decided to begin a journal recording his own odyssey. He reached into his flight bag, pulled out a logbook, and wrote: “Franzak, 7 Oct 2002. Day One. Our squadron deployed this morning for combat operations in Afghanistan.”
During his deployment, which stretched from the standard six months to a seemingly endless year-long ordeal physically, mentally and emotionally, he filled journal after journal. He wrote about the notorious AV-8B Harrier, dubbed “The Widow-Maker” with its less-than-impressive safety record (the Harrier had the highest rate of major accidents of any military plane in service), flying the “vampire schedule” at night over the most forbidding terrain in the world, where granite peaks reached 24,000 feet and where “the weather was more dangerous than the al-Qaida.”
He wrote of his mission to provide air cover — “a protective blanket” — over “the grunts” as they patrolled one of the most heavily mined areas in the most heavily mined countries in the world, where increasingly brazen al-Qaida and Taliban fighters introduced a new weapon — an improvised explosive device (IED). He wrote of the enemy who possessed “magical powers,” appearing out of nowhere, wreaking havoc, and then disappearing without a trace.
He admitted to being terrified that the men and women he was sent to protect were dying on his watch. He wrote of trying to “cut a deal” with God to keep them alive in the seconds before he could reach them, and then having a nightmare’s prayer answered.
During the days that turned to weeks and then months of “the forgotten war,” he wrote over and over again, “Was I making a difference?”
When Franzak, now a lieutenant colonel, returned from combat in 2003, he put his journals in a cardboard box with memorabilia from his time in Afghanistan, and added the Distinguished Flying Cross (second only to the Congressional Medal of Honor) he was awarded in 2005. Fifty years from now, he told himself, he would share it all with his son, Caleb, who was only a year old when he was deployed.
Several years ago, Franzak, who retired from the Marines in 2006, found the box in his basement, and he decided to write a book about his experiences.
“I did a lot of reading and research,” he says, “to put my experiences into the bigger picture.” He married his journals with his flight log and contemporary coverage. After writing for a year, he showed his sister his manuscript. “She told me it was ‘not ready for prime time,’” Franzak recalls. “It read like a report. ‘There’s no character, no voice.’ Nothing could be salvaged.”
Heartbroken, he began again. “I rewrote the first chapter and when I read it, I started crying,” he admits. “That’s when I knew I was getting it right.” He worked on it for another year, and in June “A Nightmare’s Prayer: A Marine Harrier Pilot’s War in Afghanistan” was published by Simon & Schuster.
On Monday, Nov. 1, at 2 p.m. in the auditorium at North Penick Village in Southern Pines, Michael “Zak” Franzak will share what Gen. Anthony Zinni says is a “brilliant and moving account of the war in Afghanistan from a unique perspective. As a Marine Harrier pilot, he offers an unvarnished and honest view of combat in this strange land. ‘A Nightmare’s Prayer’ is a must read for all those who see an exceptional insight into a complex war.”
“We are honored to host Lt. Col. Franzak at Penick Village,” says Bonnie Johnson, manager of The Country Bookshop. “He and his squadron flew more than a hundred missions protecting the 82nd Airborne Special Ops forces who were fighting in Operation Enduring Freedom. We are grateful to our community partners at Penick Village for providing a space large enough to hold all the people who will want to meet and hear Col. Franzak, and to thank him personally for his service.”
In addition to sharing his experiences, Franzak will also show photos from his extensive collection taken while in Afghanistan.
Franzak is donating a portion of his royalties from “A Nightmare’s Prayer” to TAPS, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
“I decided that I wanted to do good after I came home from Afghanistan and then I found TAPS,” he says. The nonprofit organization, founded in 1994, “helps with funeral arrangements, grief counseling, case-work assistance and peer-based emotional support. It is a 24/7 tragedy assistance resource.”
Franzak is now a contract pilot who “goes to places like Afghanistan, but instead of flying bombs, I fly ice cream, parts and people around. It’s not as exciting,” he admits, “but I kind of like that.” He lives in Raleigh with his wife, Katie, and their children, Caleb and Zoe.
The Meet the Author event will be held in the auditorium at North Penick Village at 100 E Rhode Island Extension, Southern Pines.
For information call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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