Jackson grad serving in Iraq
Rocky Checca in Iraq
SPOTLIGHT Todd Porter Repository sports writer
This afternoon, when you’re enjoying the holiday with your family, think of Rocky Checca. Or tonight, when you gaze into the air to watch the rockets’ red glare, think of Rocky Checca.
He’ll be thinking of you.
The former standout football player at Jackson High School is in Iraq. Checca is there with the hope of helping to give Iraqis their own Independence Day.
The 26-year-old 1997 Jackson graduate is in the thick of the ugly with the U.S. Marines in Iraq, near Fallujah. He sees what you do on the evening news, except there isn’t a TV screen and a half a world separating him from the worst images of war.
Checca, a 1st lieutenant in the Marine Corps and 2002 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, is a co-pilot on a Marine CH-46E Sea Knight. He flies with the “Purple Foxes” out of Camp Pendleton, Calif.
The Marine’s CH-46 helicopters are 83 feet long and weigh 24,000 pounds. Checca flies casualty evacuations — missions to immediately evacuate the wounded and often times the dead from the battlefield. Most are coordinated with a Cobra attack helicopter, but the CH-46 is capable of fighting its way in and out of a situation.
Most of Checca’s missions take him to an area where a roadside bomb or car bomb has exploded, or where ground troops are engaged with insurgents. Checca’s unit is the only casualty evacuation unit in the Ramadi-Fallujah area, where the insurgent attacks near the Sunni triangle are strongest.
What he’s seen in the back of his helicopter will stay with him for life. The worst image one day can be trumped by something more horrible the next. Checca knows he will see it all again. During the next five years, he could serve two or three more deployments in Iraq.
“There is nothing that can prepare a person to see some of the stuff that I, along with many others, have seen,” Checca said in an e-mail interview conducted during the last month. “Everything from burns over 80 percent of their body, to missing limbs, to just flat out being a bloody mess. I can’t tell you how many times after flying missions, the back of the helicopters have had to be washed out with a pressure washer because of the pools of blood. We have landed in places after an IED (improvised explosive device) went off ... and saw Marines or soldiers still putting body parts into a body bag.”
There is no time to think when a rocket-propelled grenade buzzes past the aircraft. Today, you’ll look in awe at fireworks. In Iraq, it’s another day, but Checca could very well watch a rocket-propelled grenade whiz past his CH-46.
“It will be just like any other day here,” Checca said, never lamenting that the Fourth of July here is just the fourth of July there. “Unfortunately, insurgents could care less about our Independence Day. They will keep on doing what they are doing, so we have to keep on doing what we are doing.”
War isn’t easy. No one ever told him it would be. Checca made the choice to enter the military. It made the decision that he was bright enough to fly helicopters.
Flying isn’t the roughest part. It’s the mental part that wears on a man’s mind.
“The hardest part for me is separating the emotion you feel from concentrating on flying and doing your job,” Checca said. “It used to be very upsetting for me just to see this stuff on TV, and now it’s happening 10 feet behind me in the helicopter.”
Checca, the son of Al and Donna Checca, grew up in Perry Township. Because his father teaches and coaches at Jackson High School, he was a two-way performer for the Polar Bears. He’s heard the analogies between war and football. His father, Al, even remembers telling players over the years they were going to war together on a football field.
“Not anymore,” Al Checca said. “Football isn’t war. Football is a game.”
But there are correlations.
“There is a similarity in the fact that perseverance, teamwork, training, hard work, and mental and physical toughness will serve you well in both sports and in combat,” Rocky Checca said. “There is also a similarity in the way you prepare a game plan and study film for a football game with the way you plan for an operation or flight.
“There is the drive and not wanting to let your teammate or fellow pilot down (each CH-46 is flown by a pilot and co-pilot) or those guys on the ground that are depending on you. So in that aspect, those lessons do prepare you to deal with what we are experiencing over here.”
But football is a game. No one leaves in a helicopter, bloodied and burned, or dead.
“Everyone that goes to or plays in that game on Friday night gets to go home when it’s over,” Checca said. “That is not the case here. ... People die. I have seen it up close and personal.”
Checca’s missions aren’t only to make sure troops get to medical attention. They also serve Iraqis, and yes, even the insurgents.
“Flying POW insurgents ... that is hard because you are pissed off the whole time,” Checca said. “I personally would much rather see them bleed out. That sounds barbaric, but after seeing what some of these wackos do to our guys, you would understand. The only thing that makes you treat them like everyone else is the fact that as a professional, it’s your duty. ... On top of that, if we can save their life, and interrogate them afterward, it may save the lives of Americans down the road.”
Not everyone lives.
The Purple Foxes will tell you they take the injured and the angels.
Checca is both hardened and compassionate. Two weeks ago, a bomb that exploded around midnight killed five Marines north of Ramadi.
“I had to fly and pick up the ‘angels’ very early that morning and take them to Taqaddum,” Checca said. “After they loaded them on the helicopter, the commanding officer of 1st Battalion 5th Marines, a lieutenant colonel, came on the helicopter and told us that there would be a Marine coming with us to escort the bodies back to Taqaddum.
“We thought that was weird because we don’t carry passengers and ‘angels’ at the same time for obvious reasons. He then proceeded to tell us that the Marine escort was the twin brother of one of the Marines killed, and he did not want to be separated from his brother. That was a little hard to swallow.”
Many of the flights are uneventful, but “there is no such thing as a routine flight,” Checca said. “It is much like swimming with the sharks. One moment, you’re splashing, laughing and having fun in the ocean. And the next minute, your legs have been bitten off. You have to have your head in the game every minute, every day. All it takes is one guy sitting on a rooftop with an RPG.”
The mission Checca can’t get out of his mind is March 25, when car bomb killed nine and injured 22. Four CH-46s went in. Checca and Capt. Chad “Deuce” Dupill from Pittsburgh were in the lead aircraft.
“We landed, and it was a mess,” Checca said.
About 15 seconds after takeoff, it got worse. The crew chiefs radioed to break hard right.
“As we did, about nine tracer rounds (50 bullets) and a rocket passed the left side of the helicopter,” Checca said. “We flew back and dropped those people off to get surgery and saved a lot of lives. Needless to say, I had to change my underwear after that one.”
The CH-46’s equipment defeats rockets and weapons that track aircraft 95 percent of the time, Checca said.
But insurgents “study and adapt to our tactics,” he said. “They change theirs, which forces us to change ours. ... Some of the stuff they come up with is pretty scary and very clever.”
Today is the Fourth of July. It’s our Independence Day. A world away, it’s another day of war for Rocky Checca.
He hopes to return home this fall for a break before, most likely, heading back to Iraq.
He goes to work each day with the memory of fallen comrades on his wrist.
Maj. Kevin Shea, Capt. Richard Gannon, 1st Lt. Ron Winchester and 2nd Lt. J.P. Blecksmith all died in Iraq. They were friends of Checca’s. Each played football at some level.
Checca wears a green rubber bracelet on his left wrist with the name Winchester.
“I’ve had it on since the day we left the U.S., and have not taken it off nor will I until we are done here,” Checca said. “It serves as a daily reminder to me. ... All four of these guys were in the back of a Marine CH-46 either fatally wounded or already declared dead.
“Anytime it is hot, or I feel tired ... all I have to do is look down and realize the people that are depending on us to fly them out of whatever situation they are in.
“I have seen some things I don’t ever want to see again, but know that I will.”
Checca has realized much in his short time there. He misses the United States for sure. But he has come to terms with the worst.
“There are people here who really do want to kill you,” he said. “I don’t sit around and think about it. ... You have to come to terms with the fact of what is possible and accept it. Once you do that, you do your job to the best of your ability and you don’t think about the what-ifs.”
You can reach Repository sports writer Todd Porter at (330) 580-8340 or e-mail: