Sunday, April 15, 2012

Former Yuma pilot an award-winning author

One day Mike “Zack” Franzak was going through an old cardboard box packed with things from his deployment to Afghanistan when he found three military log books he had used to keep a journal.

“There were some old ghosts in there,” Franzak, a retired lieutenant colonel with the Marine Corps, said about the box.

That cardboard box also included his Distinguished Flying Medal. “I pulled out those log books and started reading them and I got emotional. I thought, wow, there might be some material in here that might make a book.”

Those journals became the basis for the first-time author's award-winning book “A Nightmare's Prayer: A Marine Harrier Pilot's War in Afghanistan.” The book gives his first-person account of the combat missions he flew during the early days of the Afghanistan campaign.

The first book ever to be published by a Marine Harrier pilot, “A Nightmare's Prayer” was also chosen as the 2012 William E. Colby Award winner.

Franzak explained the book is more than the air war in Afghanistan as seen from the cockpit of a fighter. It's one man's thoughts of how the war would be, what he would accomplish and how that changed as he went through his time there.

“There is a little bit about flying, but there is a lot more about life and what goes on inside a man's head, and the guilt and emotions he may feel. It is an emotional book. It is a no-holds-barred look. There isn't any fluff. It is the real deal.”

Franzak was an AV-8B Marine Corps Harrier pilot who served as executive officer of Marine Corps Air Station Yuma's VMA-513, The Flying Nightmares, while deployed in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2003. The squadron was the first to base Harriers in Bagram in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

After thinking about it for about a month, Franzak, who says he was never better than a C student in English, said he finally decided he had to write the book.

“I just decided like a lot of things I do in life that I would rather not think about it or talk about it, I would rather do it,” said Franzak, a contract pilot who lives in Raleigh, N.C., with his wife, son and daughter.

Writing first with pen and paper, he would get up at 4:30 every morning and work on his book for two hours because he did not want to take time away from his wife and children. It took a year, but he finally finished the book.

Although proud of his accomplishment, Franzak said he knew after having some friends read the book that he had done just about everything wrong in writing it and that it would never be published the way it was.

He realized there was no way to salvage what he had written, so he decided to start over and rewrote the first chapter, putting everything aside, writing for one person, with that person being himself.

“I didn't write it for anybody else to enjoy. When I went to go write again, I wrote for me, and I wrote without any rules. So when I wrote the second time, I tore loose. After I read that first chapter, I started crying. Then I said, well if I can bring out that much emotion in myself, I can do it.”

After another year of writing, Franzak finished the book for a second time and began sending it off to various publishing companies. Simon and Schuster eventually bought his manuscript and published the book in 2010.

“When I finished the book, I knew it was good,” Franzak said.

Although he flew many combat missions while in Afghanistan, Franzak said he dropped ordnance only twice. In both of those instances, he said, he was the first Harrier to arrive to the area to provide ground support.

“You do your best to support the guys on the ground, who you may not be able to see, whose life depends on you,” said Franzak, who went to Afghanistan as a major and was promoted to lieutenant colonels.

“It was sad to go provide ground support somewhere, only to learn someone had died and there wasn't anything you could do about it. It was difficult.”

Franzak said flying combat missions was a grind and every day started to become the same.

“It was like ‘Groundhog Day.' Your missions are long, four or five hours. I even flew some missions that were seven hours long.”

For Franzak, the hardest of those missions were the ones called the Dawn Patrol. He said pilots who flew these missions would take off at around 2 a.m. and return to base shortly after sunrise. Most of the time, the pilots were flying around the country waiting to respond to what are known as TICs, or troops in contact, reports.

“Basically you live like a vampire because you adjust your schedule to where you get up when the sun sets and you go to bed when it comes up.”

Franzak said he did not want his book to be narrative about his emotional life during his deployment, instead wanting to focus on the personal issues he had to sort through.

“This was the first time I was going to war, going into harm's way. I was leaving behind a wife and a 1-year-old son. And I found that very difficult to do. Nevertheless, I love my country and I went over there with high expectations of doing right and helping to accomplish our objectives.”

Over the course of the squadron's year in Afghanistan, the six Harriers flew nearly 4,000 hours, with each pilot flying in excess of 300 hours. Only one plane was lost, and that happened when it plunged off the end of the hard-scrabble runway at Kabul Air Base. Luckily, no one was hurt in the incident.