Retired Maj. Mike Banzet spent most of his Air Force career doing what he loved: flying. He was a crew chief on F-4s, F-16s and F-117s, and, after Officer Training School, he piloted KC-10s. He remembers being in the air days after 9/11 to see the “towers still smoking.”
But his most memorable experience came at the end of his career — deploying to Iraq for his fifth or sixth time — for a boots-on-the-ground mission.
Banzet spent a year in Iraq as a flight training instructor for the Iraqi coalition air force in 2008. He recently self-published a memoir, “A Flowershop in Baghdad,” detailing what he calls a “humbling experience.”
“Hundreds of thousands of [service members] have gone to Iraq, that’s nothing new,” Banzet said. “But working with this cadre of men — who knew that we, as Americans, may have killed their family members during the war — they still called us the ‘friendly side,’ and that was astonishing,” Banzet said.
In spite of everything, the Iraqi coalition members with whom he worked trusted Air Force leadership more than many of their fellow Iraqis, Banzet said.
“I just want for the word to get out about how courageous the Iraqis are, how well we [Americans] conduct warfare and how compassionate this mission was,” Banzet said. “There’s all this good stuff that did happen [in Iraq] that the American people don’t necessarily see because it doesn’t get talked about. As a result of every soldier, Marine, sailor, airman who went over there and conducted themselves in an honorable manner, it made a difference,” Banzet said.
Banzet, who retired in 2010, has dozens of stories from that year: the Iraqi pilots’ dedication to everything they did, especially training themselves to speak English by listening to translation coming out of one headphone while listening with the other ear for mortar rounds nearby; trips he took off-base to visit schools and facilities in need of restoration; and the good banter and laughter he had with his Coalition Air Force Transition Team members, who also became his friends.
He used pseudonyms for the names of the Iraqi coalition members he worked with to protect their identities. He said he still emails with some members often.
“A Flowershop in Baghdad” took about three years to complete, Banzet said. The stories go beyond the weekly activities of training and flying with Iraqi pilots and door gunners in Huey helicopters — it becomes a story about how the “average [American] grunt helped build something new out there, and it wasn’t for nothing,” Banzet said.
“I feel like I’m just some schmo from a little ex-mining town in Montana but somehow got involved in a focal point of our history,” Banzet said.
He now works as a civilian, overseeing requirements and capability analysis for the Agile Combat Support Service Core Function at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Banzet, his wife, son and daughter live in Springboro, Ohio.
The book is available on Amazon. It was recently named to Kirkus Reviews’ “Best Indie Books of 2013” list.
And as for its title?
“It has to do with the last few lines of the book. ... You’ll have to read it and find out,” Banzet said.■