By Sgt. Brandon Little
Task Force XII public affairs
CAMP TAJI, Iraq — Jeff Hartford owned a small chain of car washes and lived the life of a businessman with his wife, Janet, and son, Hunter, until the Sept. 11 attacks ignited the desire to serve his country.
“After the attacks, I became a military contractor working with the AH-64D Apache Longbow crew trainer in Fort Hood,” Hartford said. “My fingers were pushing buttons and I was staying in tune with the (modifications to the aircraft) over the years.”
In 2005, still working as a contractor, he came to Iraq to help set up the first Apache Longbow crew trainer in a war zone, and he discovered the Army could use him as a pilot.
So nearly four decades after he joined the military, and 10 years after he retired as a chief warrant officer 4, this 54-year-old pilot joined the Army again.
“I decided to rejoin the military because I didn’t complete my dream of staying 30 years in the Army and flying an Apache Longbow in a combat environment,” Hartford said. “My wife and son knew this, and they supported my decision 110 percent.”
When Hartford began his military career in 1970, at the age of 17, he says his goals were simple; he joined for a few years to get job experience, earn some money and then go to college.
“When my wrestling scholarship (at the University of Maine) didn’t come through, and being one of (13 children) in my family, I knew I couldn’t afford to go to college,” he said. “I knew the Army would provide me with the opportunity to go to college with the Montgomery G.I. Bill.”
With that plan in mind, he enlisted as a combat engineer and later decided to become an infantryman.
By the time he reached the rank of staff sergeant, he was an airborne-qualified Ranger who performed numerous jumps from all types of aircraft.
“I put in my packet to go to flight school because I decided it looked like more fun to fly the airplanes and helicopters rather than jumping out of them,” said Hartford, a pilot in Nomad Troop, 4th Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. “I always wanted to have a gun in my hands, so instead of flying something without guns, I applied to be an AH-1 Cobra pilot.”
Hartford flew Cobras for five years, and transferred in the mid-1980s to flying Apaches until he retired in 1996. During that time, he deployed in support of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1992.
“Before I retired, I had the opportunity to go through the testing for the Apache Longbow, in 1994, and I became one of the first instructor pilots with the prototype,” he said. “My knowledge about this aircraft helped me get the contracting job after I retired.”
All the knowledge and experience he received throughout the years he tries to pass on to all the soldiers he comes in contact with.
“I met (Hartford) eight years ago when I first moved to Fort Hood; he was a contractor working with the Apache Longbow crew trainer,” said Maj. Scott Williams, Task Force XII’s deputy commanding officer and an Apache pilot. “As a contractor, his heart and soul was poured into everything he did with (the crew trainer), and he was always willing to help out.”
Williams worked with him for three years, but the two never saw each other again until Hartford deployed in November.
“I was doing the (initial briefing) for soldiers in 4th Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and I looked up and saw Jeff wearing the green aviator suit and I couldn’t believe it,” Williams said. “When I saw him that day, I knew we were going to win this war.”
“I think it’s pretty wild that he decided to come back after all those years,” said Cpl. Jordan Willburn, an Apache maintainer for Nomad Troop and native of Maypearl. “I really admire the passion he has for the Army and for aviation.”
One of the main reasons he was able to return to the military, Hartford says, was the fact that he prided himself on being physically fit and scoring more than 300 points on every physical fitness test until he retired.
“Hartford should be a role for anybody in this brigade, officer or enlisted, because of his loyalty, physical fitness and constant sacrifice for the military,” said Williams. “He is a true patriot and a great American; I look forward to the opportunity to fly with him”
In addition to having 30 years in the military and flying an Apache Longbow in a combat zone, he will soon achieve the milestone of flying 5,000 accident-free hours.
Hartford says when he retire, a little more than two years from now, he doesn’t plan to come back again, but that for now, he is focused on the mission of helping support ground personnel.
“We in the air help to deter a lot of things that are happening just by the Apache being there with its mean look, and (the enemy) knows that the steel that comes out of there really hurts,” he said. “Sure, I get a few aches and pains here and there, but I love my job and I know most people only dream about doing stuff like this.”