Presidential Inauguration Day
Clay Cumberland had been president of the United States for less than two hours when his understanding of the magnitude of the office changed dramatically. Following the inauguration ceremony at noon, the first order of business for the new president-a fulfillment of his major campaign promise-was conducted in the Oval Office amidst great fanfare, in the company of a clutch of key political supporters and the full leadership of the Senate and the House of Representatives. All of them projected their best campaign smiles for network television.
Inscribing his signature using one of two dozen gold engraved pens-each of which he then distributed to senior officials in the room-Cumberland signed the Aspers-Kendall Health Act, extending expanded health care benefits and a greatly broadened pharmaceutical package to senior citizens throughout the United States.
The second order of business, accomplished some fifteen minutes later in a much more secluded setting, was not of his choosing and marked an undesired, but immediate, departure from his other campaign promise-to seek peaceful solutions to America’s escalating terrorist problems. Acting as commander in chief, President Clay Cumberland verbally authorized a horrific, unprecedented military action, a decision that would, ultimately, end his presidency.
Instinctively, President Cumberland knew he would not be in attendance at any of the nine gala inaugural balls planned throughout Washington that evening.
Bird Dog Nine One
East of Washington, D.C.
A three-hour combat air patrol over Washington, D.C., wasn’t bad duty, especially if the shift started at midday. Cruising at 16,000 feet in a loose, forty-mile, counter-clockwise racetrack pattern certainly didn’t tax a pilot’s ability to navigate, least of all Major Harrison ‘Dutch’ Witherspoon’s, leader of Bird Dog Nine One, a flight of four F/A-22 Raptors.
Deputy Commander of the Air National Guard component assigned as part of the 27 ^th Fighter Squadron, 1 ^st Fighter Wing, Langley AFB, Virginia, Witherspoon had pulled rank to get on the day’s flight schedule so he could observe the crowd gathered for the swearing in of the new commander in chief from three miles above. Security was extremely tight for the inauguration, including combat air patrols overhead, but beyond the hype surrounding a new presidential change of command ceremony, this crisp, blue-sky afternoon in January was destined to be unlike any other day. Or any other mission, for that matter, including the forty-seven combat sorties Witherspoon had flown over Iraq.
At the age of thirty-six, Witherspoon had traveled internationally, especially while he was on his brief active duty tour with the Air Force, but he was still regarded by his peers as an upper-class home boy-a landed-gentry Virginian who had never left his roots.
He had a solid Dutch heritage, a result of his New Amsterdam/New York ancestors, the first of whom arrived in America in 1685. Since then, fourteen generations of Witherspoons had prospered in what became a solidly English Tory colony, taking their place among the leading families of the upper and middle-eastern seaboard, eventually moving to the coastal tidewater area, and by the end of the War of 1812, into central Virginia.
A graduate of VMI with a bachelor of arts in economics and business, followed by a law degree from Georgetown University, Witherspoon had followed his father, a former mayor of Richmond, into politics, and three years earlier had been elected to the Virginia General Assembly. His recently announced plans to run for Virginia’s 1 ^st Congressional District seat had surprised no one, least of all his father. As a partner in Witherspoon, Witherspoon, and Templeton, one of Richmond’s oldest law firms, ‘Dutch’ Witherspoon’s future was, by general consensus, blue chip.
Appointment to the Air National Guard through Virginia’s “good old boy” network offered, even in hard economic times, two or three sorties a month in a high performance Air Force fighter. Air Guard membership provided the thrills, male bonding, and locker room camaraderie fighter jocks find essential to their well-being. More importantly, membership in the Air Guard had offered the ultimate political resume, at least in Virginia-combat experience in a war zone during the liberation of Iraq, and the requisite air medals.
He’d even earned a Purple Heart during a temporary assignment following the Iraqi defeat. While he was serving as a ground observer for close air support, and traveling by convoy with a battalion of combat Marines, an improvised explosive device (IED) had detonated, delaying the movement temporarily while minor wounds were attended. The small shrapnel wound Witherspoon received to the left side of his neck required only three stitches, but the Marines, in a jocular ceremony, had declared the Air Force “Weenie” a certified leatherneck.
All in all, Harrison Witherspoon was the product of the perfect political family in the traditional mold of Virginia aristocracy. Every aspect of his life and his family’s colonial genealogy smacked of military, a genealogy that had almost been wiped out during the Civil War as the family line was threatened when two of the three male Witherspoons were killed. Only Captain Colton Witherspoon, riding with the 43 ^rd Battalion of Virginia Calvary, better known as Mosby’s Rangers, had survived the Yankee onslaught, surviving to become Dutch’s third great- grandfather.
Dutch’s wife, the former Melinda Phillips, added her own component to his military credentials. She was the eldest daughter of Admiral Tarkin Phillips, recently retired as the Superintendent of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. According to the party hacks, Harrison Witherspoon’s political “tally points” pointed to nothing less than a sweeping victory in the next congressional elections.
As his four-ship flight of Raptors assumed patrol over the nation’s capital, Dutch could clearly see the assembled crowds on the streets of Washington dispersing after the inaugural speech, followed by the parade with the ever-present knot of cars and trucks on every major artery of the city.
The first squadron in the Air Force to convert from F-15s to the hot rod F/A-22 Raptor, the 27 ^th Fighter Squadron had been flying the Air Force’s newest stealth aircraft for four years. Dutch’s wingman on this momentous day, First Lieutenant Teal “Rocky” Simmons, was only five weeks out of Raptor qualification training at Tyndall AFB, Florida, and on only his second Combat Air Patrol, or CAP mission, since being assigned to the 27 ^th. Short, solid, and confident, Rocky’s flat nose betrayed his collegiate boxing career. Class of ’10 at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Lieutenant Simmons was the cadet wing boxing champion and national runner up in the 167-pound class. He was archetypical of the combative, do-or-die warriors that filled the ranks of the 27 ^th Fighter Squadron. The envy of every other pilot, the Raptor had put the 27 ^th in the forefront of America’s first line of defense, and the Fighting Eagles, as they proudly called themselves, were determined to stay there.
Over a decade into the 21 ^st century, the Raptor was America’s latest entry in the air supremacy race. Despite the absence of any credible enemy air force, the Pentagon’s senior Air Force brass had, nonetheless, applied a full-court press on Congress for at least fifteen years, lobbying the military’s need for the latest “must have” weapon, pressing hard for the full-scale development, testing, and production of a new airship that would boast super-cruise, super-maneuverability, and super-stealth capabilities. Once approved, even the subsequent decision by the Pentagon that the fighter was no longer needed did not stop congressional representatives, in whose district the production occurred, from continuing to press for further orders.