Still Providing a Lift:
Providing a Lift: Former Blackhawk Crew Chief Gives Back to Veterans’ Groups
Story by Stephen Prudhomme
As one of two crew chiefs on a Blackhawk flight during combat, Joe Higgins was charged with protecting the crew by manning the guns. During peace times, he helped transport military leaders and VIPs.
The Pooler resident left the Army 16 years ago, but he remains connected to the military through his involvement with a number of service organizations.
Higgins, 47, is a native of Chicago who joined the Army in 1993 right after graduating from high school.
“My grandfather served during World War II,” Higgins said. “He was a retired senator who was larger than life. I wanted to be just like him.”
Higgins said he scored pretty high on the military aptitude test and, following a suggestion from his recruiter, signed up to be a Blackhawk crew chief.
“I had never flown before,” Higgins said, “but it sounded like a cool job.”
After training at Fort Eustis, VA, where he learned everything about the Blackhawk as a maintainer, Higgins embarked on a flight odyssey that included deployments to Kuwait, Bosnia and Iraq. As it turned out, Iraq would be his last deployment and one of his most challenging.
Higgins was sent to Kuwait in August 2002 for a six-month deployment. Initially, he helped take military commanders and celebrities to different camps. On Christmas Day, he recalled, his passengers were taking part in a USO tour. All was not peaceful and festive behind the scenes, however. Higgins said he noticed troop movement that included the arrival of the entire 3rd Infantry Division from Fort Stewart.
“You could see the buildup,” Higgins said.
The increase in military culminated with a push toward Baghdad that started March 20, 2003, one month after Higgins was slated to come back home. Instead of returning to his home base of Hunter Army Airfield and Alpha Company, 2-3 Aviation Regiment, Higgins and his crew—a day after the start of the invasion—were evacuating casualties, transporting injured Iraqi citizens to hospitals, flying division and brigade commanders around so they could coordinate troop movement and resupplying tank units with food, water and ammo.
Higgins said he took fire on occasion and lost six friends after their aircraft went down during the battle of Karbala Gap.
Higgins and his crew finally arrived at Baghdad airport and the first person they saw was TV anchor Ted Koppel, who was doing an interview. “It was crazy to see him there,” Higgins said.
Once American tanks secured the city, Higgins and his flight crew remained busy. Along with resupplying the troops and flying leaders around, they dropped leaflets from the air that advised Iraqi citizens to stay indoors because the Americans had arrived and they weren’t there to hurt them.
Higgins said it was really hot in the day and cold at night. Though surrounded by danger, he said instincts replaced the fear once he boarded his aircraft and he discovered all his training had paid off.
“My No. 1 priority was the crew and two pilots,” Higgins said. “If I kept the two pilots alive, they would keep me alive.”
Re-Entering Civilian Life
Nearly a year after his deployment had begun—having contributed to a successful invasion,—Higgins received orders to return home. With almost 10 years in the Army, he decided not to reenlist.
“The last deployment really affected my son,” Higgins said. “I didn’t know how many more times I’d be deployed. It was time to leave active duty.”
Higgins made the smoothest of transitions by getting a job as an Army contractor doing aircraft maintenance at Hunter Army Airfield. “I was working on the same aircraft in the same hangar as when I was in the Army,” Higgins said.
He also had the opportunity to make up for lost time with his son by coaching his son’s football team at the Pooler Recreation Center but had to initially keep his distance. “He’d have a panic attack when he saw me,” Higgins said. “He had to get used to me being around again.”
The “reintegration with family” continued as Higgins coached football and basketball teams his son played on in middle school and high school as well as at the recreational level.
In 2016, with his family life going well and working as a salesman for LKQ, Higgins attended an American Legion barbecue in Thunderbolt. That led to him joining Post 184 and subsequently becoming an executive board member and commander elect.
Higgins didn’t stop there. He is the youngest ever elected chairman of the Veterans Council of Chatham County, serves as chaplain of VFW Post 4392 and Sons of the American Legion Squadron 184, and is a member of the Society of 40/8, 8th Air Force Historical Society and the Society of the 3rd Infantry Division. He also was named delegate for the Veterans Council through the American Legion.
On Memorial Day, at the Museum of the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum, he helped put up 26,000 American flags to honor those who died from the Mighty 8th and was one of four volunteers reading off their names during a ceremony that lasted four hours.
“These organizations all share the same thing—veterans who put on a uniform and fought for their country,” Higgins said. “It gives you the camaraderie back. I love it. Although I’m dealing with PTSD from what I saw and did, I’ve got all my limbs. I enjoy leading the organizations and taking them forward, providing veterans with a support system.”