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Mike Peck, controlling the skies over Baghdad

Sometimes the War on Terror can seem far away, but nothing brings it closer to home than having a Valley native in Baghdad.

Michael Peck has come a long way from Snoqualmie. Peck, 36, born and raised in the Valley, is now the aviation security officer for the U.S. State Department in Iraq. He is overseeing the effort of reconstructing that country's entire civil aviation infrastructure, literally from the ground up, in an understatedly hostile environment.

Peck's family has a long tradition of military service. His father was a sergeant major in the U.S. Army Special Forces for 30 years and a decorated combat veteran who saw four tours of duty in Vietnam. His grandfather was a paratrooper in World War II who jumped into Normandy on the eve of the D-Day invasion in June 1944.

A 1989 graduate of Mount Si High School, Peck attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., receiving his commission as an aviation lieutenant upon graduation in 1993. After U.S. Army flight school at Fort Rucker, Ala., he spent his first major assignment in South Korea, flying AH-1 "Cobra" attack helicopters. Peck then returned to Fort Rucker, where he worked as an instructor pilot.

In 1996, he was hand-picked to fly for the Army's elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), based out of Fort Campbell, Ky.

Nicknamed "The Night Stalkers," the 160th SOAR is tasked with providing global aviation support to the U.S. Army's special forces and its ranks include some of the most skilled pilots in the military. The 160th specializes in flying at night at exceptionally low altitudes and in extremely hostile conditions, living up to its unit motto, "Nightstalkers Don't Quit."

Peck spent four years with the 160th, flying MH-6 "Little Bird" and MH-47E "Chinook" helicopters on dangerous missions around the world. He served as a platoon leader and on the regimental staff with the 160th, finishing his tour with the unit in 2000.

Peck then spent the next four years with the U.S. Coast Guard on an inter-service transfer, flying search and rescue (SAR), maritime law enforcement and counter-drug missions in Florida and the Caribbean. His experience in special operations proved particularly valuable to the Coast Guard after the events of Sept.11.

He returned to the Army in 2004, earning a master's degree in curriculum development/adult education from American Intercontinental University at the same time his wife, an intelligence officer in the Army, was attending the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif.

In November 2004, Peck was selected to be the lead pilot for the State Department's Diplomatic Security Detail in Baghdad. He spent a year flying overhead protection for the U.S. ambassador and other diplomats in Baghdad's "Red Zone" on a nearly daily basis, looking for and destroying IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and car bombs, as well as keeping an eye out for suicide bombers, snipers and ambushes.

"He is well known for responding to an ambush on a U.S. Marine checkpoint directly across the Tigris River from the U.S. Embassy," says his colleague, Thomas Jenkins, an intelligence officer who made Peck's acquaintance while working with him in Baghdad in 2004.

"Mike flew his Little Bird down into the street and chased a carload of insurgents into an apartment building," said Jenkins. "His aircrew, with two snipers in the back, then set up an orbit around the building and kept the insurgents pinned down until the U.S. Army forces could arrive," he said. Nine insurgents were then taken into custody.

Another example of Peck's cool thinking under pressure came when an IED destroyed a U.S. military police vehicle that was part of the ambassador's protective detail. The explosion had severely wounded an American soldier.

"Mike again flew down into the street, but could not land because of the threat from more mines or explosives on the ground," said Jenkins. "He hovered above the destroyed vehicle, put one skid on the hood and allowed the soldier to be loaded on his aircraft. He then flew the soldier directly to the combat surgical hospital in the International Zone."

Jenkins holds Peck in extremely high regard, and for good reason. "In a world of diplomats, this physically fit combat veteran is admired by his peers and associates. He is a great soldier, and ... is the man I trust when we are on the ground in Iraq," said Jenkins.

Peck served in the Diplomatic Security Detail until November 2005, when he was promoted to aviation security officer for Iraq. In his current position, he assists the Iraqi Reconstruction Management Office and the Iraqi equivalent of the FAA in its efforts at rebuilding civil aviation. This process is particularly challenging in a nation that has seen very little in the way of aviation of any description since the first Gulf War.

Much of Peck's job includes supervising all aviation assets in Iraq - particularly civilian aviation - and the Diplomatic Security Air Wing.

"Mike's job is critical to the Iraqi political and economic future," said Jenkins. "In short, if Iraq cannot establish a civil aviation program, every other program, from oil to food to electricity to education to health, will suffer. Imagine if the U.S. did not have any civilian airports at all. Think how that would cripple the country. Mike is working to build that civilian aviation capability because right now, it does not exist."

Peck is responsible for training air marshals and emergency reaction teams, as well as helping the Iraqi government conform to the standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in regards to the airports now being renovated or constructed around Iraq.

The ICAO standards require the installation of navigational aids and security measures. The eventual goal is to bring in domestic airlines and to encourage the development of civilian air transport.

"It's starting from the ground level," said Peck. "I hope to see the Iraqis take more and more responsibility in their own development, [and] work on ways to take over for themselves and support our assistance."

Diplomacy is a key part of his work, said Peck, who has to be diligent in his efforts to be considerate of the Iraqis and their culture. He met with the deputy prime minister recently to brief him on the current status of the reconstruction efforts and future development. "He and his staff are very responsive to our help," said Peck.

"Honestly, there are still many Iraqis that see us as an occupying force, but those with the ability to look into the future do see that we are attempting to rebuild, not take over and control," said Peck. "Those that see this know our assistance, like my job, will help build their country back up and allow them to stand on their own feet and prosper."

Peck is very proud of the American servicemen and women who work for and with him. "I have been here a long time," said Peck. "I traveled throughout the country and worked with soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen from throughout the U.S. They are proud of what they do.

"Many live in conditions that are very uncomfortable and dangerous, but they do it because they believe we are doing the right thing here. They, just like myself, see the children and adults alike, who are very happy to have us here. The lives of the Iraqi people are getting better and better with each day, and they know that is because we took Saddam out of the picture," said Peck.

He occasionally gets frustrated with the media coverage, which does not seem to correspond to events on the ground, and sometimes feels that certain aspects of the conflict get overlooked.

"The process is slow. There is still a great deal of work to do, but the good being done here seems to be rarely reported," he said. "The reporters that visit here seem to dig for wrongdoing and scandals. This does not reflect the dedication and professionalism of the men and women on the ground in uniform."

Support from the home front is priceless, he says.

"I would ask that anyone who knows a soldier, sailor, marine or

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