John 20: 2 “the disciple Jesus loved”
It was June 1996 when I received information that would influence my Air Force career and my life. Of course, I did not know it at the time. I was assigned to a new Joint program run by civilians trying to make a foothold into the military–Unmanned Aerial Vehicle RQ1A Predator Drone. I had just two weeks to report to Nellis AFB, NV in order to in process to the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron (RS) with 3 additional trailblazing military members–Jon L.S. Box, James Hoffman, and Curt Hawes.
We were all quickly brought into the 11th RS and then shipped to General Atomics in San Diego and Palmdale CA, to complete the first formal training of military members to fully maintain and fly the Predator as a possible weapon system of the military. Prior to the Predator program, drones were smaller in nature and used by CIA and the Army for immediate short range tactical purposes on the front lines. In the fall of 1996, the Predator was still under the ownership of civilian contractor General Atomics and under the stewardship of Retired Admiral Cassidy to make the Predator a viable reconnaissance system. Other pioneers were Civilian Tim Just, Major (Retired) Don Bentz, and former Navy Lieutenant Cary Ziter. Even the creation of the 11th RS had military members that were primarily administrative. Jon Box, Ray Miller, Jim Hoffman, and Curt Hawes were to become the first military operational Predator aviators formally assigned to the new 11th Reconnaissance Squadron.
After completing ground training in California, the four of us moved to hands on flight training at Army Post Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, Arizona. While at Ft. Huachuca, we already had our eyes focused on the pending deployment to the Bosnian theater where the Predator Drone was to receive a real-time, full military capability test immediately after our graduation. At the same time, we were hearing that the next class behind us was not being filled because the officers selected for the class were resigning their commissions at a rate of 20 officers to 1 officer that accepted a position in the drone program. That was when the four of us committed ourselves to whatever God had planned and assigned ourselves the motto “The Class Too Tough to Die”. At Ft. Huachuca training, our group of 4 trainees received much attention from Washington DC to include the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General Ronald Fogleman, the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, and the Secretary of Defense, William Cohen, to name a few. After we became 4 fully trained Unmanned Aerial Vehicle RQ-1A Predator Drone pilots, 3 assigned to the United States Air Force 11th RS, Jon became a major player in completing General Fogleman’s vision of the budding UAV program being a Joint program, but an asset controlled by the United States Air Force. At the completion of our civilian owned reconnaissance platform training on an Army post, Jon assisted in packing up the Predator’s assets and moving them into an Air Force restricted area on an abandoned air field at Indian Springs, NV.
While we were completing training at Ft. Huachuca, an advance team of civilian contractors and Major (retired) Don Bentz were setting up the Predator test site in the middle of the Danube River valley in the Balkans. This worked well for the late fall European season. However, the 4 of us deployed to the Bosnian theater just before Thanksgiving, and the coldest European winter since the Battle of the Bulge. The temperature inversion produced by the cold winter created a long-lasting fog bank that grounded all flying for approximately 45 days.
As the commander of the deployed Predator unit of approximately 50 civilian and military personnel, Jon took care of his people. Day in and day out, the maintenance crew, sensor operators, intelligence analyzers, and pilots prepared for missions that never launched. Jon kept motivation on location high. He ensured the units living arrangements were above standards for a deployed tent city. He procured proper heaters that did not need overnight watchmen guarding them to prevent tent fires, washing machines for dirty clothes, and best of all water heaters for hot showers. Jon established a friendship with the local chaplain and created a worship area close to our operational site on the airfield, which was 3 miles away from the attached U.S. Army post tent city. This allowed us to attend worship services and remain close enough to the plane should the weather break permitting us to fly. Although the initial services started with the 4 of us, the service quickly grew to include local airport workers due to the close proximity of the airfield. The relationship with local airport workers would later come in handy to the Predator program. When the assigned U.S. Army General locked down the post, Jon worked with the theater commanders to create “The Air Force International Soccer Team” that would leave the post to play local towns people in soccer. It was amazing how many Predator members quickly became soccer players. These were just few areas of morale boosting.
After 30 to 35 days of not flying due to the intense fog, the military was seriously considering canceling the Predator program in the Bosnian theater which would also set the drone program behind many months if not years. Jon did not give up on the program. Instead of continuing to rely on the “experts”, Jon personally researched the weather creating the grounding of aircraft. He quickly found that by early morning the sun above the ground level dense fog had burned off enough fog that the fog bank’s height was approximately 200 ft. Jon did this by simply gaining access to the airport tower through the local airport workers attending church services. By going to the top of the airport tower where he was not allowed access previously, Jon found the same people saying we could not fly because of the fog below, were sitting in full sunshine above. Jon worked with the pilots and General Atomics to create a safe manner in which to take off, climb above the low-lying fog, melt any possible accumulated ice while remaining clear of any populated areas, and finally continue the missions. By day 45, the Predator missions were back in business.
Most of the missions flown were over cantonment sights where all war fighting equipment was stored. The Predator cameras were to ensure from the sky that nothing was being maintained, moved, or used. Since Bosnia is a 50/50 country of Muslim and Christian people, often riots would break out in the streets and the Predator was on-site to provide real time video for the U.S. Army to quell the masses. These missions were flown over and over and over again.
John 20:2 again “another disciple John Jesus loved”
Because of Jon’s efforts at getting the Predator flying under his command, the Predator was able to fly a special mission on April 13, 1997. Jon Box was the mission commander and actively coordinating the pilots, sensor operators, and intelligence analysts on the mission protecting Pope John Paul II giving a Homily in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Predator was flying advance surveillance for Pope John Paul II and his route of travel. It was during this mission that the Predator identified suspicious activity on the Pope’s route of travel. Due to the real time video of the activity supplied by the Predator, the U.S. Military was able to intervene and stop a suspected assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II’s life. Pope John Paul II gave the Easter Homily and influenced millions and millions of lives over the next 8 years.
Because of the results from the Predator missions under Jon Box’s command, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General Fogleman sent Executive Officer Colonel James “Snake” Clark to discover what Jon was doing to create success for the Predator program. Colonel Clark liked what he saw. During Colonel Clark’s visit, he asked Jon about his future military plans and offered to assist him in getting promoted on the next Lieutenant Colonel’s board. Jon humbly declined the offer: 1. Partly because Jon wanted his rank to be determined by his achievements standing alone in front of the promotion board. 2. Mostly because Jon was projecting forward to his time in retirement with his family.
What did Jon L.S. Box mean to the Predator program? Jon’s name is rightfully placed on Predator 3034 which is located in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Jon Box was Faithful to God and loved his family. Jon Box was a man of honor. He was loyal. Jon had character, values, and integrity. He could be counted on to do the right thing. When these principles were put to the test by less than honorable people, Jon did not compromise. Jon lived by example and it did not go unnoticed. His example influenced me greatly.
Finally, Jon L.S. Box loved Jesus and I am sure Jon has now heard directly from Jesus’s own words, “Well done my good and faithful servant.”