U.S. Army’s Elite 160th SOAR Puts Arkansas Native John Woodie into Mix of America’s First 9/11 Response
by Barry Smith, Boot Campaign
If you are looking for a job, a relationship, a place to live or even a new pair of boots, it is important to find a good fit. When a soldier enlists in the United States military, rarely do they come upon a role very early that turns into a long-term career, but that is exactly what happened to U.S. Army Sergeant First (Ret.) Class John Woodie III.
After enlisting in November of 1995 at the age of 25, the Helena, Ark., native volunteered in 1998 for the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), or SOAR. Woodie successfully completed his assessment with the Green Platoon training program and was selected to join the 160th, a regiment he served with for 18 years.
“I was helping one of my friends with fixing MH-47s when they came into Fort Bragg (N.C.) where I was stationed, and I saw they had the best equipment to work with,” explains Woodie. “I wanted to work with the best, the best people, best equipment, the best missions out there and that was with the 160th.
“It was an amazing fit, something that I was kind of called to do,” adds Woodie, who served with SOAR in a variety of roles such as crew chief, flight engineer, and company standardization flight engineer instructor. “Not everyone can do it. I had some great leaders, teachers and NCO’s that showed me what it was to be a Night Stalker, and I tried to pass that on as well.”
According to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC), the 160th SOAR are known as Night Stalkers because of their proficiency in nighttime operations. The Night Stalkers are highly trained and ready to accomplish the very toughest missions in all environments, anywhere in the world, day or night, with unparalleled precision.
Skillfully utilizing the world’s most state-of-the-art equipment, Woodie specialized as a weapons systems operator and honed his craft in the back of MH-47 Chinook and MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters during his decorated military career.
He was deployed overseas 16 times as part of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom and flew close to 3,000 missions before retiring back to his home state in March 2016.
One of those missions and many after were in response to the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001 when terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes and carried out suicide attacks on United States targets, causing nearly 3,000 Americans to perish.
Because of military logistics, Woodie and his team were actually a few of the final Americans to learn about the 9/11 attacks that much of the country witnessed live on national television.
“On September 11th we were in Europe preparing to do what we do, and we were probably one of the last groups of people to really find out what happened,” remembers Woodie. “At first it was shock, the second feeling was anger, and then we thought we would be the first group to actually go do something in regard to that (attack), because we were already pretty far forward.
“In turn, they brought us back to the states,” he continues. “We were one of the first airplanes let back into the country, and the group actually flew us over New York. We had an armed escort and they flew us all the way back to Fort Campbell (Ky.).”
After thorough planning back at SOAR headquarters, Woodie and his unit embarked on a response mission to Afghanistan, and the 160th has been actively engaged ever since. Today, according to the USASOC, the 160th continues a sustained and active forward presence in the U.S. Central Command area of operations at multiple locations.
“We were America’s first answer,” reflects Woodie. “We put boots on the ground in October (2001), a little more than a month after September 11 happened, and it was an absolute honor to do that. Then we never really got out of the fight, and the 160th is still in it. They are still in the fight on terrorism.”
Woodie was a recipient of numerous military honors during his career, including multiple meritorious service, air and army achievement medals, parachutist and combat action badges, the distinguished flying cross and master aviation crew member wings. Understandably, he admits his accomplishments did not come without experiencing an untold number of life-threatening situations.
“Yes, there were some close calls,” acknowledges Woodie. “I have crashed twice, been shot at more times than I can count, and lucky to be alive.”
While he actively sought out the opportunity to work on some of the most dangerous operations in the military, Woodie has always been confident of his decision to join SOAR.
“It was great for myself and my family,” says Woodie, who has returned to civilian life in Farmington, Ark., with his wife Donna, and sons Sam (21) and Tanner (19) who are attending the University of Arkansas. “Organizations and units like SOAR take care of your family, so you can take care of the missions that you have to do abroad.”
Woodie also admits he could not have made his duties with the 160th work without the extraordinary efforts of his wife of more than 22 years.
“My wife Donna has been amazing,” Woodie confides. “She had to do so much during all my deployments, schools, and TDY (temporary duty) trips. When you join any service, your whole family joins. That sometimes is very hard for a lot of people to understand. She had to be everything from mom to coach. I can’t say enough about Donna!”
According to Donna, it was on that fateful day of Sept. 11 that she knew the Woodie family’s future would change dramatically.
“Watching the second plane crash into the World Trade Center, I knew that the life we had planned for our family would never be the same,” Donna recalls. “My husband was away, so I knew I had to try to keep things as normal as possible.
“Now, on the anniversary of 9/11, I always think of those who died so tragically that day and all of our Gold Star families,” she adds. “I’m so grateful that our children have had the privilege to grow up in the presence of heroes, none greater than my husband and their father.”
In addition to his wife, Woodie credits his parents for giving him the preparation and inspiration to succeed for more than 20 years in such a challenging and hazardous profession. John (II) and Jane Woodie raised two sons who both serve their country and spent most of their professional careers in secondary and elementary education, respectively.
“I am a second-generation soldier as my father served in Army, and he taught us a lot at an early age,” reports Woodie, whose brother James serves in law enforcement. “The values that my mom and dad instilled in me were similar values that they taught us in the military, so to me it was an easy transition.”
Now Woodie is transitioning back to civilian life. He is spending much of his time with family, as well as working on his 12-handicap golf game, doing a little hunting and fishing, and volunteering to the military community as a Veteran Ambassador for Boot Campaign,the national military non-profit based in Texas.
“It’s extremely different,” admits Woodie. “We lived in a very fast pace for many years, and now it is extremely slow, but I am enjoying it. That’s for sure.”
Giving back to his fellow veterans is high on his list of post-military priorities, which is one of the reasons why the opportunity to work with Boot Campaign appealed to him.
“I was asked to help out with Boot Campaign and it turned into becoming a Veteran Ambassador,” says Woodie. “It is a great organization that gives so much to veterans, and I’m happy to do whatever I can. There are so many people that need help or assistance, and I would recommend Boot Campaign to all veterans, absolutely!”
Visiting the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City, the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial in Washington D.C. and Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa., also are trips he would like to make in retirement.
“Some of my friends have been able to attend those sites, and said it was a great part of their closure to their military career,” concludes Woodie. “I deployed over 16 times to the near-East and some of my friends are in the mid-20s on deployments, and it has helped a lot of those guys going to those different memorial sites. So, absolutely, I’d love to go to all three sites if I could.”
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