SEMINOLE — All Paul Long wanted to do from the time he enrolled in ROTC was to fly. Trouble was, his eyesight was so bad he flunked the physical.
But he wasn't discouraged. He saved the money he was earning at Publix and paid for his own Lasik surgery. Still the flight surgeons weren't impressed. They again denied him flight school.
Long appealed and won. Now he's been nominated to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism and exceptionally meritorious achievement during a battle in Afghanistan.
His proud mom, state Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole, told the story of her son's determination. "I'm pretty proud, I have to say. It's just extraordinary," she said. "It's hard to wrap my mind around the magnificent human being he has become."
Paul Long, 29, grew up in Seminole. He graduated from Clearwater Central Catholic High School before attending Saint Leo University. Later he transferred to the University of Central Florida and graduated from the University of South Florida. Five days after he graduated, he was commissioned an officer in the U.S. Army.
Long was stationed in Korea for two years where he was promoted to captain. Last Christmas, he received orders to go to Afghanistan.
"I boo-hooed the whole month of January," his mother said.
Since then, he has flown six to seven hours a day.
He flew his AH-64D Apache Longbow combat helicopter out of Kandahar Airfield on May 18 on an air support mission. About 10 minutes into the flight he heard a report that other U.S. Army aircraft were being attacked. Long joined the battle.
Long was unscathed after his first pass at the enemy on the ground, but when he turned to attack again, he "again came under intense enemy fire and was hit three times … which disabled his primary weapons system … and caused a fuel leak," according to the Army report. "Without regard for his own personal safety he completed the attack," and though his main weapons did not work, he went back three more times.
During his fifth and final run, "a massive explosion occurred underneath the aircraft, lifting the aircraft forward and pushing it down."
Although it appeared he was about to crash, Long managed to fly back to the base for refueling so he could continue fighting. The helicopter was too damaged to do so because it was leaking fuel, its cannon did not work and the aircraft had multiple bullet holes. He asked for another aircraft but was refused.
So he called home. It was only the third time his mother had talked with him since his deployment.
"I was terrified for one thing because it was a 4 a.m. on Sunday phone call," Janet Long said. "Before he said hello, he said, 'I love you, Mom.' It just gave me goose bumps. I think he just felt a real need to connect with home. The more he talked about it, the more he started to get calmer."
Janet Long said he ended his tale with the comment: "It's high adventure, Mom. It's just high adventure."
Last week, Long got news that he'd been nominated for the DFC, awarded for heroism and/or extraordinary achievement during flight.
"I cried. I couldn't believe it," Janet Long said. "My mind went back … from the time when he was very little, he was always afraid of thunder and lightning. The sound would send him for cover."