Hurtling in the night sky over war torn Afghanistan, a C-17 Globemaster III crew from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base clicked off the exterior lights of the cargo jet and headed to sprawling Bagram Airfield ringed by mountains and sometimes insurgents with mortars.
The air crew had traveled about 6,100 miles from home at Wright-Patterson on a journey that began days ago to land in darkness on the wing’s first mission to Afghanistan since the U.S. formally declared an end to combat operations in December.
But the war – and the mission of the Air Force reservists at 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Patt – continues even as the U.S. transitions to primarily training and air support in a years-long struggle against al-Qaida and the Taliban regime that the Americans and Afghans have fought side-by-side since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
With the drawdown in U.S. forces, the Ohio airmen carry troops, patients, and cargo in the large jet, shuttling between Afghanistan and Ramstein Air Base in Germany and beyond.
The every-other-week flights are routine but not without risk.
“I’ve done it so much that it’s just become business as usual,” said Maj. Kris Herman, 36, a C-17 instructor pilot who lives in Springboro and has flown to more than 70 countries. “Again, that’s something we train for. Being a part of the military you’re always going to have that inherent risk. It’s just how do we mitigate and reduce that risk.”
“As pilots, I don’t think we tend to focus on the bad things,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Ciesla, 47, a C-17 aviator from Centerville who in his civilian job at United Airlines flies Boeing 777 airliners. “It’d be hard to go to work every day thinking about all the bad things that could happen. Certainly, we prepare for that stuff, but we tend not to focus on it .”
The pilots run through a checklist that isn’t part of routine flying.
“It’s still a big deal, but it’s just gotten so normal to all of us we’re very seasoned at it and good at it and like professional athletes are, they know what to expect in the game,” said Col. Michael Major, 50, the unit’s acting wing commander who wasn’t on this mission, but has flown others. The wing flew 54 missions to Afghanistan last year alone.
For Capt. Matt Scholz, 31, of Fairborn, a former crew chief-turned-aviator, it will mark the first time he has flown into Bagram since he graduated pilot training in September. A self-described “late rate” guy — “I was old when I went to pilot training” — he had corrective eye surgery to become a pilot.
The Wright State University and Beavercreek High School graduate is excited, but doesn’t seem fazed before the marathon trip. “After seeing what they were doing flying guys out from down range, it seemed like a pretty darn cool job,” he said.
“I have no doubt we’ll be safe flying in there and everybody will be watching out for one another,” added the married father of two young children. “Even though I’m young, brand new, everyone watches out for everyone when we’re up there.”
Predators and the ‘moose’
The C-17’s landing gear clangs into place with a metal-on-metal clunk. The streaking jet angles steeply toward the runway.
Aboard, three Army soldiers, an Ohio contractor, three Dayton Daily News and WHIO-TV journalists and a military public affairs representative, along with the eight-member air crew, will be on the ground within minutes.
Inside, the lights in the cargo bay change from a bright fluorescent white to red to reduce the risk of light glare leaking out the portholes, which might make the jet easier to spot or target from the ground.
“A big airplane like the C-17, obviously, you can see it from quite a ways away,” Ciesla said before departure, noting the lights would be off. “You can’t hit what you can’t see so that’s one of the mitigating techniques that we do.”
With what feels like a thunderous full reversal of the four engines, the jet hustles down the airstrip but rapidly loses speed. Passengers in metal seats along the fuselage are pushed sideways, pressed toward the front of the plane.
For Lt. Col. David Drake, the arrival meant a return to war.
The Army lawyer left his wife and a 10-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son over the holidays as he boarded the C-17 in Germany to return for several more months of duty in Kabul. He’s a NATO legal adviser to Afghan special forces. The soldier was on his fourth overseas deployment and would get off the jet at Bagram.
“It’s hard when the kids are in there crying and waving at you,” he said on the plane. “That’s very, very difficult. But I think this time we’re more than halfway through (the deployment) and they know we’ll be coming home soon that I think it’s a little bit better.”
Outside, Bagram is a 24/7 hive of military air operations. The airfield was the single busiest runway in the Defense Department during Operation Enduring Freedom last year, averaging a flight about every two minutes, according to the Air Force.
Under a nearly full moon, Ciesla climbs out with night vision goggles in hand, slowly scanning the horizon around the plane. The winter night has the scent of wood smoke.
He points out a Predator drone rushing down a runway. The drone’s propeller on the back of the unmanned aircraft makes a distinctive buzz.
Above the airfield, two white aerostat blimps hover as sentinels with sensors to spot where a mortar round aimed at the base might be launched.
Rocket attacks at Bagram do happen. In August 2012, a nighttime rocket attack damaged the front of a C-17 and one of the engines, and shrapnel cut and bruised two airmen on the ground, published reports show. The jet had carried Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Afghanistan, but the four-star general was not aboard the plane at the time.
After a seven-hour flight that began from Ramstein Air Base in Germany, the “Moose” as the C-17 is nicknamed, is thirsty. The plane makes the sound of a moose call as fuel pushes out air inside the tanks.
Back aboard, five Army Green Berets and metal cargo containers have joined the crew on the long trek back to Germany.
This mission was scheduled to carry wounded troops out of Afghanistan to Germany for medical treatment, but that was scrubbed. Just before take-off at Ramstein, Herman learned of the change.
He viewed the surprise cancellation as good news. But the mission of bringing people and supplies into Afghanistan and hauling troops and cargo out, didn’t stop on this leg of the marathon trip.
Last year, U.S. crews manning fixed-wing planes such as the C-17 hauled 29.6 million pounds of cargo out of Afghanistan. U.S. troop levels sank to 10,600 by late December compared to 34,000 on Feb. 1, 2014, according to U.S. Forces Afghanistan figures. The number of containers on the ground dropped from 19,400 last February to 597 by mid-December and the total number of bases dropped to 25 last month from 87 early in 2014.
The flow of cargo and troops would be no different on this mission.
“… We still needed to get something down there, we still needed to get something back,” Herman said. “I think anytime that you don’t have any wounded that’s always a good thing.”
Wounded warriors in the air
The journey back to the United States would not be as fortunate.
The C-17 will airlift 11 wounded troops, seven carried on board in litters, or stretchers, and four ambulatory patients who walk aboard, from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, across the Atlantic, back to U.S. shores to Joint Base Andrews, Md.
Air Force Capt. Paul J. Merrill is eager for this seven-member medical team with the 86th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron stationed at Ramstein to start the nearly 11-hour flight. The team is a mix of flight nurses and aeromedical evacuation technicians who are the equivalent to EMTs.
“We’re constantly on call and do pick-ups at a moment’s notice,” the 33-year-old Orem, Utah native said.
Army Maj. Steven Ang, 38, of Lakeland, Fla., will be coming home. The soldier injured his knee and fell off a truck in a sandstorm during a military exercise at “an undisclosed location in southwest Asia.”
With his fifth deployment cut short, he tears up at the prospect of going to Fort Bragg, N.C., for physical rehabilitation while his fellow soldiers remain behind.
“The toughest thing about deployment is you have a team and the team goes with you,” he said. “You want to go with your guys and you want to bring guys home with you.
“You know,” he said, “over the last 10 years, it’s been a learning experience, a tough experience, and after five deployments I would do it again.”
Army Spec. Gabriel Lossing, 19, of Millington, Mich., had an appendectomy while on duty in Afghanistan, an injury that sent him on the flight to Maryland.
Still, things could have been worse. He faced the danger of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan. “That was our big threat,” he said. So was gun fire. “We had pop shots,” he said. “No huge firefight or anything like that.”
Ang, Lossing and the other patients are brought by two buses out of a Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility at Ramstein, a temporary medical station, to the C-17 for one of two weekly flights carrying wounded troops home to the United States.
“Aeromedical evacuation has come a long, long way since its inception in the Vietnam war,” Merrill said. “Back then, it used to take …. long periods time, weeks, to get people from the point of injury back to the U.S. where they can get that long-term sustained care. We can now provide that from point of injury, say down in Afghanistan, back to the United States in 24 to 72 hours.”
Patients transported by Air Force medical teams in the air have a 96 percent survival rate, he said.
The patients are stable before they fly on the transoceanic flight to Andrews. Crew members interviewed said they had never lost a patient in flight.
The U.S. Transportation Command recorded 117,000 movements of military patients from Iraq and Afghanistan between Oct. 10, 2001 until Dec. 14, 2014. About 22,000 of those were transported with battlefield injuries, according to Senior Master Sgt. Marty Rush, an Air Mobility Command spokesman. Patients may have been moved several times, and account for multiple requests in the count. The 445th Airlift Wing has transported more than 20,000 aeromedical patients out of the Middle East, unit figures show.
‘We never know what we’re going to get’
The medical crews treat airborne patients with sports injuries or psycho-social issues to war-related injuries caused by burns, bomb blasts and gunshot wounds, Merrill said. The medical teams transport what they need with them, and turn the inside of the C-17 into a flying ambulance. They break down and set up the operation in an organized, quick-step chaos.
“We never know what we’re going to get,” said Merrill, wearing a unit patch on his flight suit that said “Always Ready.”
“It’s a lot of adapting and a lot of flexibility and that’s one of the draws, one of the things that I really like about it.”
Capt. Daisy Martinez, 28, a flight nurse from Chicago, tries to keep patients comfortable while flying thousands of feet in the air.
“A lot of it has to do with turbulence,” she said. “It creates a lot of added problems for the patients. They’re already sick and all of that would cause extra nausea. If they have pins in their legs, it can cause them more pain. Some people get motion sickness. Things you wouldn’t normally get on the ground.”
Like any air travel, delays may postpone take off. “There’s not really much we can do here (about the delays) except make them as comfortable as they can be,” she said.
At times, a wounded service member will fly with a friend, called an attendant, for the journey. “They’ll usually ride with them the whole way so they’re not alone,” Martinez said.
Staff Sgt. Andre Valentine, 29, an aeromedical evacuation technician from St. Louis, Mo., feels a lost connection to the patients once the flight is over.
“What’s really tough about it is, for me anyway, is wondering what my patients’ outcome will be afterwards because we never really get to see them afterwards,” he said.
Airborne utility truck
On this flight, the C-17 hauled passengers as a makeshift-airliner on a New Year’s Eve jump across the Atlantic to Germany, brought troops and cargo to and from Afghanistan, and ferried patients from Germany to the United States.
Every crew member volunteered for the mission.
“We’ve never had a problem here or at another base since 9/11 with volunteerism,” said Major, the reserve wing commander and a civilian UPS pilot from Louisville, Ky. “That’s why we join the military is to serve, is to do the mission.”
Senior Master Sgt. Jason Lemaster, 41, a C-17 loadmaster from Washington Court House, has hauled everything from mine-sniffing Navy dolphins from California to Europe to Humvee parts from Germany to Afghanistan.
“Whatever (mission) they’re going to call it, they’re going to call it,” he said. “All I know is I love planes and we haul the cargo.”
The workhorse jet, the extended range version of the C-17, has extra fuel tanks for the long airlift from Europe to the Middle East and back without aerial refueling. The Globemaster can weigh up to 585,000 pounds at take-off with a full load.
Despite the heavy lifting, it’s nimble in the air.
“It’s a sports car when it comes to cargo jets,” said Master Sgt. Charles W. Fritz, 51, a loadmaster who lives in Wilmington. “It’s very maneuverable.”
Fritz, who’s flown aboard Air Force cargo planes around the globe for more than two decades, has traveled to many places in the headlines.
The wing flew emergency airlift flights to McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists attacks, and has transported Taliban and al-Qaida detainees to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. More recently, an air crew hauled equipment to Monrovia, Liberia in the U.S. response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
“You see it on the news, there’s probably a good bet the 445th is involved somehow,” said the reservist, who in his civilian job is an aircraft mechanic.
Christina Fritz, 51, who is married to the Air Force reservist, said she and the family’s five teen-age and adult children have grown accustomed to her husband’s departures from home. It was harder when the children were small, she said, and when the reserve unit was recalled to active duty about a decade ago for continuous missions to the Middle East.
Then, the family might get a surprise call from him at Wright-Patterson. They would rush to the base before he left again.
“We would literally drop whatever we were doing and go,” she said. “In those instances, military kids just adapt. My kids are very used to their dad going on missions. We can definitely feel the void when he’s gone.”
Gradually, it became easier over the years.
“Sometimes it’s easier than other times,” she said. “But now I’m very well-adapted …
“Trying to integrate him back into the home was often times very difficult because I had become independent,” she said. “I fully support what he does and always have and that makes a big difference. We would take it one mission at a time.
“I’m always concerned when he flies because he’s going to hostile environments, not always, but often,” she added. “One of the biggest things is I believe he’s in God’s hands and I have faith that God will take care of him. There’s a great track record for cargo planes. They don’t usually crash and most of the time are not shot out of the sky and I take great comfort in that.”
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