I don’t often write about my experience or responsibilities as a member o the American Armed Forces. I’ve chosen to focus my writing on my participation and aspirations pertaining space science and exploration. But that isn’t the primary means of my employ and doesn’t reflect my “day-to-day” life. As a bit of a disclaimer, I will write more about it, but for so many reasons, my opinions and observations are going to be guarded. I want to be able to share my experiences in the military but there are systemic and personal limitations that will prevent me from being as frank as in my prose. In the mean time:
I am typing these words from a small room in a prefabricated building in a guarded compound on a military base in the Arabian desert.
In a place where almost no sound occurs naturally, I am bombarded with the din of machines, be they the struggling fans of the ever-present and overworked air conditioners or the rumble of B-52 bombers climbing away towards their targets.
Although I am a reservist, my obligation to the Air Force does require me to activate for National service when necessary. I have periodically been called to duty to take part in the ongoing war against terror over the last decade. I wasn’t able to deploy with my squadron that last time they were called to war (read more about that here). When the call came again, I volunteered.
My last deployment to the Middle East was at a time when U.S. forces were withdrawing from Iraq and being repositioned to support operations in other theaters of the campaign. I served in a capacity then to plan many of those missions (and flew several myself). I was able to see much of Iraq that has since been occupied by the aspirant caliphate and fundamentalist terror group known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). I remember specifically Mosul now the “capital” of ISIS ‘ would-be state and the objective of our Coalition’s campaign to unseat the invaders.
I flew some of the last sorties into Iraq before the Coalition force turned over facilities and air bases to the reconstructed Iraqi military.
After several months of flying in Iraq, my crew and I found ourselves flying to and from the forward operating bases (FOBs) in Afghanistan for the remainder of our tour. In Afghanistan, we flew as part of the “air bridge”, bringing supplies and personnel to the bases in-country.
Today, I am back in that very same squadron serving in a different conflict in those very same countries.
Promoted and several years wiser, I now return as part of the leadership of this squadron. For this tour, I will serve as the Assistant Director of Operations, supervising the daily flying missions of the 746th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron. My role is no longer to fly as a crew member (to my lasting regret), but to prepare those crews and ensure the completion of their objectives. Monitoring flight schedules, crew duty periods, ensuring coordination between various military units that will be my responsibility. It is not a glamorous position there is no recognition and I own any errors that are made on my watch. But after all, I’m an officer first and an aviator second.
As part of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), our task is to conduct airlift and airdrop in Iraq (or Syria) to support the Coalition forces fighting against ISIS. Alongside sister units operating out of Kuwait, the 746th flies multiple sorties everyday to move troops and supplies where they are required. Although based at Al Udied Air Base in the small country of Qatar, we are responsible for mission to any country in U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).
As tactical aircraft, our planes are especially equipped to handle missions in this war. The C-130H “Hercules” can carry up to 5 standard pallets of cargo or 60+ troops, or a combination of both, depending on our assigned mission. The aircraft is also equipped with defensive systems and sensors that allow the crew to protect themselves from surface-to-air threats, like those utilized by extremists in Iraq. Our planes are also designed to handle “short field” (as in shorter runways) than the other transport aircraft in the war. The C-130 is designed to be able to deliver its payload by parachute, a mission we refer to as “airdrop”. If any of our objectives are too remote or occupied by enemy forces, our squadron is ready to fly there and release our cargo while airborne to see it delivered safely and accurately without having to land.
Our crews will also continue to support missions in Afghanistan, now under the auspices of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (OFS). As many of the NATO partners diminish their presence, U.S. military units are bolstering the Afghan National Army (ANA) and security for critical sites. With the presence of the Khorasan ISIS “franchise” gaining foothold in several Afghan provinces, it is critical that military aid continues to be flown there. These are some of our more taxing sorties, as the distance the crews must fly is so great. That distance also limits the cargo that can be carried aboard, as the fuel quantity (and therefore, weight) must be increased and compensated for. Our planes, though capable – flew at the edge of their capacity in order to complete each mission. The performance can be diminished enough to limit the “ceiling” at which the planes can cruise. Sometimes this means flying at only 17,000 feet, far lower than the peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains that form the landscape of war-torn Afghanistan.
Although most of our sorties in this conflict are mundane at worst, one role we play that continues to have a tangible positive outcome is Aeromedical Evacuation. “AE” missions consist of transporting medical patients from the forward bases to “hubs” from which they are flown on jet transports to surgical hospitals in Europe or the states. Our squadron acts as a link in the chain from battlefield rescue to repatriotization and recovery. In place of palletized cargo, the C-130 can be configured to carry litters , stacked 3 high, within the cargo compartment. Patients are tended by nurses and critical care technicians who are specially trained to treat while flying. This has been an essential factor in the survival rates of troops wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My own contribution to the fight against ISIS will be insignificant. There are so many others here right now who are accomplishing greater things to win this war. I wish that I was in a better position to do more: I’m not sure the current structure of this branch allows for reservists like myself to participate in more direct roles. Despite my professional desires to be a part of the space industry and take part in the many space events that I miss in the coming months, I could not turn away from this fight. I only regret that I cannot accomplish more.
My relief comes from knowing I will learn from this experience and hopefully one day be able to apply it to a command of my own. Each day I’m here I watch as young men and women step to their aircraft to engage in a particularly hazardous occupation. The responsibility I bear is not lost on me. When I was a new lieutenant, I was responsible for navigating my aircraft. As a captain, I became responsible for planning and leading formations of aircraft. Now as a major, I am responsible for a squadron of aircraft and crews while on my watch.
For the next few months, as the Coalition takes the fight to ISIS in the battle for Mosul, I will be here, behind the scenes. My experience in this conflict is not going to be the exciting enough to warrant any lengthy journal. Given time, I may write more- although I am the first to admit that there is little I can say that others haven’t said considerably better. But I’m open to sharing more if readers are interested.