Sunday, October 23, 2005

On Break From the War

As far as an emotional impact, yesterday has to stand as the most significant of the deployment to date.

Monday night Craig and I received a warning order to be prepared to move to Pakistan. We didn’t know exactly what the mission would be other than logistics support to the Task Force Griffin, the aviation unit flying the helicopter relief missions out of Islamabad. We didn’t know how long we were expected to be there, only that the relief effort would become more urgent as the weather deteriorated. So on Tuesday, we packed our bags and prepared for a Wednesday departure.

Throughout the day, the normal confusion that surrounds air travel in the theater, continued to reign, and Wednesday night, Craig and I found ourselves sitting on the on the back ramp of a Casa 212 as the Blackwater Aviation pilots waited for diplomatic clearance into Pakistan. It never came and we shuffled back to Stalag 17 for the night. During the course of the evening though, it became a higher priority to get KBR contractors on the ground rather than logisticians. It was decided that Craig was more important at Bagram, so I was headed east alone.

Yesterday started at with a 3:30 A.M. wake-up and a 4:30 arrival at the terminal. There was still the normal confusion as to who had precedence and which cargo was flying, and to confuse things even more, we were switching planes from the Casa to a Metroliner which had more seats, but less cargo space. In the end, we got everything to fit and we lifted off the Bagram runway about ½ hour after sunrise. Passing by Tora Bora and cruising leisurely over the Khyber Pass, there seemed to be something surreal about leaving a combat zone to head to a disaster area. It seemed the we were, in effect calling time out from the war to go to an earthquake. A few minutes later, we slipped over the expansive white checkerboard of Islamabad and skidded smoothly onto the runway of Qasim Airfield.

A pick-up truck pulled up to the Airplane as I was stepping out, and I was greeted by MSG Moore, the Aviation Brigade logistician who I had come to know well during our time at Purple Ramp when deploying from Germany. He had been in Pakistan for about 10 days now and gave he gave me a quick rundown on the status of things as he took me to the hanger where all the flight crews and other support personnel were being housed. I dropped my gear there, then headed for the operations center. On the short walk there, I passed Russian made MI-17 and U.S. Made UH-1 helicopters both owned by the Pakistani Air Force, A massive CH-53 brought in by the Germans, a plethora of other helicopters that I couldn’t even identify let alone want to ride in, and of course our work horse CH-47s brought in by Big Windy and Task Force Griffin.

Following introductions and a quick tour, we jumped in the Suburban with the Task Force Commander and headed for Chakala Air Base. After the death defying drive through Islamabad where our embassy driver put every New York cabbie I’ve ever ridden with to shame, we pulled into the airbase. The main road leading in was lined with the ever-present Jinga trucks and when we reached the runway, I stood stunned. I had grown up in Army aviation as an enlisted crew chief on UH-60 Blackhawks but I have never seen more helicopters in one place at the same time than on this day. They lined the runway in all shapes and sizes, from one end to the other and down the taxi-ways. In the triangular grass area formed by the runways and taxi-way, was a mountain of humanitarian aid products waiting to be loaded onto the next available helicopter. On our side of the runway, farther down, massive cargo planes from China, Switzerland, Germany, and Canada were disgorging even more assistance material. The 53s and 47s thundered overhead, while their smaller brethren buzzed around like little gnats.

We walked around the base camp for a few minutes making introductions and talking to people then walked across the runway to hitch a ride up north. All the flight crews were living in Qasim with us, so it didn’t take my counterpart long to find a crewmember that he recognized.

“Do you have room for a couple of passengers Sergeant?”

“As long as you don’t mind working Sir. I just need you to manifest inside the control tent, and we’ll crank as soon as they finish loading.”

After giving the Sergeant in the control tent our information and getting manifested, we walked back to the Chinook while the Pakistani soldiers finished loading. Hundreds of bundles marked “China Aid” filled the center of the aircraft from floor to ceiling. Plastic tarps and tents filled the areas to the front and rear of the Chinese donations, and German donations filled out the area forward to where the crew seats began. By the time the Pakistani soldiers directed the Jinga trucks to clear the area, more than 17,000 pounds of humanitarian assistance supplies were on board. A few minutes later, the Jinga trucks pulled away from our sister Chinook parked in front of us.

Crew members pulled on flight helmets and manned fire extinguishers, a Pakistani pilot manned the jump seat between the two Griffin pilots and the APU cranked followed shortly by the main engines. We wobbled heavily on the runway as the rotor blades built up speed and I listened to the familiar chop as they turned to a blur overhead and the wobbling settled into the normal vibration associated with these beasts. The chop turned to a heavy slap as the pilots pulled in power and pitch and we lumbered skyward with our 8 tons of supplies.

We turned to the north, and Islamabad spread out before us. The stark differences between what I was seeing here and Afghanistan could not have been more vivid. Gone were the mud huts, and compounds swept with dusty winds. Gone were the networks of trails dissecting the country side, replaced with divided highways and paved city streets It was my first real view of the thousands upon thousands of small white houses and buildings spread across this wide valley floor like so many alabaster tiles or ivory dominos. I saw a river snaking through the center of the city, and the unmistakable green strips of golf courses cut through the symmetry of the streets and buildings.To the north of the city a massive mosque with four immense columns dominated the landscape and then we left the city was behind us.

Leaving Islamabad to the North, the terrain rises rapidly. The valleys narrow and grow sharply steeper. Fir, pine, and spruce trees cover the mountain sides and as we climbed high up the valleys it was hard for me not to tell myself that we were flying over my Colorado mountains. Here though, civilization rapidly melted away. The mountain side were covered with houses, many of them beautiful with picturesque views of the valleys below, but the solidified infrastructure was gone. The houses that were wedged into every possible location that would facilitate them were connected by only one lane dirt roads at best, and in many cases only trails. Power lines were non-existent for the most part and I knew there was no way to pump water to these locations, yet here they were, all these houses from the lavish to the ramshackle spread across every mountain and valley that we traversed.

We continued climbing to the northeast and the air blew continually colder through the open windows next to the crew chief and flight engineer and I regretted not bringing new issue black fleece jacket on what was a 75 degree day at the airfield. The mountain ridges we were crossing now glimmered with what looked to be a dusting of snow, but is in fact the beginning of the annual snow pack that will not disappear until late spring. The Himalayas rose into view no longer very distant.

I watched the still ever-present houses slip beneath us, and I wondered if there was any limit to the altitude that they would build in when I began to notice a difference in the structures I was seeing. The tin roofs were set low to the ground with what looked to be only a small support structure beneath them. At first I though that these house were dug into the side of the mountain or possibly they were shelters for animals or grain then I suddenly realized that the houses themselves were no longer there, their roofs had collapsed on top of them. These collapsed house were intermittent at first, but a few minutes later, scarcely a standing structure could be seen. Roofs that were intact had slid down the valley leaving trails of rubble behind them Where the roofs were not intact, only piles of rubble, twisted metal and splintered wood remained. The valley walls were scarred by landslides and now we flew mile after mile without seeing a standing structure.

Our big Chinook finally labored over one last ridge and we slowly descended into the valley beyond, weaving back and forth across the restrictive terrain searching for the best approach into the area that had been designated for our relief mission. The crew chief tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out across the deep valley where I saw sparkles and flashes of light from the mountain sides.

“Mirror flashes Sir, every time they hear a helicopter they signal us trying to get us to land there.”

Too isolated, too sick, or too hurt to get to the central points we were landing only a few miles away, there were far too many needing help in places unreachable even by our mode, that would have to rely on help coming by foot.

We looped around and descended towards a small clearing with a makeshift flag acting as a windsock and suddenly the ground below us was teeming with people. We pulled into a hover a few feet off the ground and I started heaving supplies towards the crew chief who in turn dropped them out the window. Box after box tumbled out, none of them hitting the ground and rolls of plastic and tents were pulled from our hands before they were even clear of the window. After five minutes, I could see over the supplies remaining in the helicopter the hordes of people gathered around the tail ramp while crewmembers in the back did the same thing as us. Then the power and pitch were pulled in again, the rotors slapped at the air and we struggled back over the mountain ridges towards another site.

This time, we set down at the makeshift landing zone. I jumped out the crew door and headed around to the tail ramp barely ahead of the crowd of men and boys streaming down from the tents and makeshift shelters above our landing site. Ee began throwing the bundles of Chinese blankets as far as we could from the rear of the helicopter to keep the majority of the crowds at bay. It was only marginally effective. While the women huddled together higher up on the side of the hill with the girls close beside them, the men and boys charged towards the helicopter, desperately scrambling for the next thing to come off. We struggled to keep the boxes and plastic rolls flowing out of the helicopter faster than waving hands could receive them, but it was like fighting a tidal wave with a stick, and care had to be taken not to bowl over old men who even though weakened by the elements and hunger, were gamely trying to carry their share of the workload.

The 4 tons of supplies that we landed with melted into the crowd almost without a trace and still, desperate faces crowded around the tail ramp hoping for more. As the engines spooled up again, several of the younger men in the crowd were pointing frantically at a box under the seat. It was a box containing packages of cookies that the crewmembers adamantly refused to distribute and while I appreciated the fact that these crewmembers had been doing this job for a lot longer than I had, it didn’t seem characteristic of these kids to hold back the last thing we had that might relieve even a small part of these peoples misery.

We lumbered back up the valley, leaving this makeshift refugee camp with the boys running up the hill behind us and the girls hiding their faces from the rotor wash behind their shawls. We circled to gain altitude, and at first the cool mountain air flowing in the windows was a welcome respite, but soon it chilled us in our sweat-soaked shirts. Soon enough, we slipped over the snowy ridgeline, and quickly descended into the warmer air of the valley to the south and in a few minutes we started to see increasing signs of civilization but the devastation increased along with it.

As we crossed over the edge of Mazaffarabad, I began seeing devastation that my mind struggled to comprehend. Block after block of this city had been reduced to rubble. Streets were impassable, and people flocked towards the soccer field near the center of town where a rudimentary hospital was set up and where we settling to the ground. Our Pakistani pilot disembarked and disappeared into the crowd. Other helicopters of various makes and nationalities joined us and soon people bearing stretchers began carrying patients towards our aircraft. First came the litter patients, each identified with a number and letter on their forehead, mostly the elderly who were laid along the bench seats, and then on the floor. Then, the ambulatory patients came aboard, filling in the vacant spaces, many carrying wide eyed children in their arms. As each of these children passed the crewmember at the tail ramp, they received a package of cookies from the only remaining box on the aircraft. The eyes remained sharp and piercing, but a child’s smile is disarming in any language.

We finally lumbered back into the air for the final stretch, and with the all the seats being occupied, I stood holding onto an overhead bar having a smiling contest with a little girl of maybe a year, who was getting more utility out of her package of cookies as a toy, than as food. Her protective mother held her patiently but obviously wary of this strange American who couldn’t do anything but smile at her daughter.

Behind the mother, a young husband held his wife’s head, and next to them, the flight medic looked up at me from his patient, with that universally understood expression, of “There was nothing I could do”. Next to him, a son squatted next to his father, comforting him oblivious to the medic behind him.

We descended back to the airfield in Islamabad, and minutes after landing, the patients had been hustled into ambulances bearing red crescents and whisked away. Suddenly I found my self sitting in the cavernous empty cargo bay in awe of this crew of young soldiers who began preparing the helicopter for their next trip into the devastation, their fourth of the day. I will stand in silent awe of these soldiers, on break from the war to save as many lives as they can, for years to come. Long before that awe begins to fade, I will find a day to sit and cry for everything that I have seen today.

3 comments:

CW2 Steve Frazee said...

Excellent entry sir. Those guys in Big Windy have been working their tails off. It's also good to hear of the international support that the pakistanis are getting. Salerno is actually getting cooler, at leaswt in the evening.

Beth* A. said...

Thank you for your account of what is going on. There's little in the news about it here stateside, which is sad. It should make us all proud of you all, and wanting to do more to help. This earthquake should be front and center for weeks, like Katrina was. God bless you, and all those soldiers for their fine, exemplary service each and every day. Please pass that on!

MKL said...

Thanks for the first hand account Firepower 5. A very moving post, Thanks alot to all who are there!!