KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (
) -- America may be drawing down its military presence in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but Air Force pilots and medics are still working hard to save U.S. lives.
Earlier this week,
to witness an Air Force Aeromedical Evacuation (AE) team in action, joining an eight-hour mission to transfer wounded personnel across the war-torn country.
"You will be seeing some impressive scenery today," I was told when I joined pilots and crew from the 772nd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron at its base in
in southern Afghanistan. "You will see the Hindu Kush spread out beneath you."
I was, however, also told to keep my body armor and helmet with me, underlining the potential dangers here. Like most military personnel at Kandahar airfield, each member of the flight crew and medical team carried a weapon.
Capt. Corey Jencks, the flight commander, explained that this is his fourth AE mission and the second of his current deployment, which began about a month ago. Our "ride" would be a
C-130J, which was being prepared by the medics as we walked across the runway.
Soon, Jencks called everyone together for a pre-flight briefing in the cargo hold, outlining emergency procedures and discussing the patients' requirements with Major Robert McGaughey, director of the five-person medical crew. The huge airbase at Bagram in central Afghanistan would be our first destination, followed by a short journey to an FOB, or Forward Operating Base, at Sharana in the southeastern part of the country. From there, a return to Bagram, and finally, home to Kandahar.
Shortly afterwards, I was settled in the cockpit jump seat and connected via headset to Jencks and his co-pilot, First Lt. David Mackintosh. Senior Airman Robert Lemay, one of the two loadmasters on the four-man crew, clambered up the ladder to the cockpit to give the new boy a security briefing, showing me what to do with the bag containing my emergency oxygen supply.
"We're not going to have to bail out, but, if we do, it's three long rings on the [alarm] bell," he added, before noting with a smile that "there's only four parachutes anyway."