There were no wounded passengers on the next leg of the trip to Sharana, although some pallets of cargo were loaded and a small group of soldiers in full battle dress clambered aboard.
Once in the air, the landscape changed yet again as the mountains opened up to reveal verdant valleys and even the occasional lake -- all a far cry from the Kandahar dust bowl we'd left behind us. Fields of poppies were visible in the rural patchwork.
The 110-mile journey also gave me a chance to really study the Afghan walled compounds that I have seen so many times on TV. As a friend and veteran told me prior to my trip, these buildings seem to belong to an earlier, more feudal era. This, combined with the marked lack of traffic on dusty roads, really felt like watching some earlier period of history.
While I was admiring the scenery, though, Jencks and Mackintosh were dealing with the technical details of landing at Sharana, some 7,000 feet above sea level.
"Because of the field elevation here, the aircraft doesn't perform as well as it would do at a lower elevation field," explained the captain, explaining that he uses a different type of landing maneuver to deal with the altitude.
Soon after, the landing was skillfully accomplished and we picked up a walking patient at the heavily fortified base. Before long we were climbing out of Sharana, heading for Bagram.
Not long into the flight, however, Jencks was forced to execute an extremely sharp (and gut-pummeling) evasive maneuver to avoid an oncoming plane, quickly earning the praise of his co-pilot and the terrified passenger in the jump seat. Clearly, the busy skies above Afghanistan can be a dangerous place.
Thankfully, the rest of the journey was less eventful, and we were soon back in the bustling Bagram airbase. While some of the medical team grabbed a well-earned break,
asked Major McGaughey to compare the current situation with his previous deployments. The major replied that he's seeing fewer injured and less serious injuries than two years ago.
While the traditional Afghan summer fighting season has not yet begun, many U.S. personnel are hopeful that the slowing casualty count will continue as the drawdown gains pace.
Loaded up again with cargo and troops, the C-130J set off on its final journey of the day, co-pilot Mackintosh now guiding the transport giant through a thunderstorm and limited visibility to finally reach its Kandahar base.
Pioneered in the aftermath of World War II, Aeromedical Evacuation plays a critical role at the heart of the U.S. military. Since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 19, 2003, Air Force AE personnel have conducted nearly 200,000 patient movements and flown almost 42,000 sorties.
By the end of 2014, however, most Americans will be hoping that missions like the one I saw become a thing of the past.
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