Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Veterans Day

Our veterans, my heroes

By Col. George Farfour
90th Missile Wing vice commander

As we approach Nov. 11, Veterans Day, I am reminded more readily that those of us wearing the uniform have a special bond with those who have worn the uniform — our veterans. We share an identity that transcends any differences we may have. We unite in a duty to serve and sacrifice for our great nation, to ensure liberty and freedom continues to have a solid foundation in America as the beacon of hope for the world. I submit for your consideration the story below which occurred earlier in my career. Remembering this story helps frame for me, on a personal level, our obligation to our veterans. I hope it does for you as well.

After an uneventful visit to the base barber shop, I thought I would kill some time in what had promised to be an uneventful day. I decided to visit the clothing sales store — not to buy anything, but just to browse around.

Upon entering, I circled around toward the book section to see what was new. As I picked up a copy of some book, I noticed out of the corner of my eye an older gentleman, perhaps 70, struggling to pick out some merchandise. I paid closer attention and saw he was having trouble reading the tags.

Not wanting to appear patronizing, I just watched a while, not offering any assistance. As time progressed and he made no headway in his search, I felt something inside tell me to help. Maybe it was the small Purple Heart pin on his hat that motivated me, I really don’t know. Slowly, I moved toward him and asked if I could help him find something.

I was relieved when he turned and pleasantly said, “Yes, I can’t seem to find the American Defense Service Medal ribbon.” Immediately, I noticed a sheet of paper organized in lists in one hand and ribbons in the other. He was obviously reconstructing his old ribbons and medals for display or wear.

We worked through the list together, talking as we went. He told me how he was finally going to get all of his medals together and put them in a shadow box on the wall for his grandchildren. He had recently received word that he was awarded several medals and decorations from World War II that were forgotten as he was a medic assigned to another unit. The list outlined awards and decorations from World War II and Korea.

As we double checked the list, he explained what each attachment meant. “This arrowhead means an amphibious assault landing — went in on the first wave at Normandy. This Combat Infantryman’s Badge means I was in continuous combat with the enemy for 30 days in a row. We got this one and the Combat Medic’s Badge. This is a new one, the Prisoner of War Medal. Didn’t have that one when I was a POW. This one here, we all got for going to defend South Korea in 1950.”

He didn’t brag, he just stated matter-of-factly what they all meant.

In the course of our conversation, he learned I was an Air Force officer. From then on, he addressed me as “Sir.”

He acted glad that I’d helped, and was even more appreciative when I asked the clerk to run a copy of the “order of precedence” ribbon chart for him to take home. As he walked to the counter to pay for his ribbons and badges, I told him I was honored to help him. He replied, “Thank you, sir.” I thought it was odd for a man of 70 to be calling me sir, but I guess that’s just the type of man he is.

As I walked toward my car, my thoughts turned to the hundreds of injured soldiers he must have helped, the faces he must have looked into and reassured as bombs fell around them and bullets whizzed by, the helplessness he must have felt as he watched someone’s son, husband, father and brother die in his arms. The great exhilarations of battle, the fear of death he faced each day, all swirled in my head. Each time his country called, he was there, ready to do what had to be done. I owe him — we all owe him, and all those like him — for what we have today. This world is not perfect, but it is closer due to their sacrifice.

From the beaches of Normandy to the hills of Korea, he served his country with pride and, from the number of awards, with great distinction. There are many veterans out there with a similar story. Whether it is the jungles of New Guinea, the deserts of Africa, Kuwait or Iraq that their stories highlight, the frigid cold of a Korea or an Afghanistan winter or the rainy season in the Mekong Delta, they all have done this country a great service. When we think of war, we tend to think most often of the dead, but Veterans Day is a day to also remember all those who served their country. Gen. George S. Patton said it best in a post-World War II speech: “Everyone always talks about the heroic dead, well damn it, there’s a lot of heroic alive ones out there, too!”

We see those “heroic alive ones” every day. Perhaps it’s a Veterans of Foreign Wars cap, a sticker on a car, a pin on a suit, a Purple Heart license plate, an American Legion shirt, or maybe it’s your dad, grandpa, brother, sister, uncle or just a close friend. If you see one of these “heroic alive ones,” go over and shake their hand just to say, “Thank you.” It’s a small gesture, but a meaningful one. Their greatest pleasure, or payoff so to speak, is the freedom we still have, due in large part to their sacrifice and example.

I met a hero. And though I haven’t been asked to do what he did, I’m ready, when my country needs me. Meeting him, seeing his example and accomplishments, strengthened my resolve and boosted my pride. Some people say there are no heroes left, our kids can’t look up to anyone. Well, I say they’re blind. Heroes are everywhere … you just have to look.

I met one in clothing sales.

7

Air Force Week in Photos

By Staff Sgt. Delia Marchick
Air Force Public Affairs Agency

At the end of every work week the U.S. Air Force story is told through photos. This Week in Photos set includes a Purple Heart recipient, along with seven other photos that can be viewed here. Which photo is your favorite?

Purple Heart

Photo: U.S. Air Force Maj. Michael Epper, a Byram, N.J., native assigned to the 866th Air Expeditionary Squadron, was one of 12 service members recognized for actions taken Oct. 26, 2011, when their convoy was ambushed twice while traveling through Afghanistan’s Tangi Valley. The team successfully overcame a 45-minute complex attack in which insurgents used rocket-propelled grenades, small arms fire and improvised explosive devices. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Katie Justen)

Never forget

Never forget

By Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras
Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul

QALAT CITY, Afghanistan — It was a day like any other, but one I’ll never forget; it was beautiful, with the sun rising behind the New York City skyline. I was a seventh grader sitting in class waiting for my teacher to call attendance.

Nothing seemed different from the day prior. Children were in the corner rushing to finish last night’s homework as the teacher was walking in with her bag full of books in her right hand and coffee in her left.

“One of my students says he just saw a plane go in the twin towers,” says Michele Mortoral with worry in her voice as she is rushing into my class.

“Tell him to stop kidding around,” jokingly says Jane Lynch, my seventh grade teacher.

My classmates are rushing to the windows to see one of the twin towers on fire, with dark smoke rising into the beautiful blue sky. The sky is beginning to turn gray, as if it is about to rain. My friends are beginning to panic and the teachers are trying to calm us to the best of their ability. There is fear and worry in the room. I am staring out the window wondering; “Why is this happening…Did the pilot fall asleep…Isn’t there a co-pilot?”

We are starting to wonder where our families are. I’m worrying about where my father could be. He is a messenger and does trips between North Jersey and New York City daily. There are days where he has to go in and out of New York City about six times a day. My mother is at her restaurant taking orders, like every other morning.

The teachers at Lincoln School are working really hard trying to continue class to keep it off our minds, but there is no way that is possible. I switch classes, from homeroom to math class. Ms. Rachel Mullane is teaching in front of the class.

Some of my classmates are staring out the window, looking at one of the twin towers burning the sky with smoke like a lit cigar. Some of them are actually paying attention in class, not understanding how big and historical this is. The rest, like me, are sitting at our desks worrying about our families.

“There is the other one,” someone yells, while pointing out the window. His pointing finger freezes in mid-air while his arm slowly shifts from left to right. He is following the plane like a sniper following a target. The class is in complete shock and very quiet, just watching.

At 9:03 a.m., I am watching a Boeing 767 hit tower two in front of my eyes. I am 12-years-old and my eyes are completely dry and focused, but at least ten other pairs of eyes are tearing. My classmates begin to panic. They feel like running out of the classroom, but Mullane is blocking the classroom door so no one can leave class. Safety is a teacher’s responsibility so it’s understandable.

“Attention!” says a familiar voice over the loudspeaker, “We are under attack but we need to remain calm.”

The voice is Michael Ventolo, my principal and a very happy person, but in his tone, I know this is too serious to think of him as a happy person behind the microphone. Fear and worry have just thickened the air. I can smell it.

“Grovert Fuentes” says Mullane, “Your mother is downstairs. Pack your books, you can go home.” I am relieved to know that my mother is well and I can go home with my mother and little brothers. One of my brothers is five and in kindergarten, in the same school as me. My two-year-old brother is at home with the babysitter.

The look my mother has on her face, I have never seen before. She is a brave woman with lots of courage. Her face reassures me that this is a serious situation.

On the ride home, my mother is telling me how worried she is about my father. She can’t get in touch with him. She’s taking red lights and breaking the speed limit. We arrive home and continue calling my father, but no answer. The cell phone towers are down and we can’t get through. The calls that can get through are giving us the busy tone.

For the next few hours, my mother and I are glued to the television, waiting to hear details. At 9:37 a.m., we find out that the Pentagon is also hit. We do not know what to do, nor what to expect, but we do know that the president is about to come on TV and make a speech.

“Today we’ve had a national tragedy,” says the President of the United States, George W. Bush. “Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.”

Finally, around 11 a.m., my father calls to tell us he is safe, and has just exited the Lincoln Tunnel, but is stuck in New York City. He is also telling us that traffic is frozen and many people are abandoning their vehicles to run through the tunnel, to the New Jersey side.

5 p.m. comes around and my father comes home. Our family is united and we are happy to see each other again.

A decade later, I am away from my family again.

I am a combat photographer standing on Afghan soil with plenty of Taliban around me. Some ask me why I volunteered for this deployment. On Feb. 21, 2010, shortly after my return from Iraq, U.S. Army Sgt. Marcos Antonio Gorra died in the line of combat. He was a hometown friend, who died on this same soil I stand on today. He died for freedom and for those towers.

I’ve been exposed to explosives, rockets, and gunfire, yet, I’m still glad to be where I am now; I’m defending what I saw 10 years ago and trying to keep the fight on their soil instead of ours.

Many ask me my reason for joining and I say, “My biggest reason is because of 9/11. It is a day that I will never forget.”

Photo: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras, a combat photographer assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul, stands on top of Alexander’s Castle in Qalat City, Afghanistan, July 17, 2011. (Courtesy photo)

110904-F-RW714-247

Never stop trying

By Master Sgt. Sonya L. Couture
438th Air Expeditionary Wing

As Sept. 11 approaches, I find myself once again in Afghanistan – this time for a year. This mission is different from the last. Instead of supporting missions to “seek out and destroy the enemy,” I am here to train members of the Afghan Air Force on how to do my job, Aircrew Flight Equipment. I’m also teaching them how to manage their people and resources as well as how to solve problems on their own. I assure you, it’s not an easy task with their lack of classroom education and cultural differences.

Thinking back on where I was and what I was doing on 9/11, I’m reminded of the pain and anger I felt at such a senseless act. On 9/11, I saw every one of “them” as the enemy. My anger was boiling over and I wanted all of them eradicated from this earth. I’m sure many others felt the same way as they watched the horrors unfold on the news, replayed repeatedly. What came to mind later as I calmed down were the millions of innocent men, women and children who had nothing to do with these acts of terrorism. I slowly began to realize that 9/11 was not the work of all the people who are Muslim or from the Middle East, but the work of small extremist groups. I reserved my anger for the ones responsible, the factions and groups of extremist Muslims who hate Americans and wish to see us die. I consciously decided it was not right to judge them all on the actions of a few.

However, on April 27 this year, nine of my friends and coworkers were killed by one of the Afghans we were training. It was by far the single, most horrifying experience of my life. My reaction of rage and disbelief was very similar to my feelings on 9/11. I felt an overwhelming anger that sickened me. Why did my friends have to die so senselessly? I felt myself looking at every Afghan I saw with pure hatred.

After the shootings, I struggled to regain my enthusiasm for what I was doing here. How could I help these people, not knowing if their secret agenda was to kill me? On my first day back to work it was clear that “my” Afghans had no such intentions toward me. The sadness and pain in their eyes told me what I needed to know. They feared I would hate them for their fellow comrade’s actions and decide to no longer help them. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t hold it against them. These men didn’t kill my friends. They were trying their best to do what any of us would want; to make a better life for themselves, their family and their country.

Weeks later during a conversation with my Afghan interpreter, I asked him if he thought his country would ever be able to get rid of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the war lords who ravage the country. Were we here for nothing, wasting our time and money? He asked me if the U.S. has ever been able to get rid of all its “bad guys”; those who rob, rape, and murder?

“No”, I said. “Of course not, but we will always keep trying to make it better.”
“That’s all we are trying to do as well,” he responded. His simple statement stuck with me. They should have the chance to try and make a better world for themselves, for the good men who are weak to become strong and capable of fighting the evil men.

I see the innocent children smiling and waving excitedly giving us the “thumbs up” as we convoy down the dirty streets of Kabul. We are hope to them and their future. I visit injured children in the hospital and absorb some of their positive, radiant energy they each have despite their injuries and constant struggles. These kids deserve to have a better life. The men I am training are trying to make this a better place for their families, the same thing we strive for every day and I am proud to be a part of it.

On Sept. 11, on an Afghan Air Force base, we will be reading the names of the 3,000-plus victims who died on that day and raising our flag in their honor. Who would have ever thought we would get to this point? As we pay tribute and honor to those who lost their lives on that day, let us not forget how blessed we are to be citizens of the United States. It is by the grace of God that we did not find ourselves born into a country such as Afghanistan where life is harder and more uncertain than we could ever imagine.

In February next year, I will be on my way home to my family. I will leave this country behind and wish them well in their endeavors to become a better, stronger country. Nothing can change what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, nor bring back the loved ones, family and friends who were lost then or during the war that followed. All we can do is continue to honor their memory, to never forget and to keep fighting for something more; a better world so this never happens again. We will never be able to wipe out all of the “bad guys” in this world….but that doesn’t mean we should ever stop trying.

Air Drop

121,000 pounds in 15 seconds

By Staff Sgt. David Salanitri
U.S. Air Forces Central

Their flight suits are soaked through with sweat, it’s 110 degrees outside and the smell in the U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III resembles a high school locker room — we’re 30 minutes into our 15-hour mission.

Air DropLike the majority of people who like to browse news on the war, I’ve seen many pictures and videos of supplies and cargo being dropped from an aircraft … the pallets of supplies float gracefully down and that is that. Never do I see the blood, sweat and tears that go behind getting those pallets to where they need to be.

The crew is alerted around 9 a.m. and arrives to the squadron 40 minutes later. They assemble for a highly detailed pre-mission brief that prepares the Airmen for what they will face during their mission.

Once processed through customs, it’s time to arm up and head to the plane. Today is my first combat airdrop mission; our location is somewhere in Southwest Asia. The air is heavy with humidity — you can actually feel the air on your skin. At this point, all we’ve done is place our bags on the C-17 and already our flight suits are drenched in sweat. Drops of perspiration are falling off the loadmaster’s face. We have 13 hours left in the day.

Even in the cargo bay of the massive aircraft, room is at a premium. More than 73,000 pounds of JP-8 fuel loaded on 40 pallets fill the aircraft from tail to nose, leaving just enough space for us to walk along the sides. The loadmaster’s voice comes over the speakers “ready for takeoff.” Within seconds our warehouse with wings is in the air.

Estimated time over target is two hours. The lights dim and things begin to cool off as we ascend.

As we get closer to the drop zone, Staff Sgt. Russ Johnson, an 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron loadmaster, signals a 30-minute warning. My two partners are no strangers to documenting airdrops, but for me, this is a new experience.

I strap myself into a seat in the back by the door. The aircraft dives, dips and dodges its way through the mountains of Afghanistan — I eye up the closest pile of puke-bags in case things go south for this guy.

The door opens at about 1,000 feet above the ground. I knew Afghanistan was mountainous, but I couldn’t have been prepared for what I saw. The mountains are high and the aircraft is low. It feels as though I could reach out and touch the mountaintops — I wasn’t too far off.

It’s game time. Red light … yellow light … green light. Within two seconds, 36,500 pounds of JP-8 fuel violently races past me and out the aircraft, floating down to coalition troops on the ground. Our second pass drops another load.

Gearing up for our third drop, a stop is made at Bagram Airfield (BAF) to refuel and load up another 48,000 pounds of Meals, Ready to Eat. As we’re parked on the ramp, the doors open and the tail goes down. For anyone who hasn’t been to BAF, it’s a sight to see. A bowl of mountains surround the airfield. On the ramp of the aircraft lay two loadmasters enjoying the sunset on what appears to be a peaceful evening.

With one pallet left to load on the plane, sirens go off. The peaceful moment disappears as the crew loading the plane runs for cover because, make no mistake about it, we are at war.

Air DropThe news team and aircrew shelter in place on the aircraft. The sirens disappear and a new noise is heard. A pair of fighter jets and helicopters take to the sky. We all agree, someone is about to have a bad day.

More than an hour passes before the last pallet is finally loaded.

The sun is down and the sky is dark. Red lights illuminate the cargo area of the plane.

In preparation for the last drop of the mission, the lights dim. Looking through the viewfinder of my camera is a daunting task as visibility is close to nonexistent. We’re effectively an invisible flying Wal-Mart under the night sky. In a matter of 10 seconds, the doors open, the MREs blast out the door and we are on our way home.

Fifteen hours for about 15 seconds of actual action. Action that will keep my brothers and sisters fed, and their vehicles working.

The men and women of the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron from Joint Base Charleston are game changers. They allow coalition forces to sustain operations in some of the most austere locations on Earth. They are force multipliers.

Video: Airlift supports warfighter

Photo: (Top) Air Force Staff Sgt. Stephen Adams, an 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron loadmaster, observes 36,500 pounds of JP-8 fuel fly out the back of a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III cargo aircraft over Afghanistan July 8, 2011. The C-17 dropped more than 121,000 pounds of food and fuel during a 15-hour mission. Supplies were dropped to U.S. and coalition troops. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. David Salanitri) (Bottom) Staff Sgt. Adams releases 48,000 pounds of Meals, Ready to Eat out of the C-17 on July 8, 2011 over Afghanistan during the concealment of the night sky. The crews also airdropped more than 73,000 pounds of JP-8 fuel during their mission. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. David Salanitri)