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A Witness to Tragedy - Reflections on the Recovery Mission

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Michael Tateishi
  • 438th air Expeditionary Wing
I showed up Friday morning to the Afghan National Army Air Corps flightline just after 5 A.M. Anyone that's lived in Afghanistan would ever expect to see the number of people up mission-ready when there is no actual combat. But there it was, several dozen Afghan soldiers with their backpacks filled to the brim, ready to go with their shovels and pick axes. Within five minutes, these soldiers went from waiting on the flightine to waiting to takeoff inside the Mi-17.

We flew to the landing zone in the Salang Pass, which my iPhone read "12,100 ft". These men started hiking the remaining 1,000+ feet almost straight up. I thought I had seen everything and I was impressed, but that was just the beginning.

Instead of going back to Kabul, the pilot told me we were "going to a small village". I thought that would be interesting. It wasn't until we landed on a soccer field, a few miles south of Bagram airfield, that I was really shocked. It was no later than 7 A.M. and the police already had the perimeter secured and practically the entire town was out and waiting. I saw at least a couple hundred soldiers and police officers with their mountain hiking gear ready and waiting to board our aircraft.
There were also six to nine ambulances prepositioned on the soccer field.

It went like clockwork. We'd go up and drop soldiers off at the top. On one of the drop offs, the pilot I was flying with asked me to find out where the air medics were that we dropped off on the first trip. I started hiking to another ridge that had a slight elevation and quickly found myself winded after I went only 200 yards.

I couldn't find the medics, so they must have started climbing. The soldiers had to climb at least 10 times the distance that I had just walked and do so almost vertically with their gear. I can't even imagine trying to do all that at that elevation.

After making several runs up the mountain, it was time to eat lunch.
Well, make that breakfast because it was only 9:30 A.M. The hospitality at the soccer field was unbelievable. We had a nice hot Afghan meal with seasoned lamb and fresh vegetables. It was obvious there was planning that went into this mission.

Just after noon, it was determined that bad weather was coming in and we were going to have to pick up the soldiers along with their gear and whatever remains they found. Mi-17's kept going back up and down the mountain to get these folks. I'd watch the fuel truck roll up after the engines died and would refuel one helicopter and then another. A couple times the fire truck would make its way onto the soccer field to hose down the field to reduce the amount of sand being blown around.

The staging area was not one of joy for sure; however, this recovery effort stunned me at how well everything was being carried out. This was Afghans doing it by themselves. The only U.S. personnel that were there were the U.S. mentors from the Combined Air Power Transition Force and we all stayed back and literally watched. There was no mentoring to be done. The Afghans had this one and they did it well.