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'There I was...': Perspective

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Brian Gilpatrick
  • 91st Air Refueling Squadron director of operations
We have been conducting near-continuous operations in Southwest Asia since Operation Desert Shield began in 1990. Operation Enduring Freedom has been going on for more than 11 years. As a result, most of our Airmen have deployed so many times to Southwest Asia that it has become somewhat of a regular rotation.

I have deployed numerous times as a KC-135 crew member to several different bases. I know people who are on their twelfth deployment or have surpassed 300 combat sorties. Some of our bases, especially those outside of Afghanistan, have become so robust that their amenities compare to some stateside bases.

As I prepared for my most recent deployment, I found myself wondering what I really needed to pack. How was the Wi-Fi? Would I need a television? How about a bicycle? When I arrived, I heard about a shift from an expeditionary to an enduring presence and an initiative to begin accompanied assignments to the base. I also learned of numerous opportunities to travel off-base and was informed of an upcoming "flightline fest" to showcase our aircraft.

All of these initiatives and comforts are important and help ease the pain of being away from friends and family, especially during the holidays. However, they can also contribute to a loss of perspective. When something becomes so commonplace and so seemingly low threat, there is danger of losing focus or perspective on why we are there at all.

This loss of focus can even occur within some aspects of the mission. As the director of operations, I must ensure that my aircrews are focused on their mission. Generally, when deployed in support of combat operations, this wouldn't be a difficult task; however, when you have been flying the same basic mission for years, things can start to seem a bit ordinary. My deployed KC-135 crewmembers, flying three to four miles above Afghanistan, do not always see the direct impacts of their efforts. They are not in the heat of the fight for the most part and are not being threatened by any adversary. Most days, their biggest threat is avoiding other coalition aircraft or navigating the customs and immigrations process following their flight.

As a KC-135 crew, our job is to be on station whenever and wherever we are needed to support ongoing operations. Some days our fuel is desperately needed, and others it is not. There are many factors that play into this equation such as location of the operation, type of air support needed, weather and availability of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance, along with many other factors.

Sometimes we are tasked with being on station just in case we are needed, providing available fuel for F-16s or A-10s or sitting alert to provide close air support at a moment's notice. Other times our fuel provides the flexibility and increased loiter time to guarantee intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance coverage or to enable historically low response times to calls for air support. Most days it is easy to understand how our fuel provides flexibility and support to air and ground operations, but some days it is not always as clear. Occasionally, we get so comfortable with the mission that we need a reminder of why we are here, an adjustment of perspective.

For me, this reminder came one seemingly normal day about two weeks into my deployment. Everything started as any other day, but that all changed with a short phone call. That call was to notify me that one of our re-deploying aircraft had been re-tasked and would be carrying a fallen warrior back to the United States. It is not often that KC-135s are utilized for this task, however on this day, we were called on to perform the honorable yet solemn task of safely transporting one of our fallen heroes back to his family.

I had witnessed these ceremonies, but I had never been a part of one. All I knew is that we had to make sure it was conducted with the dignity and honor that this hero deserved. As I worked with the crew to ready the aircraft and ensure a smooth departure, the mortuary affairs team arrived along with the escort, a Navy SEAL teammate and brother, who would travel with this fallen Soldier and guarantee a safe return.

Nothing could have prepared me for the feelings I would have or the emotion of watching the transfer case being loaded onto one of my aircraft. I was not prepared for the conversation I had with the escort. It is something I will never forget, something that will forever remind me what service really means.

It was a stark reminder that our brothers and sisters in arms are still being wounded or killed-in-action every day. It was a reminder of what my mission is, what my KC-135s are providing every time they take off, and why they are necessary.

We must never lose sight of the fact that we have forces on the ground and in harm's way every single day. Their safety is dependent upon us maintaining our focus, us being able to provide 24-hour, seven days a week effective and dependable air refueling, airlift and aeromedical evacuation, and upon us maintaining the proper perspective.