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NEWS | Oct. 10, 2014

The Company: Part II

By Lt. Col. Cassius Bentley 15th Airlift Squadron commander

In a May Patriot article, I described "The Company" (another nickname for the 15th Airlift Squadron) and how the people and not the machine (in our case, the C-17) deliver humanitarian aid or combat power to the warfighter.  However, the efforts of some amazing Airmen are often only represented by a C-17 tail flash on a ramp.  At the time of the previous article, we did not realize that in just over two months, the Company's deployment efforts as an Expeditionary Airlift Squadron would literally dominate international news and be viewed by billions.  We assumed, and then realized during the deployment, that the Company extended its membership well beyond the 15 AS.

In late July for the first time ever, the 437th Airlift Wing sent off a combat squadron under the new Lead Wing construct.  Simply put, a Charleston squadron would lead and hold responsibility for all three deployed C-17 bases in the Persian Gulf, executing up to 98 combat C-17 missions a week.  The 15th AS just happened to lead the new construct, as it was our turn in the rotation; however we did not do it alone.  With a 47 percent increase in manning requirements, we received help from every one of our active duty sister squadrons, every 315th Airlift Wing Reserve squadron, and the Memphis Air National Guard. We formed a formidable Total Force Integration team with phenomenal executional results that delivered more than 73 million pounds of cargo flying more than 4,400 combat hours.

Through the TFI initiative, the Company proudly extended its membership. In fact, our high time fliers were not 15th AS members, but rather teammates from the Reserves (Capt. Scott Fredrickson, 317th Airlift Squadron and Tech. Sgt. Eric Baldoni, 300th Airlift Squadron) who logged more than 250 combat hours in 60 days. W

We also had the privilege to serve with some amazing flying crew chiefs, Aircrew Flight Equipment, Ravens, Crew Comm, and Intel Airmen.  I would like to share with you some of the remarkable individual stories of the Company, beginning with our story that dominated international news.

In early August and shortly after our arrival, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant  militants issued an ultimatum to the minority religious group known as the Yazidis, telling them they must convert to Islam, pay a religious tax, flee or be put to death.  Faced with these threats, the Yazidis fled to Sinjar Mountain with only the clothes on their back, leaving them in desperate need of food and water. Within 24 hours of our tasking, the Company integrated with a robust armed overwatch, command and control assets, and additional U.S. mobility aircraft to airdrop approximately 42,000 pounds of life-saving water and 27,000 pounds of food.  This was the first time in more than 11 years that an airdrop had occurred in Iraq.

The Iraqi Ministry of Immigration and the displaced Yazidis welcomed the aid drops; and the ministry's spokesman touted the support saying the drops came "just in time."

During the next six days, the Company planned integrated humanitarian aid airdrop missions incorporating Great Britain and Australian mobility forces. These efforts enabled Kurdish forces to evacuate thousands of refugees each night and ensured that those who remained on the mountain had access to food and water. 

After a pause in airdrops, the Company was tasked again to conduct humanitarian aid airdrops with the British, French and Australian mobility forces near the besieged town of Amerli in northern Iraq. The additional airdrop and airstrikes were authorized to aid the thousands of Shia Turkmen who were cut off from receiving food, water and medical supplies for two months by ISIL. 

After the Sinjar Mountain drops, President Obama stated, "Give thanks to our men and women in uniform--especially our brave pilots and crews over Iraq who are protecting our fellow Americans and saving the lives of so many men, women and children that they will never meet." 

As a witness of the tireless effort of many, I can affirm, we were "all in" as the Iraqi airdrops encompassed our entire EAS and we are very humbled to partake in such a historic operation. 

Other stories may not have made it on the news, but were still distinctive stories of the Company.  One of our young pilots, 1st Lt. Stephen Saam got to spend time at his deployed location with his brother, who works at the State Department. That must have been some pretty proud parents of two sons that serve their nation and some comfort knowing that brothers were sharing meals more than 7,000 miles away. 

Often, as we were watching the news, we would soon get a phone call to place us remotely in the storyline.  The most sobering illustration was the mission re-cut that Capt. James Cruz, 1st Lt. Alana Benishek, Staff Sgt. Seth Dunworth, and Airman 1 Class Allen Corona flew in transporting the first general officer killed in combat since Vietnam (Maj. Gen. Greene) from Afghanistan to Germany. As in every dignified transfer, the crew was humbled and honored to be a part of a fellow American's journey home. 

We discovered during our deployment that we were actually closer to the storyline than initially expected.  As a childhood friend of the general's son, 1st Lt. Nicholas Strobel was extremely proud his teammates were chosen to pay respects during the general's journey home.  During the initial reporting of the tragedy, Senior Airman Meghan Wendel, 437th Operation Support Squadron was deeply concerned as her dad was also present that day when an Afghan soldier opened fire at a military academy near Kabul.  Tears were shed when Wendel, by happenstance, later reunited with her dad in an EAS orientation flight to Afghanistan. 

Every Sept. 11, we reflect and remind ourselves why we serve our great nation.  We can also recall where we were on that day in 2001. Our unit deployment manager in the EAS, Staff Sgt. Megan Rich-Aiken from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, remembers vividly that day as her mom worked in the World Trade Center. For three days after the towers fell, she did not hear from her mom, but thankfully her mom did eventually make it home to Brooklyn. In her honor, Staff Sgt. Rich-Aiken flew the American Flag on one of our Sept. 11 downrange missions.

During the deployment, the Company grew its membership; but more importantly, we had the opportunity to strengthen our bonds and learn more of our Airmen's stories.  The Company discovered that with sole focus on our core competencies, we were an unstoppable airlift combat force.  As a commander, I reconfirmed that I must persistently find ways to take care of the Airmen that I serve, mitigate distractions to maximize focus on mission and still safeguard opportunities to have fun.  For 60 plus days, we did just that.  The Company worked hard, stayed smart and kept morale high.  I could not have been more humbled and proud to serve shoulder to shoulder with the Company!