Air Force Helps Bring Smiles to Iraqi Children
By Maj. Robert Palmer, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service
BAGHDAD, May. 2, 2006 As they stepped into the large, gray military cargo plane, their eyes widened and their expressions were equal parts wonder and bewilderment. This was the first time many of the Iraqi children and their parents had ever flown in an airplane, and none had ever been in an aircraft as large as the U.S. Air Force's C-17 Globemaster III.
Iraqi children and their escorts deplane an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Baghdad International Airport April 29, as Chris Anderson, an Operation Smile staff member based in the Middle East, looks on. The Air Force assisted Operation Smile in returning patients and their families to Iraq from Jordan, where the patients had received surgery. Photo by Master Sgt. Will Ackerman, USAF
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
On April 29, airmen flew 110 Iraqi children and 97 of their parents, guardians and escorts from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad in support of "Operation Smile."
Operation Smile, an international nongovernmental organization, provides corrective surgery for children with cleft palates and cleft lips, congenital birth defects that affect about one out of every 600 children, according to the Cleft Palate Foundation. Operation Smile had evaluated the Iraqi children and transported them to Amman for corrective surgery.
According to Chris Anderson, an Operation Smile staff member based in the Middle East, the leadership of Operation Smile had a growing concern for the safety and security of the children on the 22-hour return bus trip from Amman to Baghdad through Iraq's western provinces.
"We basically determined that (returning by bus) at this time wasn't the safest option for the kids," Anderson said. "For us, safety of the patients has always been the number one priority."
Operation Smile cofounder and chief executive officer Dr. William P. Magee, Jr., and chief medical officer Dr. Robert Rubin wrote to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and requested assistance from the Air Force to provide safe airlift for the Iraqi children and their parents.
The Air Force received approval for the mission late April 28 evening, and by early on the 29th, the C-17 was airborne and en route to Amman.
After the young patients and their parents had settled into their seats, they listened intently as Dr. Talib, a plastic surgery resident traveling with the group, read the preflight safety briefing in Arabic. Members of the crew reassured nervous passengers that the oxygen masks were only necessary in case of emergency.
The passengers recited a brief prayer as the plane began to taxi. "We're asking God for safe passage to Iraq," one of the parents explained.
The prayer was repeated several times with increasing urgency and volume as the plane accelerated down the runway and lifted off. One Iraqi woman quietly fingered her prayer beads and hugged her daughter tightly as the plane began its rapid ascent.
"This is turning out to be a rewarding mission," Lt. Col. Chris Carlsen, the aircraft's commander, said. "You see all the children with the smiles on their faces. I'm glad to be a part of this. It's a historic and beneficial event for the Iraqi people."
Airman 1st Class Alexis Elliott, a loadmaster for the C-17, agreed. "It makes me feel like I'm really helping to do something important," said Elliott, who is on her first deployment with the Air Force.
As the plane landed, taxied and came to a halt at Baghdad International Airport's passenger terminal, the faces of the Iraqi children and their parents explained very clearly what Operation Smile is all about. One jubilant father exited the plane, dropped to his knees and kissed the ground, although it was not clear whether he was celebrating his return to Iraq or just happy to be back on solid ground.
"The bottom line is that the military is really trying to do what it can to help," Anderson said. "The support was a great match for us."
(Air Force Maj. Robert Palmer is assigned to U.S. Central Command Air Forces Forward.)