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Airlifters Shoulder Heavy Burdens for Iraqi Freedom

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

NEAR CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait, Jan. 3, 2006 – The 386th Air Expeditionary Wing at an air base near here has broken some records in support of American forces in Iraq.

"We moved our millionth troop this last November," wing commander Air Force Col. Tim Hale said Jan. 2.

The 386th is the primary airlift hub for Operation Iraqi Freedom. It averages moving 3,000 to 3,500 troops a day into and out of Iraq, he added, including either deploying and redeploying them or ferrying them to and from to rest and recuperation leave. Most of these troops are going into and coming out of combat, Hale said.

The unit also provides more than 1,500 airmen who support Army efforts in Iraq, the colonel said. This includes helping supply convoys all over Iraq and working as prison guards at Camp Bucca.

Hale said he has seen plenty in the six months he has commanded the wing. "We've seen everything from the loss of the first security forces airmen in convoy operations to moving Baby Noor, the baby with spinal bifida," he said.

But, he said, probably the most fulfilling thing he sees is when "we go in to pick up a load of combat soldiers or Marines who are coming out after a year in country."

He said the most poignant lift he has done was flying troops out of Tal Afar, a region of heavy fighting in recent months. "You see them come on to the aircraft, and when you take off and you hear applause coming out of the back," Hale said. "You know you are doing good things for other Americans."

Bringing troops into Baghdad touches the wing in a different way. "We consider what these soldiers and Marines will be confronting in Iraq," Hale said. "You know they are going to be there a full year, and you know they will see things a lot of us will never see." The colonel said he has not spoken to any American who has spent time in Iraq who didn't believe he or she helped America make progress.

The wing flies about 70 sorties per day, a high-use rate for C-130 transport planes, he said. But the maintenance effort has been phenomenal, he said.

"It is difficult working conditions, and the C-130 is an old aircraft," he said. He has only a handful of aircraft that are younger than his pilots.

But the wing has higher maintenance rates here than it normally has in the United States, Hale said. "This is for two reasons: first is the incredible motivation of the maintainers," he said. "Second is everyone back in the United States is funneling spare parts to here. This is the main focus of Air Force efforts. And it should be."

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