Special Delivery

Kandahar, Afghanistan
08 February 2010

American troops are spread widely across Afghanistan.  Some are remote and accessibility is difficult.  In 2008, I was with six soldiers in Zabul Province who didn’t even get mail for three months.  They had no email.  They were on the moon.  Six courageous men, in the middle of nowhere, and their nearest backup was a small Special Forces team about five hours away.  Resupply to these small outposts is crucial, difficult, and would require major effort by ground.  Enter the United States Air Force.

Tonight’s mission was to fly from Kandahar Airfield (KAF) to Bagram Airfield (BAF), pick up specially rigged bundles of fuel and ammunition and parachute those to American forces up near the border of Turkmenistan.

The aircraft would be a C-130J.  The C-130 variants have been around so long that Captain Fred Flintstone may have been the first pilot.  They’ve seen more than fifty years of service.  The aircraft is so good that nobody wants to shed them, so the Air Force simply continues to upgrade a great old horse.  Dozens of countries fly dozens of variants today.

The latest and greatest for general use is the C-130J.  You can spot a “J” from the older variants by looking at the propellers.  Each propeller has six high-tech blades, allowing the aircraft to carry more weight with greater economy.  In Afghanistan, with the “high hot” conditions, pilots say the J can carry 2-3 times more cargo than older variants.

The C-130 crews in Afghanistan have many crucial missions, though the U.S. crews are proud to say that some of their friends are working Haiti.  Here in Afghanistan, they perform such missions as resupply by parachute, or often landing on rough, remote airstrips.  They recover bodies of our lost troops and fly the remains back to base.  The Js can actually carry a firetruck or two fully armored Humvees, which is pretty impressive considering a single Humvee door weighs more than 400 pounds.

Before takeoff, the two pilots go through long checklists using a lot of terms that are unfamiliar to me.  Sounds like a space launch. (They seated me in the cockpit -- which they call the “flight deck” -- wearing a headset, and so I can hear and see it all.)  The flight deck is so big that even giant Dutch people could stand up and take a step or two with no problems.  There is even a bunk bed behind us.

Some things are easy to understand, “Engine number two,” “flaps,” “brakes,” but they go over the checklist so quickly that my pen has no more chance of following than a sparrow could follow a hawk.

Finally, after several long checklists, we start taxiing to the runway.  We got held up by ATC (Air Traffic Control) when the tower spotted two scrawny dogs crossing the runway.  The pilots scanned but didn’t see them, and finally 1LT April Brown, in the right seat, said, “There they are,” pointed, and Captain John Holland, left seat, got eyes on.  The dogs held up this part of the war for about a minute before trotting away, and then the fighter jets and others kept roaring away.

The small pieces of glass in front of each pilot are called “HUDs”, or Heads Up Displays.  Pilots say the HUDs are great because they can keep their eyes out the windows while still seeing critical information without looking down at the instrument panel.  Notice through the left HUD, a fighter jet is roaring down the runway.  (Just after the dogs left.)  My quarters on KAF are straight ahead past the far side of the runway, so it’s pretty loud here day and night.  Helicopters, C-130s, jets of all sorts.  The enemy has been firing more rockets onto the base, causing some casualties, but to my knowledge have destroyed no aircraft.  Years ago, the Mujahidin more or less ran the Soviet Air Force out of Kandahar with their rocket attacks.  The “Muj” once shot down a Soviet general, captured him, but killed him before they realized they had a general.  Today, the enemy shoots at lot with SAFIRE (Surface to Air Fire) at aircraft and sometimes sparkle the pilots with lasers.  If there is a surface to air missile threat, it’s not presented itself.

The pilots throttle up and we rumble away.  There are actually three pilots aboard and the other is sitting behind me, or down in the cargo bay.  It takes about eighteen months to learn how to fly this aircraft.  One year of pilot training, then six months of training on the C-130J.  Captain Holland said the pilot training is pretty tough, but by the time you get to the C-130 school, you are in the study groove and it gets a bit easier.

That’s Lieutenant April Brown in the right seat.  She’s from San Diego and it’s obvious she loves flying.  After we got up into the darkness, she asked Captain John Holland, left seat, to take the controls so she could snap on her night vision goggles.  They see a lot of shooting stars up here, artillery illumination missions, and other aircraft.

They were kind enough to issue me a set of goggles for the mission, but the helmet and that type of goggles were alien to me so later a helpful loadmaster helped fit the goggles on the helmet and adjusted them.

There is a heck of a lot of air traffic up here, especially near the main airfields.  Over the radio, pilots could be heard with accents that seemed to come from all over the world, talking to air traffic control about headings, altitude, and other matters such as the length of available runway.  Predators and other “drones,” which are always looking down, keep their lights on so that pilots don’t plough into one.

The crew has parachutes in case the aircraft becomes uncontrollable.  I asked a pilot how in the heck he was going to get into a parachute if the airplane was out of control.  Bottom line: at least one pilot is going to have to ride the plane in while the crew gets out.

The first leg of the mission took us to Bagram Airfield (BAF), which must be one of the busiest airports in the world.   BAF is madhouse of traffic and they also take a little rocket fire at times.  The rocket fire is not a big deal, though we do take some KIA and wounded.  On the scale of the war, it’s like mosquito bites.  A nuisance you could do without, but trivial when taken to scale.

To avoid SAFIRE, pilots turn on the landing lights during the last few seconds.

So they taxi behind the “FOLLOW ME,” and we roll by all sorts of jets and helicopters.

And then we park, and go to grab take-away dinners at a nearby DFAC (dining facility) while the airplane is loaded with the supplies that are to be parachuted later tonight.

Twenty pallets weighing a total of about 32,000 pounds are rolled into the cargo bay.  The loadmasters have special training and much responsibility.  If they make a mistake, passengers can be hurt, the aircraft can be damaged, and it could even crash.  Each pallet has information posted on the side, including gross weight.  Before the pallets are loaded, they already have been arranged in the proper order, and a loadmaster then programs in the weights of the pallets and their anchor locations into the C-130J’s computer.  This calculates the CG, or Center of Gravity, which must be within specified constraints.  The computer calculates the gross weight of the aircraft, which is the net aircraft weight, plus fuel, plus cargo.  Gross weight for this mission would be about 150,000lbs.

In addition to the loadmaster's heavy responsibilities, the riggers who “build” these pallets and attach the parachutes must be on their job.  They call this a CDS, or container delivery system, and they said it’s using LCADS “low cost air delivery system” parachutes that are relatively cheap and do not need to be turned in.  Whereas parachutes for our soldiers nearly always open, the pallets are more likely to burn in (though they seldom do).  This happened once when I was with the British in Iraq, sending us all diving to the dark, desert floor while we heard the pallet screaming in, and then practically explode when it hit the ground.  The honey comb on the bottom is a shock absorber.  Some of the containers carry ammo.  I asked the pilots about the dangers of parachuting relief aid into places like Haiti (remembering when some Kurds were killed by bundles), and they confirmed the dangers.  Problem is, the people you are trying to help are desperate – hence the willingness to use dangerous means to feed them -- and so when they see the parachutes floating down, the hungry people rush to catch them, not realizing these things are very heavy and coming down very fast, and then people get crushed and we get blamed for killing people with love.  The pilots try to drop far enough away that people don’t get crushed.

Comments   

 
# Rob Thiessen 2010-02-07 19:03
Michael,

Thanks so much for the insight of our military. You help us all have more appreciation for our mission there.

Rob
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# dennis 2010-02-07 19:19
awesome post Michael!! always wanted to know how they do that.
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# Karl 2010-02-07 19:44
Thanks, Michael! Great story, great pics.
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# Suzanne 2010-02-07 20:07
I just finished reading Craig Mullaney's "The Unforgiving Moment" - and if any of you non-military readers want to understand what our soldiers go through to train to be leaders of our brave troops, this is one to add in addition to Michael's book. It describes Mullaney's education for leadership at West Point, including Airborne and Ranger training, and then his duty in Afghanistan when that war was very much forgotten - in 2003. Now's the time to read it to understand how much we need to support and be thankful for our troops in Afghanistan. I have no financial interest at all in recommending this book. I just think Mullaney's book is one of the best I've read, and was lauded by Gen Petraeus et al.

Thank you, Michael, for all that you're doing, and I hope that this recommendation for the education of the American public doesn't seem like a detriment to your book sales.! Be safe, Suzanne
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# Kimberly Carvalho 2010-02-07 20:50
Michael-What a wonderful story and insight to this piece of the war. The pics are great. What a wonderful team of pilots and other assistants. We definitely couldn't get through this war without them. Please be safe and keep up the most excellent reporting! And please pass along my thanks and prayers to them.
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# Ryo 2010-02-07 20:58
Another wonderful post. Thank you for putting yourself in harms way to get us these great interesting stories.
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# brityank 2010-02-07 21:41
Many thanks for the information and explanations you provide to go along with these great pictures illustrating your stories. I wish I could give more to help defray your costs and provide for your dispatches, but I would ask that everyone who reads and follows your reports hits your Support Button above and add to the kitty.

Stay safe, friend.
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# Jan D 2010-02-07 22:02
Michael, I know you hear this all the time, but you unquestionably have a "God given" talent. Your photography is not only always incredible, but you have an innate ability to bring life to each photo in such a natural way of storytelling. So often you capture little things that would otherwise go unnoticed. In the picture of your final approach to Bagram Airfield, inadvertently or not, the white lighted cross is conspicuously dead-on center. I’m familiar with the red/green lights used for landing, but I don’t recall the white lighted cross. Not sure if this is unique to this airfield, nonetheless it presents a spiritual quality. Probably just me being crazy, but I love it, as well as all of your other photos.

Your stories always leave me with so much pride for our soldiers and for what they do and how they do it. They are so intelligent … so poised … so focused … so dedicated … and so confident in the execution of their duties. Difficult to say enough good things about them.

With heartfelt thanks to you and all of our soldiers. I'm eternally grateful.
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# Steve Graves 2010-02-08 00:41
Wouldn't it be great if many of the troops that you write about would run for and win election to national office - after their retirement from the military?

If we could only replace a goodly portion of the self-centered, greedy, hyper-partisan miscreants presently serving in D.C. with people of the caliber that you describe in your postings. . . what a better place this nation would be!

Thank you again for your always informative news from the battlefront. As for the photography, what can I say other than it is the best GWOT coverage that I have found anywhere on the internet.

May the Lord keep an eye on you and those you are serving with. And now - off to PayPal to send you another pittance for your monthly care and grooming.
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# Anthony Rock 2010-02-08 02:01
Thanks Mike...a lot of folks just don't know what our AF is doing to contribute on a daily basis. Whether it is delivery of ammo and medical supplies or delivery of hot metal on target, we are in it for the long haul. My dad was an Army infantryman and used to say, "There is no bigger proponent of air power than a troop in contact." Good luck as you return to the tough slog on the ground and keep telling the story of our warriors on the front line of freedom.
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# Larry Farkash 2010-02-08 02:03
Great blog and wonderful photos. Thank you for all you do and report.
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# staghounds 2010-02-08 03:42
What a joy to see the pride in those faces! Thank you!
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# Michael Craven 2010-02-08 03:58
Michael,

As the father of a young Marine who is scheduled to deploy later this year, your "boots on the ground" perspective is extremely helpful. I was concerned, however by your account of the small team of six soldiers who were isolated for so long. Is this normal and what kind of "strategy" exposes our troops in this way other than using them as "bait" for the enemy? Any further insights would be appreciated. Thanks again for all you do!
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# Mark Stephens 2010-02-08 04:28
Another great report, Mike. Thanks. Come on, people, hit that tip jar!
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# Marina Freeman 2010-02-08 05:14
Thanks for the great report and amazing photos. I see my friends over there in their faces. This makes me very proud of our AF.
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# Gabe Campbell 2010-02-08 06:28
Mike, It was nice having you along for the ride on our mission. You definitely have a way of accurately decribing things in ways that I haven't thought of.....I see why you're such a successful writer. Thanks for the kind words. Keep your head on a swivel.
Sincerely,
Gabe
P.S. It was a pleasure to help you with your NOGs.
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# Eddy Williams 2010-02-08 06:34
Man, this was such a cool article! It must have been so neat seeing all the work and precision that goes into a job that probably very few people back home think about, or all the work that goes into it. Thanks, Michael.
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# Victoria 2010-02-08 06:58
Another great report, thanks Mike. I really enjoy it when you include photo's of our troops, I am so proud of them and so proud to be an American, it would be an honor if I happen to meet any one of them some day. Be safe to all of you.
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# PJ 2010-02-08 07:34
From San Jose, thank you Michael for the post and thanks to the 772 EAS for doing such an excellent job.
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# Dave Carlton 2010-02-08 08:00
A slight twist on words came to me as I used to fly as a gunner in the AC-130A Spectre gunships back in '72 which were nick named the 'Fabulous Four Engine Fighter" A great job on the C-130J, I have not had the privlege yet of flying in one but have heard the are light years ahead of the technology we had in the olden days.
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# mike h 2010-02-08 09:48
Mike,keep up the great work! Tell all of our brave warriors we support all that they do. I am sending more $$ your way.. Stay safe!
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# Esther 2010-02-08 09:55
Michael,

Because of your eye for detail, your maps, upclose photography and commentary makes me feel as if I am actually there! You are excellent at what you do...stay safe and healthy and may God bless you and our brave soldiers.
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# Bob Tolford 2010-02-08 11:56
It is amazing what a change in propellers has done for the C-130.
I took a ride from the Panama Canal Zone to Tacoma, Washington in 1976 along with 20 others from B-Btry, 22nd FA. We went up there to train on different howitzers than the 105mm, towed guns we had in the CZ. It was a Loooong flight!
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# Fits 2010-02-08 12:23
Semper Fi, Michael.
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# Renee C. 2010-02-08 14:31
Michael, I don't know how you do it, but I'm never disappointed when I read your stuff. I found this fascinating! Thanks to you and all these brave men and women who are putting everything on the line for the rest of us.
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# Norm Sevigny 2010-02-08 15:06
Mike
Thanks from a retired Viet Nam era USAF C-130 driver and the father of a retired Somolia, Kosovo, Saudi, Afghanistan, USAF C-130 driver (how old do I feel). The airlift "trash haulers"always took great pride in our work.
It's nice to see the "kids" continuing the tradition.
Keep up your great reporting.
Norm
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# Robert 2010-02-08 15:14
I love reading the articles and living vicariously through them. I would love to be able to ride with our men and women in uniform and photograph them as they do their jobs and write about them as you do! Keep up the good work.
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# Keith H 2010-02-08 15:27
Michael
Awesome pictures and 'down to earth' reporting from the 'sharp end'! Our son is an FST commander on the ground (we called them 'Brown Jobs') and I know they really appreciate what the 'Blue Jobs' do for them! Blessings, Keith
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# TJ 2010-02-08 16:18
It is hard to imagine what our husbands/spouse s go through while overseas. We get an email here, a phone call there, maybe a short webcam session to tie us over until the next time our loved one has a moment (and a good electronic connection) available. And we sit, and we wait, and we pray. But those precious communications are never about the mission they were sent there to do. So thank you, Michael, for helping us SEE what our men and women actually do THERE, while we are HERE, at home, shoveling the snow, mowing the lawn and single parenting the children. Military spouses are ever proud and ever hopeful, but having a window into what they go through on a daily basis, well, as cliche as it may sound...that's just priceless!
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# Donn 2010-02-08 17:12
Please do not print any more maps with troop locations on them.
thank you very much
Don
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# Terry in Georgia USA 2010-02-08 18:43
Thank you for the great pictures and descriptions that show us what a wonderful job all our troops are doing. Please make sure to tell this crew and all our heroes that we love them, we truly appreciate their service and sacrifice, and that we are so very proud of all they do. Not everyone back home ridicules this service -- in fact I can assure you that most of us still think of this as the greatest country on the planet and know that we have all of you to thank for fighting the bad guys over there while we fight the bad guys here.
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# Inigo 2010-02-09 00:11
Lovely pics and captions! Please post more! All those Bozos in Washington think it is all about them when it is really people like these USAF personnel that make things happen.

Thanks!
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# MAJ R 2010-02-09 00:35
Great stuff, Michael, as always. Glad to know you are back, so we can get some accurate news from that Theater. I have less and less faith in the MSM as time passes.
And for Don--
It is only OPSEC if it is information the enemy doesn't know. The locations on the map are the AIRBASES, ferchrissake. Do you really think the talibs don't kow where they are?
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# Rick554 2010-02-09 02:18
Great pics of our USAF Micheal ! Thanks for telling their story. And GOD bless the Crews
Keep 'em flying AIR FORCE!
A Proud Parent of a SOLDIER
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# IronKnight 2010-02-09 02:53
"it was great to be back with winners"
I knew their were no athiests or politicians in a foxhole (the later only applying to the qoute).
I am glad to know this extends upward into flight decks (read cockpit for the rest of us).

Thank you Mr. Yon.
You do your country proud
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# Mortarman11c 2010-02-09 02:59
Great article, but with a correction. Those are not "pallets" but Container Delivery Systems. "Bundles." Each bundle can hold up to 2000 pounds of whatever you can fit itno it.

How do I know? I have seven combat airdrops over Afghanistan as a C-17 Airdrop loadie.

Great job ya Herc pukes!!! The four fan trash can mafia has done the AF proud!!!

MM11C
Paratrooper/C-17 Loadmaster
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# Rob Jacob 2010-02-09 03:19
Michael Yon - you are a national treasure. I true professional patriot of the highest order. Thank you for you posts from the field, and please always thanks the men and women who serve. Your posts raise the pride inside this American each and every time I read them. You're a great man.
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# Chuck Norris 2010-02-09 04:03
In the past ths Air Force never got the recognition it so rightfully deserved. Great article. Please continue so the home front will know what a valiant group of WARRIORS we have.
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# Ing 2010-02-09 04:24
Fantastic, Michael as always. Make sure, everyone, to thank a military person every time you see him/her for the service to the nation.

BTW, the Mullaney book is "The Unforgiving Minute" for anyone looking it up.
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# dj 2010-02-09 04:41
Air-BORNE, bruther! Still gives me goose-pimples. Gawd I love the military!

Libruls just ain't a'gonna get it. EVER. It sure ain't the PAY...
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# Michele 2010-02-09 05:10
What an amazing story. I have had many family members in the Air Force and my son is in right now as Security Forces in the Air Force. Your coverage is very much appreciated and I thank you for taking the time to write this story and to let everyone know what these men and women do for our country. We are so proud of them and we are so proud of the men and women who have served our country and died for our country so that we can live a better life.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

One proud mother!
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# Wolfgang 2010-02-09 06:35
Mr. Yon,

I am a SSgt with the Air National Guard, currently deployed to KAF. Good to hear you are back in country. You are doing, and have always done, a great job reporting facts on the ground. If I run into you here at KAF I hope I have a chance to shake your hand. Keep telling it like it is brotha. How did you like that nice little flood we had? Nothing like rockets and mother nature to keep you on your toes.
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# Cyndy Aldous 2010-02-09 06:38
Michael,
Incredible coverage of our Air Force and the crucial work they do. This comes at a time when my nephew is finishing up basic flight training with the Air Force and will soon be given his flight assignment. His roommate was assigned the C5 and, while it was not his first choice, he is happy with the important work he will be doing. What an incredible honor to be part of the crew that supports all troops in this battle.

You help us see the awesome work of our troops and the sacrifices they make for us.
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# hando 2010-02-09 07:59
Readers,


Went to the superbowl. Great game. The biggest cheers came when the camera flashed to the military. We do appreciate you all.
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+1 # Flash 2010-02-09 08:11
Thanks for the memories! I retired in '96. I was on the crew on the ground that loaded cargo onto the C-130s. It's nice to see what happens after we were done with it. I've seen it from the outside, but never from the inside.
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# Chip Marshall 2010-02-09 10:27
Michael,

Wonderful job showing the team spirit of the troops. Keep Going!

Cheers!

Chip Marshall
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# Rhonda 2010-02-09 14:09
Thank you Mr. Yon for sending this on to us. Your work is very much appreciated. My son is in the area of this drop. You can know that in my heart I imagined it went to him and his men. Keep up the good work. Heading over to the paypal button. I would much rather support you than subscribe to that rag of a newspaper, the AJC, that we have here in Atlanta.

All the best and stay safe,

Rhonda

P.S. SHOUT OUT to mortarman, hando, all service members and all the VETS.... Thank you for your service to our country! I am in debt to y'all.
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# jic 2010-02-09 15:02
"It is only OPSEC if it is information the enemy doesn't know. The locations on the map are the AIRBASES, ferchrissake. Do you really think the talibs don't kow where they are?"

I'm beginning to think that if Michael posted a map of the world, with a single pin in the center of each country where US troops are publicly known to be stationed, somebody would accuse him of violating OPSEC.
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# bob medley 2010-02-09 16:28
super job, these pictures are fantastic and it's great to hear real information about out troops
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# mrsh 2010-02-09 20:21
Dear Sir,
Thank-you for sharing your gift with us and for giving tribute to those who serve in such difficult missions. While news cres and talking heads can give a pale recounting, only you ever take us there, and let us be with the men and women we love. May the Lord Bless you and Keep you, and especially, St Michael Defend you. What a super report, just so special to us. Fare you well.
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# Jack E. Hammond 2010-02-10 21:56
Folks,

Unknown to a lot of people, the special USAF C-130 group named "Commando Vault" that was established to drop those 10,000 and 15,000 bombs to clear out helicopter landing strips during the Vietnam War were the people that the USAF went to develop a method of dropping supplies from an altitude beyond the reach of shoulder fired antiair missiles and light antiaircraft cannons. It even surprised the USAF and US Army brass how effective they were at coming up with solutions.

Jack E. Hammond

.
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# Linda 2010-02-10 22:28
this are fantastic photos and I will forward them on to my almost 5 year old grandson...he wants to be a pilot of a big airplane!
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# Scuba 2010-02-12 07:01
Great article...it is good to see that my old airplane is still flying strong. Those crews and maintenance guys/gals are really kicking butt over there. KEEP IT UP.
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# Jim Clemmer 2010-02-12 07:55
My step-son, Captain Jake Johnson is one of the pilots in the squadron that you visited.
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# Jennifer L Deshaies 2010-02-12 10:37
TSG Jonathan Boyce (in the last picture) is my little brother. This is the first "view" that we have seen of him since he has been gone... and he is smiling. Thank you Mr. Yon for bringing a piece of his world home to us. The pictures and story have truly enlightened me.

Thank you for taking me there!!!

Jennifer L. Deshaies
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# Joni Campbell 2010-02-13 10:07
I truly enjoyed reading and seeing the pictures you have shared with us. One of the load masters, SSG Gabriel Campbell is my son, the youngest of three. As a mother waiting, watching and praying, wondering what my son is doing from day to day in that hostile country, you have made me feel very proud and moved. Thank you
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# William T. Roney Jr 2010-02-13 12:07
I read the news, that's nice. I hear the comments, that's good. But when it comes to what is, this is - is.
Comparing WW2 news to Afgan. 1, news is nothing. I have a whole new concept of what problems must
be fixed before anything moved to our boys --I cannot fathom . Thank you and my Grandson who is
there now. Sgt Anthony Paul Roney.
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# James Speed 2010-02-18 05:41
Awesome Job reporting this and other stories Michael. Most of the time Civilians have no clue and no idea what typical life is like in the Military. This gives them a pretty good taste of how difficult it is...even in decent conditions. I was in the Navy and going to my new duty station.. a flight that seemed to last FOREVER, Norfolk Va to Keflavik Iceland.. No layover or stops.. straight shot.. 14 hours. Cold.. Noisy.. Then did a few hops with these things around the Med. My hats off to the skill of these drivers and crews. As always.. our prayers to those deployed forward in defense of this Country!
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# Murray Garbett 2010-02-19 14:53
What a great article! I had the privelidge to be a crewmember making the same type of drop from a variey of different aircraft during my career as a Loadmaster and appreciate what the crews go through and remember how much they love their work. I'm pleased to see the technology provided to the crews abd can only imagine all of the new tactics of the "J". Thanks for your insight, made me remember a lot of long nights and good times!
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# Glen- A pilot 2010-02-23 18:41
Fantastic job! Kudos to the crew on your mission, that's amazing that they could hit the DZ with that much stuff. Great job, and thank you to all our military for the awesome job you do! Just finished reading about the Luftwaffe airlift into Stalingrad, on top of this, which makes me even more impressed at what they're able to do. Thank goodness for our Transport crews!! You all are doing such a great job!!!
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# Arden B. Crocker 2010-03-03 05:48
Michael
Thank you for your story and pictures. This is the first time I have read anything of yours. I will be sure to read more.
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