Sunday, March 30, 2003

OTTAWA DAILY TIMES: KC-10 Crews Support the War Effort

KUWAIT - Before the bombs start falling and the bullets start flying, they first have to get to the battlefield. It’s part of the massive military airlift that falls on the wings of the U.S. Air Force, and it keeps the war-fighter in business.

“These planes are constantly running,” says flying crew chief SSgt Michael Hojnicki, as he points out the window during a flight into the Middle East. “It’s the road to Kuwait.”

Out the cockpit window is a line of U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo planes spewing contrails into the afternoon sky somewhere above Europe.

We’re on board a KC-10 refueler, the military version of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. The plane has a dual mission when heading into Central Command’s battlefield.

“Our primary mission is refueling, but we can carry almost as much cargo as a C-5,” says Airman First Class Carl Wise II, referring to the C-5 Galaxy – the biggest plane in the Air Force inventory. Airman Wise entered the Air Force nineteen months ago, and just got certified as a refueling boom operator last month.

“As you can see, it’s hard to fit tanks in here,” he remarks as he checks the safety harness on the dozens of crates in the cargo hold, “but you’d be surprised at what we can carry.”

“We just unloaded a lot of ‘boom-boom’,” says one airman. “Boom-Boom” is slang for ammunition, and it’s a part of the regular cargo flowing into the region. “It’s amazing the amount of work these planes are doing.”

About a dozen of these KC-10’s from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey are constantly airborne, forming a chain that stretches from the states to Ramstein Air Base in Germany and then on to Kuwait. Dozens of crews swap in and out, but for the most part, the planes fly around the world, around the clock.

“Sometimes we fly into Kuwait and we’re in MOPP [Mission Oriented Protective Posture] level 4,” says Hojnicki, which means everyone has to don chemical protection gear. Kuwait is a frequent target of missiles launched from Iraq.

The pace of operations in and out of Central Command’s Area of Responsibility (AOR) puts the crew of these KC-10’s on grueling schedules, some working 26-hour shifts. It also keeps many of the airmen away from their family for long periods of time.

“In the last four months, I might have seen my wife about 12 days total,” says SSgt Hojnicki. “I joined the Air Force eight years ago, and when the recruiter asked me what I wanted to do, I told him I wanted to travel. I’ve done a lot of that.”

He just got married last August, and his wife isn’t thrilled about him being on the road all the time.

“She cries every time I leave. She never gets used to it.” He’s scheduled to take his honeymoon, delayed since last year, in three weeks - if he makes it back to New Jersey in time. He’s keeping his fingers crossed, and looking forward to some time on the beach in Hawaii.

SSgt David Guerrero has similar headaches. He’s scheduled to get married on July 5th.

“We’ve got wedding insurance, but hopefully I’ll make it back and we won’t need it. They’re still honoring leave.”

The crew keeps in touch with family and friends through e-mail, on the infrequent occasion they have internet access when they’re on the ground. They can also make phone calls using MARS (Military Affiliate Radio System) through the HAM (amateur) radiophone patch on board the aircraft.

Joining the fight in Operation Iraqi Freedom is different for these airmen. Instead of a dusty tent somewhere in the desert, these guys get an air-conditioned cabin and occasional shut-eye in and out of hotels, where they also get updates on the war through CNN. Despite the tough schedule and the separation from friends and family, the crew says they’re proud of their role in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

During a break in his duties, SSgt Hojnicki explains why that patriotism and pride comes naturally with this mission.

“If we weren’t doing this, we’d be training, so this is what we train to do, and now we get to do it. I wouldn’t want to be on any other plane. I love it.”

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