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On Saturday past I attended the second-to-last game of the season for the Minnesota Twins. They lost the game and their chance at a wild-card post season berth.
Before the game began, there was an announcement for a moment of silence for the victims of the Umpqua Community College shootings. It was a traditional public gesture, and as is right and proper the attendees stood and were dutifully silent as the moment passed. I stood with the crowd, but I admit my mind was not with that tragedy.
About two hours after the Umpqua shootings, a United States Air Force C-130 transport aircraft crashed in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. All on board the aircraft were killed: four aircrew members, two security force Airmen, and five military contractors. Two Afghans were killed on the ground. The aircraft was destroyed at a property loss of approximately 68 million dollars. Preliminary statements from the Air Force indicate that the aircraft crashed during a night take-off from the Jalalabad Airfield. The crew were members of the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron operating out of Bagram, Afghanistan.
In 2007, I served as commander of the 774th. Operating in a country that lacks a basic infrastructure of rail or paved roads requires an alternative method of re-supply. Helicopters and C-130 transport aircraft are well suited for the short and minimally improved airstrips around the country. These forward air bases support the supply chain for our ground troops. Combining the ground-to-air threat, poor air-to-air communications structure, frequent severe weather, and mountainous terrain, it is a very challenging flying environment. Crews fly round the clock and every day of the year. Likewise, the maintenance crews worked extraordinarily hard to keep the operation running.
Before 2007, I’d deployed several times as aircrew and was well familiar with the challenges. Although our crews and staff were highly experienced, there was little ease of familiarity, especially with night operations. Several of the short airstrips reduced the allowable margin of error to very near the limits for wartime operations. We were very, very careful.
Within the matrix of probable risks, I knew that loss of an aircraft and crew would be the toughest thing we could face. I knew that such an event, if attributed to error, would invite scrutiny of records, performance, prioritization, processes, procedures, and every decision even remotely related to the event. Should it come to pass, I knew that I would have to lead the squadron through the devastating loss while responding to the multiple forensic and administrative processes well established in the USAF. These were things that I knew and dreaded, and they had my attention without respite.
Night increased the risk. On those occasions when I was awoken unexpectedly by a flashlight and the shaking of my shoulder, there was immediate adrenaline and then wakefulness for hours afterward. These were emergencies that needed attention, but never the feared disaster. Like all the other 774th commanders before me, I arrived and I left with little to note other than a routine and successful deployment. Whatever modest feelings of satisfaction I may have had were over-matched by relief and exhaustion.
Then last week it finally happened, and chain of institutional processes for dealing with disaster commenced. The squadron held a memorial, including a moment of silence in that place so far away, then continued its operations. At some point, months in the future, the formal investigation will be complete. There will be a narrative of lessons learned and likely some new emphasis and insights in procedures.
For the families, the commander and staff, and the fellow service members, these institutional closures will not so readily answer their questions or bind up their wounds.
That is what was on my mind as I stood.Published in