by Airman 1st Class Hailey Haux
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
It has been almost 10 years since the airdrop and airfield lodgment of Bashur Airfield, Iraq, where the 86th Contingency Response Group, predecessor to today’s 435th CRG, played a pivotal role in a major operation.
The operation: Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade needed the CRG and its specialized capability to open an airfield within enemy territory.
“The CRG’s core capabilities were essential to establishing airlift operations in Northern Iraq,” said Daniel Phoenix, 435th Air Ground Operations Wing historian. “The 86th Air Mobility Squadron and 786th Security Forces Squadron, both part of the CRG, provided airfield management, airlift command and control, force protection, flight medicine and much more to assist the 173rd.”
In March 2003, the 173rd Airborne Brigade held a conference where commanders from the CRG attended in order to start planning the logistics of the airdrop.
“Our focus (for the 786th) was to ensure the airfield was suitable to receive aircraft immediately,” said then Maj. Erik Rundquist, 786th Security Forces Squadron commander. “Establishing command and control and occupying the runway crossing points were essential.”
After working the technical aspects of the airdrop, the commanders went to their units and explained what was expected of everyone.
“As a commander, or any leader, you want to keep your folks informed about what is on the horizon, and this was no
exception,” said then Lt. Col. Michael Marra, 86th Air Mobility Squadron commander. “I told them of the upcoming mission, its importance to the nation, to the entire joint force and to the Army who we would be directly supporting. I let them know that this was probably the biggest and most important operation they would ever be a part of. I asked the best of them and was totally confident they would deliver.”
As the Airmen from the CRG headed into Aviano Air Base, Italy, to meet up with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, they were met by a group of anti-war protesters outside the gate.
“Protest is one of the highest forms of a free society,” said Marra, who is now a retired colonel. “We were going into Iraq to enable Iraqis to be able to do this, protest their government if required. In retrospect, the Italian people were simply exercising their constitutional rights.”
Over the next few days, the Airmen and Soldiers practiced for the operation to ensure everything was ready for the actual airdrop.
“In Aviano, we spent some time getting prepared by doing our drills and briefs and received our chalk positions,” said then Staff Sgt. Franklin Barnett, 435th CRG security team. “I was chalk eight, right door, jumper No. 26. Without fail, we (went) through rehearsals before every jump. There was no denying the sense of reality and realization that this was going to happen.”
To guarantee the Airmen and Soldiers had everything they needed, and to attempt to lighten their load, they were instructed to repack their rucks numerous times, which gave them plenty to do in their free time.
“I can recall men dealing with stress in many varied ways: reading Bibles in small groups, writing a letter home to place inside their uniforms, others played very loud rock music and some were just playing cards to pass the time,” Marra said. “It was very similar to what you see in books about men going into combat and their last hours.”
There were a total of 15 C-17 Globemaster III and more than 1,000 service members lining the runway at Aviano on March 26, 2003, with everyone making final preparations for the airdrop that night.
“The enormity of more than 1,000 paratroopers, all moving with their equipment to the 15 C-17s parked on the tarmac at Aviano Air Base, Italy, quickly gave me a sense of the enormity of the operation,” said Rundquist, now a colonel and the chief of security forces for Air Combat Command, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.
The flight from Aviano to the drop zone was estimated to be eight hours, and the moods of everyone on the aircraft varied.
“I can remember the loadmaster coming over the loud speaker saying, ‘We are now over Iraqi airspace.’ Then, we stood up, hooked up and got ready,” said Master Sgt. Franklin Barnett, 435th CRG chief of contingency response operations. “That night was unbelievably dark. I was in the middle of the 100 people jumping from my aircraft, so theoretically I should have seen 100 people; I saw one person.”
One might think there would be issues or miscommunication when working in a joint environment, but the CRG and 173rd performed well together to get the job done.
“I think training and familiarization with each other well before the war had kicked off inspired confidence in each other’s capabilities and perspectives on the ground,” Rundquist said.
Once on the ground, everyone went straight to work unloading the aircraft and preparing and securing the airfield.
“Our job was to sweep the runway and provide security on roads that intersected it. We were out there until the sun came up,” Barnett said. “I remember that next morning. It was a unique thing to see because it was green, muddy and there was snow on top of the mountains.”
The airdrop itself was a huge success, with no lives lost and no major injuries. In the 40 days the CRG spent in Iraq, they assisted in opening three airfields.
The wing commander had arranged for the U.S. Air Forces in Europe band to play and contacted each family member of the 20 CRG Airmen to ensure a happy homecoming.
“I was overcome with emotion when I saw my wife, Brenda, and little girl, Molly, there waiting for me. What a happy ending to a long period of stress and exertion,” Marra said. “I was happy to be home, but very happy the CRG had returned all of our Airmen to their families in one piece. For a commander, that’s about as satisfying as it gets.”
Effects of Airpower
Air superiority is what the Air Force does and the sounds of an aircraft overhead can strike fear in an enemy and be the greatest sound of joy for an ally.
“This is what airpower brings to the joint fight — the ability to shrink time and space around the glove and pose so many challenges to the enemy at once so he is bewildered into paralysis,” Marra said. “I would hope this sends a message to both our adversaries and our allies that the U.S. can project significant power. We can be your best friend or your worst enemy.”
The CRG bridges the gaps from the air to the ground and it’s that piece that plays an integral role in the joint mission as well.
“I am extremely proud. What we do in the CRG is what the Air Force does best, and that’s deliver combat power, but in a different way,” Barnett said. “Not only Air Force combat power, we delivered Army combat power. Getting to be a part of the CRG at that time was exciting. They did a lot of good missions, and this was one of them.”