Airmen work round the clock in humanitarian crisis

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Jamie Humphries
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Four Airmen from the 352nd Special Operations Group are deployed here to help with the assisted departure of American citizens, which through July 23 totaled more than 7,000, from Beirut, Lebanon, to ports and airports in Cyprus.

Having arrived in Cyprus early on July 18 from Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, the team was immediately dispatched to the Larnaka Airport to begin receiving Americans and treating patients in need of medical care.

The Cypriot Airport, which is one of the several departure points on the island, served as a landing point for Air Force MH-53 Pave Low helicopters also assigned to the 352nd SOG and Marine CH-63 Sea Stallions transporting Americans directly from Beirut. Besides serving as a landing point, the airport is also being used as a transition point for people coming into the country before departing for the United States.

"We were the first guys in here," said Maj. (Dr.) John McBeth, 352nd Operations Support Squadron. "We were it."

Working with minimal resources, the four-person crew began forging relationships with airport and embassy officials in an effort to ensure a smooth transition once people started arriving. The process of receiving the departing American citizens who appeared nervous and fatigued began immediately.

"We would go to the helicopter, meet the people coming in, take them to the airport for briefings and ask about medical needs," said Nick Seibel, 321st Special Tactics Squadron. "I noticed a lot of mothers and children, expectant mothers and folks with disabilities."

Although logistics for an operation on this scale is daunting, the process of moving people in and out became somewhat routine.

Early in the week, when hotels were still available, U.S. embassy officials obtained rooms until a flight could be booked for departure to the United States. After rooms became full, a staging area was established in Nicosia where people were moved by bus until a flight became available.

Starting July 22, C-17 Globemaster IIIs assigned to the 816th Air Expeditionary Squadron in Southwest Asia began arriving in Cyprus to transport American citizens to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, before departing on their final leg to the United States. In some cases, people arriving from Beirut were immediately placed on a C-17 to Germany.

"The bottom line is we have people from Lebanon who need to get to America and the better the airflow, the easier it becomes," said Bob Roberts, an Air Force pararescueman from the 321st STS.

While working to provide comfort and assurance was priority for the crew, they sometimes found themselves in other roles. One day in particular stood out for one Airman because they thought all flights were finished for the day until they were notified one was inbound.

"At one point we had to step in and help the embassy," said Roberts. "We collected passports and information. It was neat to see how appreciative people were. It's just people helping people; it's just what we do."

Although the crew from the 352nd SOG remain modest regarding its efforts throughout the humanitarian crisis, those efforts were nothing less than heroic to one Lebanese-American from Boston, Mass., and her family being transported.

"The U.S. Air Force (is) very good. Once we got (to the airport) the process only took two minutes," said Diana Adounader, who was in Lebanon with her 7- and 15-year-old daughters to visit her sick father. "I was so worried about the flight from Lebanon to Cyprus, but it was great. Nobody is doing what the U.S. has done in this effort."

(Courtesy U.S. Air Forces in Europe News Service)