Airmen experience sights, sounds, tastes of India

  • Published
  • By Maj. James Law
  • Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs
For the 130 airmen working here in February during Cope India ‘04, the job of flying and fixing aircraft has taken on a whole new meaning.

Cope India ’04 is a bilateral exercise between the air forces from the Unites States and India involving fighter aircraft -- the first of its kind in more than 40 years.

For most of the U.S. airmen, this is their first time in India, and phone calls to home are filled with vivid descriptions of the colorful landscape and the variety of tethered and loose animals in the streets: camels, monkeys, cows, elephants and more. Airmen are experiencing unique food and drink, wedding parties during the busy Indian nuptial season and the warm generosity of the Indian people.

“It was fascinating to see all the Hindu weddings at and near our hotel,” said Tech. Sgt. Piper Hudson, a combat camera videographer from Charleston Air Force Base, S.C. She is here documenting the exercise. One night she quickly ran to get her camera to capture part of a wedding street procession. “The ritual can last up to three days and are extremely elaborate,” she said.

Gwalior is located 200 miles southwest of Delhi and traces its history back to the 8th Century A.D. Legend has it that a chieftain who was stricken by a deadly disease was cured by a saint name Gwalipa. In gratitude, the chief founded Gwalior which later became “the cradle of great dynasties, warrior kings, poets, musicians and saints,” according to an Indian air force Fact Sheet.

One of the highlights of the trip for many was a visit to the Taj Mahal. Built in the 17th Century, this white marble and inlaid stone mausoleum holds the bodies of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his wife, Arjumand Bano Begum.

“It was incredible,” said Staff Sgt. John Norman, a tanker airlift control element airman here from Travis AFB, Calif. “It was more than I expected. I didn’t expect it to be so elaborate, and I was taken by the inlaid stonework. It’s hard to find words to describe it. He must have really loved her to build such a burial place.”

For some, the opportunity to shop has been irresistible. Carpets, shawls, jewelry, spices and more were available from vendors and gave U.S. airmen the chance to learn the finer points in haggling with each merchant for a final price.

“You have to haggle,” said Staff Sgt. Teri Bonvillain of the 19th Aircraft Maintenance Unit at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, who bought everything from clothes to food to jewelry. “First, if you don’t haggle, you’re getting ripped off, and (second), it’s fun. You build a little rapport, then oftentimes if they don’t have something you want, they’ll find it for you, even if it means going to someone else’s shop or getting it to you the next day.”

The Americans also opened their wallets to some of the less fortunate in this sprawling city of 1 million people. The U.S. team made a donation of money, clothing, toiletries, medicine and toys to a local orphanage and numerous airmen spent part of a day with the children there during a weekend break in flying operations.

“It was very rewarding -- it’s the same feeling you get back in the U.S. when you contribute to a good cause, especially for the kids, “said Capt. Richard Steele of the 19th Fighter Squadron and one of the community relations project organizers.

“They just want someone to love on them a little bit,” said Captain Steele, who has four children at Elmendorf. While at the Ramakrishna Ashrama, which contains both a boys and girls orphanage and a center for disabled children, he and others handed out the donations and played with the children.

Cope India ‘04 ended Feb 25, but the interaction will continue between the two air forces. The U.S. Air Force will welcome Indian airmen who will deploy to Alaska for the Cooperative Cope Thunder exercise this summer.