Liberia evacuations continue

  • Published
  • By Capt. Kristi Beckman
  • 398th Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs
Flying 200 feet above palm trees and myriad grass huts, the 56th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron completed its mission -- inserting the remaining members of the Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team and evacuating more people from the U.S. Embassy in Liberia.

The squadron, out of Iceland’s Naval Air Station Keflavik, is part of the 398th Air Expeditionary Group. It has been in Sierra Leone since July 13 providing personnel recovery and emergency evacuation for the Humanitarian Assistance Survey Team in Liberia.

“We are now an established air bridge here, providing a lifeline for the embassy,” said Col. Steven Dreyer, 398th AEG commander. “If anyone is in trouble, and we are called upon, we can move in quickly and get them out.”

During the latest mission, the Air Force and the Marine Corps worked hand in hand to get the 56th ERQS’s HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters loaded. The helicopters were soon packed with Marines and their gear, and within minutes took off toward an undisclosed staging area.

Upon arrival, a team from the 786th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron, also part of the 398th AEG, was dropped off to secure the area and establish communications. Tech. Sgt. Robert Arbelo, 1st Combat Communications Squadron, provided initial communication between the helicopters and the command post.

"It was exhilarating being part of a mission like this,” said Arbelo. It’s one thing to be a part of communications, but it’s another thing to actually see what your communications can accomplish. Usually you’re sitting behind a radio away from the action. Here, you’re part of it.”

Securing the forward-staging area with the rest of the security forces team was Staff. Sgt. Ace Jones, 786th ESFS operations superintendent.

“It’s not every day cops get to jump on a helicopter and deploy forward to help the Marines,” he said. “So, when a call comes for something like this, there’s no doubt, they know you want to go, they just tell you to pack your bags.”

Nearby, about 120 curious locals, mostly children, gathered close to the scene. At that point, the area was secure and the security forces team was awaiting the return of the helicopters from the embassy with the evacuees. In the meantime, the local children had fun talking to the airmen and having their pictures taken with them.

Mohamed C. Kamara, Sierra Leone police constable, was among the crowd.

“I’m not very happy about the fighting in Monrovia,” he said. “I want it to end. It’s good that the people are being evacuated because there have been too many close hits on the embassy.”

Off in the distance, the faint sounds of the choppers were heard and soon the first helicopter was visible. Children stood wide-eyed as the three choppers flew around to the landing zone. The first helicopter touched down as the wind from the blades parted the grass beneath it. The other two set down and the evacuees jumped off and ran to cover.

Along with the 18 evacuees, the rescue squadron flew five of its people out of the embassy. They had been left there on the first insertion of the FAST.

“The first time we took the FAST in, they wanted us to stay at the embassy for medical support and to clear the landing zone for their return,” said Senior Airman Mark Panzera, a 56th ERQS pararescueman. “The first night we were there, a couple mortar rounds hit outside the embassy and injured a reporter. The Marines let him in the embassy and we gave him medical attention.”

Panzera said the fighting got worse outside the embassy and the locals started piling bodies up at the front gates and shooting rounds inside the embassy. “We were on standby in case any mortar rounds hit and injured anyone.

“It makes me feel pretty good to be part of a mission like this,” said Panzera. “It’s all just part of my job.”

One of the evacuees was Lt. Kristian Wahlgren, a Navy contingency contracting officer with the HAST, who has been in Liberia since July 6 helping assess the humanitarian assistance situation.

“Our first visit in Liberia was to the clinic,” said Wahlgren. “There were people coming from everywhere to greet us. It seemed like we brought so much hope. We couldn’t move our vehicles because everyone was surrounding us and cheering us on. They kept chanting, ‘We want peace, no more war.”

Wahlgren said the team’s job was finished last week, but when the random shelling started, they could not get out.

“This mission is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Maj. Brett Hartnett, the squadron’s combat rescue liaison to the embassy. “You can read books, talk to people, see things on TV, but never really get the experience of this unless you live it. It’s a great feeling of satisfaction for my pararescuemen and I to be able to pull out those evacuees.” (Courtesy of U.S. Air Forces in Europe News Service)