TRANSIT CENTER AT MANAS, Kyrgyzstan (AFNS) --
Boarding a C-17 Globemaster III at Kandahar, Afghanistan and headed to Transit Center at Manas here, U.S. Army Maj. Daniel Garcia prepared for the first leg of a special flight: the journey home after several months on his deployment.
At the heart of this mission is the 817th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron Detachment 1, aircrew: a flight commander, copilot and two loadmasters.
For them, this is another day at work, moving people and cargo to and from Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
"Today we uploaded 137 passengers. First we put 53 on our sidewall seats and then the rest filled up the center line seats that we have installed on the aircraft," said Tech. Sgt. Dequan Barthell, an 817th EARS Det. 1 loadmaster evaluator. "Once we have the passengers on board, we normally have two-to-four baggage pallets to upload. So we have to reconfigure the ramp to upload the pallets and then we're on our way."
The loadmasters are responsible for the passengers and the weight and balance of the aircraft during all stages of flight. With so much responsibility the aircrew follows detailed checklists during pre and post flight stages.
"The checklist has been written in blood," Barthell said. "Somebody has made the mistake, so our leaders who have gone before us have found it important that it gets put in the checklist so we don't make that same mistake."
Mission failure is not an option because bringing service members home is just as important to the aircrew as it is to the returning service members themselves.
"I think bringing them home is a big accomplishment," Barthell said. "They have been out for nine months, twelve months, fighting the fight in harsh conditions. I just want to thank them for that."
A way the loadmasters thank the passengers is by greeting them with a smile and making them feel as comfortable as possible.
"This is their first step on the way home, so it's always nice to meet them at the bottom of the stairs with a friendly smile and welcome them back," said Senior Airman Justin Baez, 817th EARS Det. 1 loadmaster.
The passengers recognize the quality of customer service.
"I would always say thank you to my Air Force brethren, they've always taken care of me," said Garcia, a Security Force Advisory Team commander deployed out of the 56th Infantry Brigade combat team, 36th Infantry Division, Texas Army National Guard. "This is my fifth deployment, so every time I've deployed the Air Force has always been there to get me to the mission and bring me back home safely, so on behalf of my family we say thank you."
The crew says bringing service members home is a mission highlight.
"The best part is taking the troops out of Afghanistan," said Capt. Katrina Morgan, 817th EARS aircraft commander. "It's really satisfying."
With pride, Morgan explained how the volume and speed with which the C-17 can move cargo and passengers is something that can't be matched by contracted flights.
"It has a lot of power. To actually pilot it, it's pretty fun, it's pretty responsive," Morgan said with a smile. "The other cool thing about this plane is that we can stop it on a dime, it's about 3,000-3,500 feet if we're real light, which is crazy for an airplane this size to be able to stop that quickly."
Her copilot, 1st Lt. Jordan Bronson, is also enthusiastic about his mission. He said the best part of his job so far has been the experience of deploying.
"I'm just really excited to be out here with my squadron, you get to know your squadron a lot better," Bronson said. "Especially for a new guy like me, you're real tight with everybody and its satisfying knowing that you're making a big impact on the mission out here by supporting the guys on the ground taking them in and out of theater."
While a big part of supporting the deployed service members is bringing them home. Another major piece is the ability to bring them, as well as any needed supplies, to the fight.
"We have to get the warfighters to the fight and the only way we're going to do that is with military airlift," Barthell said. "Then also on the flip side of that, once we bring those guys back home, I think that's very important. They've accomplished the mission, they're returning with honor, and we've helped them to do that."