News: Task Force Denali notes from Ghazi Forward - North
Story by Spc. Reese Von Rogatsz
GHAZI AVIATION BASE, PAKISTAN – The month of September saw the soldiers and helicopters of the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade deploy, build up, begin operations and assume full responsibility in their role for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts in northern Pakistan.
Designated Task Force Denali, the 18 U.S. Army helicopters and more than 300 personnel from Alaska arrived in stages at Pakistan Air Force Base Chaklala, near the capital city of Islamabad, aboard strategic airlifts conducted by U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III transports.
The majority transited through Ramstein Air Base, Germany, following a 12-hour flight across 10 time zones.
The cavernous hold of the aircraft is made small by the bare frame of a helicopter lashed to the metal deck with an intricate system of chains and clasps. Palletized cargo is secured towards the loading ramp in the rear, covered by netting. The innards of the craft are exposed in the walls and ceiling.
Turbofan engines whine as they build thrust. All hard edges, no frills, the jet thrums with power. Noise, vibration, it means business.
The ‘chalk’ soldiers and commander are strapped in along the sides. No one has actually scribbled a number on them, but they know it. Most sleep, attempt to sleep, or pretend to. Each has thoughts but keeps their own counsel as they leap into the air.
Ramstein AB is neat, orderly, not unfamiliar somehow. Form follows function. Boots hit the tarmac and enter a predictable, modern passenger terminal of glass and steel. A multi-story Ramstein Inn sits at a traffic circle beyond. Outlets for shopping, a watering hole decorated with sports regalia to make people feel at home. Dollars are welcome.
The midnight pizza is of the frozen variety, forgettable.
Off to the NATO personnel holding area to await another leg of flight. This will bring the soldiers closer to their next, if not final destination. They look at exotic Germany through the glass windows of the minibus: autobahn signs, occasional billboards.
The basic comforts are here, in this fenced compound. Words in Polish are heard in the common area. There is a post exchange and Warrior Zone coffee house a few paces away. A gazebo beckons to smokers, conversations are struck up, time passes quickly under an autumn sky.
Eight more hours in the air and a stair is lowered onto an air field altogether different. A tangible wall of heat slams the group. The afternoon sun is unforgiving. Goats stare curiously. Locals in traditional garb ride bicycles along the airstrip. A United Arab
Emirates craft is disgorging cargo, Russian diesel power generators off to the side. Containers, pallets, crates, boxes, cables, equipment arranged haphazardly.
A once grassy lawn churned to mud baked by mid-day heat is enclosed on two sides by chain link. A crushed gravel path winds along the tents.
They step upon the trail with a satisfying crunch.
At PAF Chaklala, the 10 CH-47 Chinook and eight UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were assembled during evening, night, and morning hours to mitigate the effects of intense daytime heat on the physically and technically demanding nature of the task.
Once made operational, sections of aircraft with appropriate supporting personnel jumped northwest to Ghazi Aviation Base in the vicinity of Tarbela Dam.
A massive project stretching 9,000 feet to span the Indus River, it can be seen through the haze which blankets the area. It helps to stand on high ground, or better yet, overfly it, in order to appreciate the feat of engineering implied by its rock-filled immensity.
At the suggestion and request of the Pakistan government, the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy helicopters already at Ghazi were preparing to relocate southward into affected areas more closely matched to the performance characteristics and delivery capability of their aircraft.
Well-suited for the mountainous river valleys of northern Pakistan, the Chinooks and Black Hawks began flying daily missions in the Swat and Kohistan valleys of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
After a brief stay in hangar tents, the male soldiers of TF Denali move into barracks space vacated by their gracious hosts. Members of the Pakistan military’s Special Services Group provide security.
Throughout the day, a loudspeaker perched atop a spire calls the locals to prayer at a mosque across the way. The faithful are politely searched.
A field kitchen busily dispenses calories in a variety of flavorful dishes. Kindly locals at the dining hall hand out refreshing beverages in the form of fruit squeezings. Mango, guava, apple, orange, grape.
Laundry is processed efficiently, bags counted methodically. The goats do not trample the freshly washed items as they dry in the sun.
Around the clock, a minibus speedily conveys passengers to their destination accompanied by the melodious sounds of the country’s finest musicians. The route is uncomplicated, with hangars at one end and barracks at the other. They are several hundred meters apart.
An optional stop mid-way at the control tower is often taken advantage of by someone in the back of a crowded shuttle to the delight of other riders.
The sound of guitar strings and snatches of conversation punctuate the murmur of the night. Insects swarm, nature asserts itself as a frog tries to swallow a praying mantis several times too large for its gullet.
An overgrown lizard firmly wraps itself around the rim of a toilet bowl and is dislodged from its resting place by the cooperative efforts of SSG troops and U.S. servicemembers. Laughter is shared, monotony broken.
The hours of daylight grow shorter, the sun a ball of fiery red as it sinks toward the horizon. A wind sock hangs limp in still air or flutters with the wind.
The simple life.
The ongoing delivery of humanitarian aid in support of Pakistan continued throughout the transition period from the CH-46 Sea Knights, CH-53 Sea Stallions and MH-53 Sea Dragons, with the reins of providing sole airlift support in the region successfully passed to TF Denali on Sept. 17.
During the month ending Sept. 30, TF Denali logged more than 1,000 flight hours, transporting 3.8 million pounds (1,700 metric tons) of humanitarian aid supplies and evacuating 6,500 displaced persons in need.
Much as the flood relief effort in support of our friend and ally is being implemented through a whole of government, interagency response -- in which the Department of Defense is but one part of a greater whole -- so do the various sections, units and attachments comprising TF Denali come together to accomplish the mission.
Future correspondence will tell some of their stories.
According to Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority, the catastrophic floods of the 2010 monsoon season have exceeded the magnitude of all recent disasters there in terms of the size of the affected population and widespread damage.
The most recent figures from NDMA and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs cite the number of total affected population of 20 million, with 1.9 million houses damaged or destroyed, and an estimated 1,800 deaths.