All in a day’s work: Air Force’s ‘Afghan Freedom Fighters’ heroic service in 6-year, 7-million-person relief effort

After a devastating earthquake in Afghanistan in September of 2005, Richard Avery flew planes for a living, and much of the time he had to fly to Kabul, frequently stopping at the airport to drop off and pick up wounded soldiers from nearby Iraq.

But one particular mission was especially emotional: The crew of one aircraft that Avery had flown from Pennsylvania to the small Afghan city of Herat, loaded with about 1,000 frightened and hungry refugees who were fleeing the seven earthquake-stricken districts of the Pakistani province of Azad. They feared some of their friends and family had died in the quake, and were being evacuated from their homes for fear they would be killed when they reached Pakistan.

Avery was hired by the Department of Defense to help out in the crisis, and he brought along five other military pilots and two Army medics. At each of the scheduled drop-offs, there were tense moments in which the volunteers scrambled to get the evacuees to safety but also acknowledge the need to take care of their families, known as honorably discharged veterans.

“All of us had a call to serve,” Avery said in an interview from Florida, where he is stationed with U.S. Air Force Special Operations. “We had a mission, and it worked out pretty well.”

Eight months after the quake, the eight-man aircrew — named the Afghan Freedom Fighters — continued to pilot from Herat to Pakistan, always stopping at the U.S. military station in Kandahar so the crew could leave some of the refugees, who lived in the wing of a building, with a local volunteer.

“There were emotions all over the place,” Avery said. “It was at a place that would allow us to keep an eye on everyone and allow us to remain as a responsible group of people.”

He acknowledged that it was never an easy mission. There were scenes of fear and panic at the base, as some men jumped in wheelchairs while others collapsed, unable to stand. Avery remembers his colleagues furiously cheering as they helped the wounded as their mothers, brothers and fathers clutched them.

In addition to his aircrew, Avery also helped with the evacuations for the Army medics and the three civilian pilots — all of whom had served in the Vietnam War and his first tour in Iraq. They included former Master Sgt. Gene Ledden, and Maj. James Bonney, who helped load the refugees from Herat into what Avery calls “Dodgy Dozen,” a former U.S. military C-17 cargo plane that was built with a sand pallet mattress welded onto the landing gear to give it the feeling of sturdiness and to withstand the violent jostling of cargo transport.

The most dramatic moment was likely in the landing in Kandahar, Avery said. But there were times when the Afghans would go back to their homes and greet the rescuers with wild cheers as he flew through their villages.

“That was a very emotional time for us,” Avery said. “We weren’t just dropping them off. We were going to try to build a relationship with each of them, and try to help them in a way they had never imagined.”

For Avery, the most valuable lesson was to never forget the need to serve his country, no matter where he was.

“Military pilots are tapped for the toughest jobs,” he said. “You’re picked for missions that may never be done again in your lifetimes. … Your folks behind you know that, and you never forget it.”

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