Three Air Force crews at Joint Base Lewis-McChord scrambled on short notice to support a humanitarian mission in northern Iraq last month, flying across the globe to deliver supplies to U.S. forces helping in the fight against Islamic fighters.
The crews were called up just after President Barack Obama’s decision to use U.S. military force against Islamic State militants who had driven tens of thousands of people from the city of Sinjar into mountain hideouts deep in Iraq’s Kurdish-controlled northern provinces.
The local airmen had 48 hours to get in the air. They expected to drop food and water for the members of the minority Yazidi religious sect who had fled to Mount Sinjar.
But Kurdish and Iraqi government forces — with help from U.S. air strikes — broke the Islamic State’s siege of Mount Sinjar earlier than the Defense Department expected, which meant the JBLM airmen did not have to fly an airdrop mission to assist the Yazidis.
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Instead, the airmen wound up delivering supplies to a small team of Air Force advisers who are working with Kurdish leaders in the Kurdish Regional Government capital of Irbil, said Col. Christopher Colbert of the 385th Air Expeditionary Group.
The JBLM airmen were home within about a week, said Col. Dave Kumashiro, commander of the 62nd Airlift Wing.
Kumashiro said short-notice assignments such as the Iraq mission are a fairly normal event for the airlift wing. Other examples of quick call-ups he cited have included Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast in 2012 and the earthquake in Haiti in 2010.
“The great thing about our crews here is that we’re worldwide capable on a moment’s notice, so we maintain readiness pretty much at all times,” he said.
About 1,300 U.S. military service members are stationed in Iraq. They are protecting U.S. diplomats or working as advisers to Iraqi forces.
The JBLM wing contains four airlift squadrons, all of which are home at the same time for the first time since 2006. During the peak years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the wing continuously had at least one squadron deployed to the Middle East supporting troops on the ground.
Now, it’s alternating deployment cycles with the Air Force’s other “super airlift wing,” which is stationed at Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina. JBLM and Charleston have the Air Force’s two largest fleets of C-17 Globemaster III jets.
A JBLM squadron is expected to begin a deployment later this month, Kumashiro said.
“It’s kind of unique to have all of our squadrons home,” he said.