Alaska's Sherpas sustain Coalition forces across Iraq
June 30, 2009
JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq -- Twenty-eight Alaska Guardsmen, flying C-23 Sherpa aircraft, deliver cargo and transport service members around Iraq every day to sustain Coalition forces.
The C-23 Sherpa is the primary cargo aircraft in operation by the Army, used specifically for intra-theater support missions. The unit motto, Semper Turpis-Always Ugly-is emblazoned on Company F's crest, a direct reference to the aircraft affectionately known as the Minivan with Wings, the Flying Salmon and the Flying School Bus to pilots and crew.
Despite its boxy-appearance and small stature, the men of Co. F, 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment (CSAM) insist their Sherpas get the job done.
"Our ability to rapidly react to urgent requirements helps to ensure the war fighters have the tools they need to accomplish their combat mission," said Maj. Robert A. Seymour, commanding officer, Co. F, 1st Bn., 207th Avn. Regt. "If you need to move something across Iraq right now rather than next month, you call the C-23s," said the native of Anchorage, Alaska.
"We're the FedEx within the theater." On average, every month the unit's 10 Sherpas transport approximately 3,600 passengers and deliver over one million pounds of cargo, everything from rotor blades to mail to medical supplies to MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat, said Sgt. Coley C. Foster, a flight engineer from Wasilla, Alaska. "It's a great job," he said.
"At the end of the night, you can always count up the number of people and the amount of cargo you moved, and that's definitely a sense of accomplishment." Foster said it's a mission the aviators are familiar with. The Guardsmen of Co. F, 1st Bn., 207th Avn. Regt. perform missions throughout the state of Alaska, an area almost four times the size of Iraq.
They respond to emergencies, transporting sled dogs, snowblowers and supplies to villages and units who are often only accessible by air. "Our mission's pretty much identical (here)," said Warrant Officer Ross A. Wise, a C-23 pilot from Eagle River, Alaska. He said the biggest difference, for men and machines, is dealing with Iraq's summer heat.
As Coalition forces continue to drawdown, pulling out of cities in anticipation of the June 30 deadline, Wise said he believes they've been making more trips to outlying bases and then back to hubs like Joint Base Balad.
And while it's an event the Guardsmen were eagerly anticipating, he said it's not the most rewarding aspect of their job.
"The main reason I fly a Sherpa," he said, "is to keep our troops off the streets of Iraq. That's one of the core things I love about this job. To hear what (Soldiers) go through just to get from Balad to Baghdad-a 20 minute flight to us."
Seymour agreed, adding that every pound of cargo or person they move by air doesn't need to be pushed out by a military ground convoy. "Our crews take great pride in the knowledge that their hard work helps reduce the need to send their fellow Soldiers into harm's way," Seymour said.
"That is a great motivator." Fewer than two dozen C-23 Sherpas are still in service with the military today, and all are operated by state National Guard units like Co. F, 1st Bn., 207th Avn. Regt.