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No One Left Behind

I loved being a member of the Air National Guard.  Not only did we have to meet the same standards of training as the active duty military but our Communications Group was tasked to support deployments all over the world.  In the 80’s we supported joint training exercises in various geographic regions where we had specific taskings.  Although these training deployments were, for the most part, voluntary for the Guardsmen, they had to balance their commitment with civilian employers, family situations, and rigid Federal funding issues.  This story is about the one we almost left behind.

As a Major, I was the team leader of our communications element which had just finished a six week deployment supporting an active duty F-16 squadron at a remote Turkish base east of Izmir.  We were four hours behind schedule (but that’s another story) and had a long convoy drive to the airport in Izmir.  The C-141 was sitting on the tarmac waiting to load our team and equipment.  Before we left the remote Turkish base one of the young sergeants, Staff Sergeant Miller, reported to the flying unit’s medics with medical problems.  The medic recommended that she go to the Turkish hospital in Izmir to be fully checked out before flying six thousand miles in a cargo plane.

I arranged with our senior NCO, Chief Master Sergeant Leonard, to take SSgt Miller to the hospital, check her in, and hightail it to the airport.  It would be a miracle if Chief Leonard made it in time but I had learned early in my military career to rely upon my senior NCOs to perform such miracles.  

The team finally arrived at the airport, dropped the equipment at the plane to be loaded, and went to the terminal to get processed through Turkish customs.  We didn’t have passports since we were all on Federal active duty orders but we needed the original order which was stamped when we entered the country over a month earlier.   All went smoothly and the Turkish customs agent had the personnel count complete and was coordinating with the loadmaster to take us from the terminal to aircraft.

Through the parking lot roared the blue AF six-passenger pickup truck that Chief Leonard had taken to the hospital.  The driver was one of the NCOs from the AF detachment at Izmir, shotgun was the Chief, and SSgt Miller was in the back seat.

“What happen?” I asked.  

The Chief pulled me to the side and quietly said, “They wanted to keep her two weeks for observation.  She doesn’t want to stay here alone for that long.  She’s afraid she might lose her job and her kid’s babysitter can’t help that long.”  Chief Leonard sighed heavily and continued, “Congress hasn’t approved the continuing resolution either, and our orders end on 30 September.  (It was September 26th) She’ll be here without valid orders or a passport.  Major, we can’t leave her!”  The Turkish agents knew about her situation and were only expecting 30 not 31 personnel to board the plane.  

In about fifteen minutes, we had a plan, but it would require stealth, unswerving commitment to the mission, and a little bit of magic.  Chief Leonard went into the terminal to check in and brief our team, I went to the cargo plane to brief the crew, and SSgt Miller made herself as small as possible in the backseat of the truck.

“Time to go! Please proceed in straight line to the plane,” instructed one of the customs agents.  

Suddenly, the team bunched up and started to swirl as they moved toward the plane.  I was leading the gaggle and looked over my right shoulder.  Chief Leonard had Miller covered with his fatigue jacket and both were moving quickly and silently toward the swirling mass.  In seconds they were lost in a sea of green fatigues.

The loadmaster and head customs agent were waiting at the plane’s cargo door.  The agent counted, “One, two, three,…”until he got to 31, me.  

“Not right!  Numbers do not match! Everyone must come off. We need to check papers again!”  His voice raised an octave with each breath.  I just shrugged as if I didn’t know what he was talking about.  

The pilot appeared at the door.  “What the hell is going on?” he roared over the whine of the starboard engines.  The agent was frustrated, mixing English, Turkish, and hand movements to try to explain what was happening.

“Look buddy!  If we don’t take off in fifteen minutes, I’m going to miss my refueling window in the north Atlantic.   The Pentagon isn’t going to be happy.  I don’t care what you do, just fix your paperwork.  Major, get buckled in.  Loadmaster, lock the door we ARE leaving!”

The outside port engine began to turn with a puff of smoke.  I looked out the small round window and all I saw was the agent’s backside as he raced to the terminal.  The loadmaster winked at me and smiled.  Within 20 minutes we were over the Mediterranean out of Turkish airspace, on our way home with everybody.

We didn’t quite make it all the way to the US, but that’s another story.

Submitted by Richard Brooks

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