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The New Pony Express

3 February 2008 -- While Air Refueling Wing points to what the main mission is here at the 108th, dig a little further and you can find that the planes, pilots, crew and maintainers find themselves on flights that have little to do with the original designer's purpose of the aircraft. Recently nine members of the wing flew a KC-135E on a long trip from McGuire, to Andrews Air Force Base to Ramstein (Germany) Air Base to Bagram (Afghanistan) Air Base, with a return trip to Bagram. With medical crews, the members of the 108th were transporting wounded members of the U.S. military from Afghanistan to Germany to reach the next higher level of care. Flying 43 hours in seven days, the crew flew night missions from Germany to Afghanistan due to enemy ground fire. According to Brig. Gen. Michael L. Cunniff, commander of the 108th Air Refueling Wing and one of the three pilots on the mission, it was an opportunity to apply much of the training they have received over the years. "With enemy fire and the mountainous terrain - our runway was 5,000 feet in altitude and had mountains on either side that towered 18,000 in the air - it made piloting the plane even more difficult," he said. "But it was a good opportunity to apply our training and tactics." The plane carried a total of 12 litters and 21 ambulatory patients on its two trips from Bagram to Ramstein. Each trip entailed almost 24 hours from the time they left Germany, landed in Afghanistan, loaded patients and fuel and flew back to Ramstein. Gen. Cunniff likens the trips to a Pony Express of planes that ferry the wounded from AOR to hospitals throughout the United States. The wounded military members fly from Iraq and Afghanistan to Germany, then other planes take them to hospitals such as Walter Reed, then other military planes fly them off to various parts of the country getting them to the care that is needed for each individual person. This "Pony Express" is part of the process that has raised the chance of survival of U.S. troops who have been wounded in combat from past conflicts. According to various reports, about 30 percent of Americans wounded on the battlefield died from their injuries, in Vietnam, the ratio of the number of deaths to the number of wounded was 24 percent; in Iraq through March 31, 2006, the ratio was 13 percent. Also in Vietnam it took an average of 45 days to get a wounded Soldier to a hospital. Today, thanks to missions like this air evac mission, it takes about four days. While the National Guard has been performing this mission for about six months, Gen. Cunniff said that the 108th was probably the first wing to fly a KC-135E for the mission. Col. Kevin Keehn said that the wing will be scheduling more similar missions in the future. He said that this mission truly made him feel that he was actually contributing to the real war effort. Gen. Cunniff talked about one of the differences between a refueling flight and an air evac mission. "On a regular refuel mission, the pilot is the mission and aircraft commander," he stated. "But on the air evacuation missions, the medical commander is the mission commander. "The medical commander could direct the pilot depending on the patient's needs, for instance, we might need to fly lower for cabin pressure if the patient warrants it," Cunniff said. "We have to adjust our flying profile to the medical commander' s requirements for the patients." These combat sorties are the first for the wing' s tankers in the AOR since the Iraq war began Gen. Cunniff said. We have flown in the air space while deployed to Oman, but not to Afghanistan and never landing in country. "There is no mission more important than getting our wounded troops home to medical treatment quickly," Gen. Cunniff stated