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Ramstein Airmen train Iraqis to fly, fix C-130s

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- Ramstein Airmen deployed to Iraq to train Iraqis on the C-130 Hercules aircraft -- standing up the first Iraqi airlift squadron under the country's new regime.

A Ramstein pilot, navigator and enlisted maintainers deployed from August through January to train their Iraqi counterparts to fly and maintain the Iraqi 23rd Squadron's three C-130Es at Ali Base, Iraq.

"This was the world's toughest training environment," said Capt. Jeremy Smith, 37th Airlift Squadron navigator. "We were teaching Iraqis to fly in a hostile environment with a language and culture barrier."

Furthermore, the Iraqi flight crewmembers have not flown since the Gulf War in 1991, Captain Smith said.

Despite the challenges, the Iraqi C-130 aircrew members successfully qualified and started flying missions on their own.

In late August, the 23rd Squadron completed their first mission in which they airlifted Iraqi troops into a combat operation against an insurgency. The Iraqi mission resulted in 341 insurgents and 22 caches seized, said Capt. Brain Choate, 37th pilot.

Shortly after, the squadron completed their first humanitarian mission in which they airlifted an Iraqi boy to a hospital so he could receive open heart surgery, Captain Choate said.

Another benchmark for the squadron was flying the country's leaders to the first-ever democratic election and the creation of the Iraqi constitution. The people of Iraq stood proudly as they watched an Iraqi C-130 fly overhead, Captain Smith said.

"This was the most rewarding experience of my entire career. We made a lot of life-long friends," Captain Choate said.

The captains spent several hundreds of hours with the Iraqis, building strong relationships with them.

Since the captains were not able to leave the base, the Iraqis brought their culture to the Airmen.

"They put on dinners for us with traditional dishes and talked about their families and their lives," Captain Smith said.

Captain Smith said he has a deep respect for the Iraqi aircrew members and their families who receive death threats on a daily basis from Iraqi insurgents who do not support their involvement in the Iraqi Air Force. Aircrew and maintenance members must keep their names and faces hidden for their own safety, but Captain Smith said they are very proud of what they are doing.

"My family is very proud of me, but they worry about terrorism," said a captain and pilot of Squadron 23. "I am very proud to give a hand to enable my country and make my country the best in ... the Middle East."

Today, the 23rd Squadron flies two missions each day which helps out the busy American C-130 squadrons.

"They fly two-thirds of their squadron every day, which accomplishes several taskings we used to fill with our ‘hercs,'" Captain Smith said.

Not only has the flying mission been successful, but the Iraqi maintainers are now able to troubleshoot problems and fix the aircraft on their own, said Staff Sgt. Christian Homan, 86th Maintenance Squadron aircraft electrician.

"I was very impressed with how quickly they picked up the skills they needed to accomplish the mission," Sergeant Homan said. "We worked very well together."

The road to standing up the 23rd Squadron was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that the Ramstein Airmen said they will remember throughout their careers.

Captain Choate said the rewarding experience peeked when he saw the end result; a group of students were trained to stand up their own flying squadron in less than a year. He said he could see the confidence building in the pilots when they passed a check ride and eventually flew their own mission helping their fellow citizens.

"With our help, this country has not only taken their first step to building a new military under democratic rule, but they have now successfully defended their nation on multiple occasions," he said. "This is truly rewarding for us all."