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NEWS | Dec. 27, 2006

Puerto Rico Guardsmen experience combat up close

By Louis A. Arana-Barradas Air Force Print News

SAN ANTONIO (AFPN) - As luck would have it, Staff Sgt. Victor Vega and his C-130 Hercules aircrew were just about to take off when the attack started.

The 198th Airlift Squadron transport had just dropped off passengers and cargo on a dirt landing strip at a forward operating base near Kandahar, Afghanistan.

The plane's four turboprop engines were running as the aircrew loaded passengers for the return trip to Bagram Air Base. The sergeant closed the plane's cargo ramp and was ready for take off.

"The next thing we know, the airfield is under attack," the loadmaster from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, said. "It was crazy. We tried to get out of there, but couldn't because there were unexploded ordnance on the runway."

The crew, from the Puerto Rico Air National Guard, was stuck, and in the sights of the enemy. The pilot had no choice but to shut down the engines. The crew settled in to ride out the attack. For nearly one hour the fighting continued around them, everyone on the transport prayed nothing would hit them, the sergeant said.

"We felt like sitting ducks," Sergeant Vega said. "We couldn't leave the aircraft, so we depended on the security forces to keep us safe." But like most forward bases, there is no perimeter fence.

The plane and its crew were lucky. The aircraft did not suffer any damage, and when it was over, the Airmen soon got the OK to leave. It didn't take them long to start the engines and wing it out of there, the sergeant said.

"I'm still wondering why they didn't let us get out of the airplane," he said.

The sergeant and the other Guardsmen from Muñiz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico, deployed two of their C-130s to a war zone for the first time in September. From Bagram, the Airmen fly resupply missions to forward bases, nearly half of them via nighttime airdrop missions using night vision goggles. But the cargo planes also fly their share of daytime missions.

On most missions, aircraft deliver all the supplies and equipment Soldiers on the ground need to continue their fight against Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents. The transports carry mostly food, water, weapons and ammunition.

And each mission has the potential for danger. On many missions, Sergeant Vega's aircraft has come under fire. And during a tour of duty, an estimated "four out of five aircrews" come under fire, said 1st Lt. Jose Fernandez, a C-130 pilot from Carolina, Puerto Rico.

The lieutenant has come under fire on several missions. But one, to airdrop ammunition and water to Soldiers in the middle of a fierce firefight with al Qaeda fighter near the Pakistan border, sticks in his mind. The aircrew had the green light to drop the cargo and made one pass over the drop zone before their drop. The C-130 was flying at 10,000 feet, he said.

"The second time around, during the airdrop as the cargo went out of the airplane, the Army guys talked to us on the radio," the lieutenant said. "They said, 'Hey, you're being shot at from six different points at the same time."

The lieutenant said enemy forces had time to measure their run to the drop zone. Most of the fire was coming from the mountains, some which were more than 10,000 feet high. But the fire was not accurate.

Lieutenant Fernandez was the copilot on the flight. He was busy dropping the cargo and handling the radios. Then the pilot did a hasty escape maneuver and the plane hightailed it out of the area.

"We didn't get hit," he said.

Though adrenaline pulsed through his veins, Lieutenant Fernandez said he didn't have much time to think about the danger around him. He just did his job.

"That's the beauty of training," he said. "You react very mechanically, it's automatic" and do your job, the lieutenant said.

Of course, the Airmen from Puerto Rico are not the only ones to have come under fire while flying transports in Afghanistan and Iraq. But they are getting plenty of combat experience during their deployment, which ends in mid-January.

Sergeant Vega said most Americans do not know Airmen are warfighters and playing a vital role in the war on terror. Like the Soldiers and Marines on the ground, Airmen face dangers every time they fly missions.

"We're in this war, too," he said.

Daylight missions are the toughest, the sergeant said. Aircrews cannot see when the enemy is firing at them. But at night, it's a different story.

"At night you can see the tracers," Sergeant Vega said.

Sergeant Vega stands at the C-130's paratroop door window during missions. His job is to scan for outside threats. At night, the crews use their night vision goggles.

"Once you put the NVGs on, you can see fires, lights, maybe vehicles moving around," he said. "And they're shooting at you, taking a whack at us."