Into the hot zone

  • Published
  • By 62 AW History Office

Air Force Airmen are trained to operate in many different environments and combat many different enemies. From the flak riddled skies over Europe during WWII to the subzero temperatures on the frigid ice of Antarctica during the annual Operation Deep Freeze, there really is no place our Airmen cannot triumph over. However, what happens in an austere environment where the enemy is not only deadly, but invisible?

On March 24, 2014, the World Health Organization reported an outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD) in Guinea, West Africa. This hemorrhagic fever causes extreme flu like systems, unexplained bleeding and bruising and is frequently fatal. Contagion was rampant and, within a few days of the first reported case, EVD spread from Guinea to Liberia and put most of West Africa in mortal danger. By September, both the WHO and Centers for Disease Control reported nearly 5,000 cases of EVD and 2,375 deaths. While U.S. medical teams and troops were already on the ground in West Africa, President Barak Obama pledged more assistance and on September 12, the Department of Defense named the U.S. military response to EVD outbreaks in West Africa, Operation United Assistance.

Due to the austere conditions and national emergency in Liberia, the 621st Contingency Response Wing out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, deployed to set up a joint task force port, operations center, and personnel living quarters in Monrovia, Liberia, in order for worldwide support to run smoothly through Monrovia’s airport. This operation was supported by C-17 Globemaster IIIs, including those from Joint Base Lewis McChord.

The first McChord support personnel left McChord on September 18 and the last McChord mission in support to curb the EVD epidemic returned on March 11, 2015. During this time, the 62nd and 446th Airlift Wings flew 169 sorties and 797 hours and transported 592 passengers and nearly three million pounds of cargo. Passengers included Airmen, Marines, members of the 101st Airborne, and medical personnel ready to combat the invisible enemy.

Operation United Assistance not only challenged C-17 crews flying in and out of the cramped and busy airfield in Monrovia, but also on their return to the U.S. After many deployments, Airmen try to get back into the groove of life and spend time with their families, but after United Assistance, aircrews had to maintain their distance until everyone was assured EVD did not catch a ride home. Due to the high infection and fatality rate, all McChord Airmen who traveled to West Africa in support of United Assistance were separated and monitored by the 62nd Medical Squadron for 21 days. Fortunately, no one in the Air Force became infected with EVD.

During United Assistance, C-17s proved to be effective workhorses transporting personnel and cargo in and out of West Africa to combat EVD. After the Ebola crisis waned, Air Force medical personnel, Air Mobility Command, and the Materiel Command gathered what they had learned and started planning for the future. They ensured the C-17 would continue to fly into hot zones with the creation of the Transport Isolation System (TIS) in 2015. The TIS was created to transport EVD infected personnel safely to medical centers. It fits on all C-17s and most C-130s, leveraging their unique capabilities of landing on shorter runways in harsh environments.

Constant innovation and a willingness to go and do whatever is necessary means Team McChord Airmen complete their mission, no matter how big or small the theat.

Sources: 62 AW History Office
Air Mobility Command History Office
621 CRW History Office