By Air Force Master Sgt. Jim Fisher
17th Air Force
SOUDA BAY, Crete, March 7, 2011 - The team projecting humanitarian airlift missions into North Africa entered its fourth day of operations today, taking satisfaction from the more than 450 displaced Egyptian citizens ferried home from Tunisia.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Ashley Vazquez, a command post controller with the 435th Air Mobility Squadron, has been working with teammates on everything from tracking people and equipment to building flight plans.
"We track all the personnel and aircraft -- we track flights, we set up all the communications equipment, making sure that we can talk to our flight crews in the air," she said. At Souda Bay, Vazquez is part of the 435th Contingency Response Group, based at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Known as the 435th Contingency Response Element while on Crete, they make the mission happen alongside airmen from the 37th Airlift Squadron.
"We just make sure everyone's taken care of while they are here," Vazquez said.
Much of this work is not captured by newsreels of evacuees gratefully touching down in Cairo, but is vital to making it happen, said Air Force Lt. Col. Charles "Doc" Schlegel, the contingency response element commander while deployed here and 435th Air Mobility Squadron commander at Ramstein.
"There are a lot of little things that must be done for us to be able to fly these missions," Schlegel said. "These guys have done a fantastic job, and when you see us on the news bringing people home safely after they have fled the conflict in Libya, you are only seeing part of the piece of the overall effort. Our whole teams, including our CRE element, aircrew, ravens, public affairs specialists and many others have all been crucial to the success of this important humanitarian mission."
Flexibility and versatility have made it possible for the small team -- fewer than 30 people are currently supporting the mission at Souda -- to get a lot done, said Air Force Staff Sgt. Justin Hairston, an air transportation craftsman with the contingency response element.
"We're a small unit, and we use cross-utilization training," he explained. "Everybody works together; everybody knows a little bit about everybody else's job. You have your subject matter experts, but everybody helps everybody out. That's what makes the [contingency response group] great," Hairston said.
Though their work is behind the scenes, the footage making network news in the United States and Europe is what makes it all worth it, Hairston said.
"Personally, my satisfaction comes from seeing these people getting home," he said. "It's nice to be a part of something like this. A lot of times you see things like this on the news, but to actually be a part of it, I feel very fortunate, very blessed to be here to help these people."
The airlift squadron and contingency response element did not fly today, waiting for further requests for assistance as part of the larger U.S. government and international effort to relieve suffering in the wake of the crisis.
"We are happy with what we've been able to get done so far in support of our State Department and U.S. Africa Command [missions]," Schlegel said. "We are standing by for more."