Built for war, Air Force units reap peace

By getting damaged air bases up and running, rapid-deployment groups expedite the flow of disaster aid.

The Air Force created eight rapid-deployment units to make it easier to go to war. But now, they're yielding a peace dividend.

The outfits – called Contingency Response Groups, or CRGs – are teams of logistical specialists who can get a damaged or ill-equipped air base up and running in 24 hours and then operate it. That capability has turned out to be crucial for speeding aid to areas hit by natural disasters.

CRGs were sent to New Orleans last year (after hurricane Katrina hit), to Beaumont, Texas, a few weeks later (prior to hurricane Rita), and to Cyprus this past summer to help evacuate US citizens fleeing Lebanon during the Israeli incursion. When the Air Force sent one unit to Pakistan after the massive earthquake there last year, it got a welcome surprise: a boost in the US image among Pakistanis.

"When we first arrived out there, the people of Pakistan had a 23 percent favorable view of the United States," says Lt. Erick Saks, who deployed to the mostly Muslim nation with the CRG. "By the time we left, it was 50 percent."

Those figures correspond to polling by the Washington-based nonprofit Terror Free Tomorrow. "We found it went up from 23 to 46 percent approval," says Kenneth Ballen, the group's founder and president.

Initially numbering about 60 men and women, the CRG arrived in Pakistan the day after the earthquake from McGuire Air Force Base near Trenton, N.J. It set up at poorly furnished Chakala Air Base northeast of Islamabad and stayed two months, keeping the flow of aid smooth and steady despite the flood of international assistance.

"A lot of people don't realize that if you flow enough aircraft to one field, you can eliminate it from use," says Col. Bob Swisher, vice commander of the McGuire-based 621st Contingency Response Wing, created in March 2005 to run three CRGs. "You can go to gridlock."

That happened in Beaumont, before hurricane Rita in 2005, so the Air Force sent a CRG to straighten things out, he said.

The units include air-traffic controllers, "aerial porters" with experience in loading and unloading cargo planes, security forces, meteorologists, aircraft and vehicle mechanics, and medical personnel, among others, Colonel Swisher says.

The key is that they train together, says Brig. Gen. Alfred Stewart, commander of the 621st wing. "When we go and have to open up an air base, it's not a pickup game."

Another command, the 615th Contingency Response Wing at Travis Air Force Base near Fairfield, Calif., has three more CRGs. A seventh CRG is based at Ramstein, Germany, and an eighth on Guam.

It's not clear that the goodwill generated from CRGs lasts. In Pakistan, "the overall image of the US got a slight uptick," rising from 23 percent approval in May 2005 to 27 percent in a Pew poll conducted in May 2006, says Carroll Doherty, an associate director at the Pew Research Center in Washington.

But if the warm feelings cooled rather quickly, the impression the effort made was strong, Mr. Doherty adds. Pew found that 85 percent of those polled were aware that the US military had helped in the relief effort.

Pollsters have found similar results after visits to Asia by the 1,000-bed Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy, Mr. Ballen notes.

The Navy sent the Mercy to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, after the 2004 tsunami – the ship's first deployment in 14 years. Navy and Project HOPE medical personnel treated more than 9,500 patients and did more than 19,000 medical procedures while there, the Navy says. The deployment was so successful that the Navy sent the Mercy out again this year on a five-month trip to the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and East Timor to treat disaster victims.

After the Mercy's tsunami-related deployment, "there was a dramatic change in public opinion of the US in Indonesia," Ballen says. He cites polls showing a rise from 15 percent to 30 percent approval of the United States among Indonesians from 2003 to 2006.

General Stewart says using CRGs for humanitarian missions isn't part of a grand strategy in the war on terror. Ballen says it should be.

"Egypt is the second-largest recipient of foreign aid and probably the most anti-American country in the world," he says. "But where it is people-to-people, with demonstrable effects like the tsunami aid, it works."

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