Blog: A Veterans Day in a war zone

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Photo: Tech. Sgt. Brian E. Christiansen / U.S. Air Force / 2003

The following is a blog entry originally written by Fox 46 News photojournalist Brian Christiansen in 2003. Tech. Sgt. Brian E. Christiansen served from 1992 through 2014 and often took photos for the U.S. Air Force. He took these pictures and wrote this blog entry following an overseas trip to Iraq in November of 2003. We share it with you today in honor of those who have served and continue to serve:

It started about 8pm the night before. I received an email from one of my fellow NC Air Guards(wo)men who was deployed with me. She's an Aeromedical Evacuation Nurse, and has been flying missions throughout the Iraqi theatre for the last 4 months. This is the email: "Mon 11/10/2003 7:51 PM...Hi Brian, I don't know if you'll get this in time, but we are scheduled to fly on Tues. I don't think I can give you the official mission number but we will be on Glide 73 at 0745 local. Do what you can so maybe you can go with us..... good PR for AE back home, if you know what I mean...Hope to see you tomorrow.... GG."

After I read it 5 times, my brain was trying to figure out how I could convince my boss to let me get on that mission. How awesome it would be to take pictures of MY Guardsmen in action and to experience an Aeromedical Mission. The problem of getting on the airplane is a little more complicated than just getting into the airplane.Now that the war, for the most part, is over, new bases that are created go thru a beginning phase, creation of buildings and runways, then comes the rules and regulations phase. Welcome to my base. So, my Lt, emailed his Colonel, and within a few minutes, we had a yes. Ok. First problem solved. Second problem came when I showed up the next morning. Because I wasn't a Crew member, I had to get 5...not kidding....5 signatures.

One from my commander, one from his commander, one from his commander, and one from the pilot of the aircraft saying that it was ok. I swear, if we had the lottery here, I would have won. Within 20 minutes after we wrote a "permission slip", the commander of the aircraft was giving me a safety briefing, and giving me specifics of where we were going, what I was going to see, what I needed to do in case of an emergency, and why he didn't think I should go, however he was willing to help out his crew with some footage. I cut another deal. I was going to Iraq. If anyone of you has ever been on a C-130, you know its an incredible ride. Granted, its not an F-15, its something even better. You are blind in the back of the plane, with very few windows, and sitting on fabric that it less quality of bad Kmart outdoor patio furniture.

You are facing each other, in one case can be a good thing. Its always smart to sit across one of the loadmasters. They are the ones who load the aircraft and properly secure all equipment and passengers. They wear headphones and are constantly listening to the pilot and are always abreast of what situation the aircraft might go into. It's that information, that you can read their face, especially if a hard bank to the left or the right might be ahead.

They always let you know because they finally sit down and grip their seat as tightly as possible. Enter the banking. First a hard left, then a hard right. If you are that lucky person sitting across from one of the 3 windows, you can see the ground not too far away encompass ALL of the window, proving the plane is in a hard turn. All of this turning back and forth is necessary to avoid enemy fire from below, which can happen at anytime. It was at that we finally began a constant hard left turn, circling the runway far below us.

We are now talking HARD banking, where you feel like you are sideways, at a downward angle, and it always throws off your equilibrium and never does wonders for your stomach either. With the instant effects of the throttle being pushed towards maximum you feel your body shift to the back of the airplane. Its at this you wish you would one piece and soon. At this speed and decent it won't be long. Its incredible the sensation that rushes thru your body when the wheels finally hit the ground. There is no way to describe the feeling after the plane stops, and you want to kiss the ground.Our first stop was Ballad, Iraq. After we offloaded some equipment, the nurses put thier Kevlar on, yes, bullet proof vests, then readied the litters, and began mounting them to the racks up to the ceiling.

Roughly 15 minutes later, the first Army Humvee Ambulance arrived with our first customers. These were the most injured compared to the rest of the patients we would carry for the remainder of the day. The first patients 5 were U.S. Army soldiers -victims of mortar attack. They were patrolling the streets, and were completely accepted by the locals. They had been invited to peoples houses for dinner, they shared the candy from their M.R.E.s (Meals Ready to Eat) with children, and were constantly getting hugged by locals. They were walking down the street when a mortar exploded yards away.The most serious injury was a man who still had shrapnel in his left arm, and lost his eye in the attack. He was calm and collective and constantly smiled back when anyone would go up to him and share some time with him.

It only took a few minutes to secure the passengers, and we were ready for take off. After we had gotten off the ground I made my way back to him to see I could get him some water, or even a snack. He said he was fine and saw my camera and asked what I was taking pictures of. After I told him what I was there for, and would respect his privacy by not taking a photo of him, he begged to have his picture taken. He said he was glad that I was there, to tell his story. It was about 15 minutes later that Ginger, one of the nurses came back to check on him. It was right then I took a step back, and squeezed the button.

I don't know if I even looked inside the viewfinder. It was right then that I realized it was Veterans day. The irony of it. This is why I wanted to go on this mission. This was worth it. This is what it says to me. We wear the uniform. We fight for our freedom and for the freedom of others. We will go into combat if necessary. We will heal those who are hurt. We will help those who have fallen. We don't forget them.Our day went on, picking up more patients in Baghdad, Talil, and Kirkuk. The plane was getting full. All the nurses including Ginger were constantly moving from one patient to another with the momentum of Speed Racer. Never ignoring any of them, they made their rounds completely, giving I.V.'s, checking temperatures, changing gauze, and just comforting their patients.

Night had fallen and it was extremely dark in the plane. I was making my way to the back of the plane, when I felt a tug on my leg. I stopped and bent down, to see younger man trying to get my attention. Right away I told him I wasn't a nurse, but could get one if he needed. He just wanted to talk. It was intriguing because he spoke a perfect and cordial British accent. I sat down next to him and learned that he was a British contractor, helping lay down telephone wire when gunfire began. 2 Bullets entered his body - both his right arm and leg. In time he would be fine. Right now he just wanted someone to talk with to try and ignore the bumpy ride.About an hour later and change, we finally landed in Kuwait. I got out of the back of the airplane, to watch the nurses with their perfect timing and synchronization in offloading all the patients. They were amazing to watch.

From over 18 hours of flying and landing, loading and unloading patients, their energy level never slowed or ceased. It was an unimaginative experience that I will never forget. It made this 4 month excursion to the desert complete in every possible way.