HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
Afghan security and coalition forces work diligently to keep roads here clear of improvised explosive devises, but many are still too dangerous to travel; in these situations, troops call upon the numerous airborne assets of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) for safe transport.
Two Royal Air Force EH101 Merlins from 1419 Flight Squadron, Joint Aviation Group, 3rd MAW (Fwd), transported several Afghan elders and military leaders to a shura at Nad Ali for International Security Assistance Force officials to gain a better understanding of what the local population needs.
Helicopters are used to expedite transport because they are faster, safer and can adjust landing sites if needed, explained U.K. Army Capt. John McWilliams, the air operations officer for 3rd Parachute Battalion.
“This morning we were providing support to a shura – and subsequently providing support to the local population,” said Royal Air Force Flight Lt. James Wilson, a Merlin pilot with 1419 Flight Squadron. “We picked up [U.K.] security forces then picked up the Afghan elders attending the shura. They were working to communicate with the local population, while we provided a secure environment.”
While it was important to transport these leaders safely, it was equally important to treat them with the proper respect and accommodate any special requests they made.
“With some Afghan officials, you might have [personal security] teams, and you have to be wary of what they need you to do,” said Royal Air Force Sgt. Chris Gemble, a Merlin crewman with 1419 Flight Squadron. “An example would be when we were in Iraq, the [security] teams didn’t like you to touch the official in any way.”
A cultural sensitivity such as this can present challenges for the crew when preparing the aircraft for flight or assisting officials with their seat belts. Crews must readjust their procedures to accommodate the Afghan officials they are transporting. They must consider all the cultural differences and go beyond their normal responsibilities to ensure everyone’s safety.
“You just have to tailor the way you work to who you are working with,” Gemble said. “Otherwise, it is a simple case of we pick them up and take them where they need to go.”
The crew worked diligently and mindfully of the cultural differences and the flight went smoothly.
“In terms of what we did, it was a successful day,” Wilson said. “It was planned really well and we were in and out of the landing zones quickly. Everyone did what they were supposed to do. From the aviation point of view, it was definitely a success.”
According to McWilliams, the shura also went well with approximately 150 to 200 locals in attendance. The local community had the opportunity to express their needs and thoughts to the elders on a variety of issues.
By transporting local government and Afghan leaders to these events, ISAF and the Merlin crews continue to assist and support the local population to establish a safer and more stable country. The Merlin crews work persistently to ensure the ISAF troops and local Afghans reach their destinations safely and quickly each time they fly.