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RAF MILDENHALL, England — Out of thin air, Senior Master Sgt. Robert Carter chose a rather mundane example to make his point.

“If it’s a box of lithium batteries, they need those down there and they need them now,” said Carter of the 727th Air Mobility Squadron at RAF Mildenhall, England.

His point is that the people who move cargo to the war zone have to treat every box and every pallet as a matter of life and death for someone in the line of fire.

At RAF Mildenhall, that was the feeling for everyone involved while combat raged in Iraq, squadron members said.

“They felt like they were directly contributing to the war effort,” said Capt. Kevin Nations.

Chief Master Sgt. Robert Henage said, “The next best thing to being there [in the war zone] was being here.”

Before, during and after Operation Iraqi Freedom, cargo movers in the Air Force have seen their workload increase. It’s not just guns and butter, but helicopter blades, tank tracks, computers and even a box of batteries that are needed to fight the war.

Lt. Col. Kevin Brewer, commander of the 437th Aerial Port Squadron at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., said the importance of the work is not lost on the workers.

“It’s important when you know what you are doing is going to have an impact in somebody’s life and may actually save somebody’s life,” he said. “You know you are moving stuff that really is important.”

His troops, he said, saw a news story in which soldiers in the desert complained of a lack of toilet paper. It made it more satisfying when they loaded pallets of the cushiony soft rolls onto an aircraft.

Lt. Col. Zyna Captain, commander of the 436th Aerial Port Squadron at Dover Air Force Base, Del., said there is no need to explain to the people pushing cargo that the cargo is important.

“You walk in and within a split second you feel the swagger of this squadron,” she said. “They know the importance of every box.”

The cargo handlers were some of the first to know that something was going to happen. They saw the surge in gear.

“By the time the American public heard the words ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom,’ my port and ports around the world had been busy for two months,” Captain said.

In that way, the 727th AMS at RAF Mildenhall is typical.

“I’d say it was January when we started seeing a lot more cargo,” Henage said.

And people, too. In March, 6,400 passengers moved through the base, the highest monthly total in 12 years, he said.

The port at RAF Mildenhall is not large by Air Mobility Command standards. Many pushed more cargo during the war. Many handled more passengers.

But like those others, it saw a quickening pace. Henage said the base handled about 400 missions in direct support of the war, with 90 percent of them coming in April and May. That’s several times the normal number.

“You see it coming, but you don’t see what the actual effect will be until you get into it,” he said.

The squadron has 70 civilians who work for the U.K. Ministry of Defence and 40 Air Force members. It got help from reservists and guardsmen during the war, but it also gave up some its members to other terminals.

The regular flights supporting other operations and sustaining the military presence at different spots around the globe didn’t stop. It was not unusual for 500 to 600 planes to drop in at the base in one month.

During it all, not one aircraft was delayed because of problems with the port, a point of pride in the unit.

“That’s unheard of,” said Lt. Col. Gordon Jacobs, the squadron commander who arrived in June.

Second Lt. Mark Lee said he was surprised to see the squadron undergo an inspection right in the middle of the war. This didn’t happen, he said, when he was in the Army.

“We had a major inspection,” he said. “We got an excellent, even though the war was going on.”

While soldiers and Marines in the desert and fighter pilots in speedy jets got the attention during the war — and even now — the cargo folks have accepted their lot in life as almost an invisible piece of the large puzzle.

But, they say, just try to do without them.

“Without airlift, you’d be hard-pressed to start the war, let alone sustain it,” Jacobs said.

The success has actually become a problem. The demands on airlift grow and grow.

“Everybody thinks this is an infinite resource,” Carter said.

Jacobs said, “I think it’s a great compliment that the bar is so high for us. We’ve become so good at what we do, it’s just accepted that we can do the job.”

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