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A helicopter crew at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan prepares to fly a flag "in the face the enemy" as a gift for folks back home.

A helicopter crew at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan prepares to fly a flag "in the face the enemy" as a gift for folks back home. (Jon R. Anderson / S&S)

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — Chief Warrant Officer 3 John Burt is revving up the engines on his UH-60 Black Hawk, prepping his helicopter for an upcoming mission off the dusty flight line at Bagram Airfield.

As the engines roar, a crew chief hands him a U.S. flag and a T-shirt. Burt, a 38-year-old pilot assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, wedges the flag — brand-new and still in its box — onto the dashboard above the flight controls and stuffs the shirt into the flight bag next to his feet.

Call them combat zone conversation pieces or patriotic mementos from the front lines of the war on terror, they are all part of a campaign among U.S. fliers in the region designed to help troops connect with folks back home in ways that simple post cards and e-mails never could.

The T-shirt, says the crew chief, is for a sailor working on the base who wants to send something special to his mom. As with a concert shirt signed by the stars of the show, after the flight Burt will scrawl the day of the mission, helicopter number and where they flew onto the shirt.

Meanwhile, the flag will be among thousands sent to friends, family, schools, department stores, hometown bars, police stations, colleges, and anywhere else troops want to offer a patriotic reminder of what they’re doing in Afghanistan. And why they’re here.

Most units print out a personalized certificate to accompany the flag, often with a picture of the Stars and Stripes held by the crew in front of the aircraft after the mission.

A typical certificate reads:

“In remembrance of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, this flag bears witness to the destruction of terrorist forces threatening the freedom of the United States of America and the world during Operation Enduring Freedom.”

“We’re flying these flags in the face of the enemy,” said Burt. “That’s a pretty cool gift. Not everyone can say their flag has seen combat.”

Pilots say they’re glad to help out.

“I think it’s an honor to fly the flag for someone back home, said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Ryan Nowaczck, a medical evacuation pilot at Bagram.

“We like doing it,” said Maj. Norm Camp, an Air Force A-10 pilot who flew three flags during missions here on the July 4. “It’s not a problem at all for us.”

It’s hard to say how long the flag-flying campaign has been going on.

Lt. Col. John Lynch, executive officer of Task Force Wings, which oversees much of the aircraft on the Bagram flight line, said it’s becoming increasingly popular.

The 10th Mountain Division, which the 25th ID replaced this spring, “was doing it when we got here and we just carried on the tradition. I think just about everyone is doing it now,” said Lynch. “It’s a good way to help people connect with what’s going on over here.”

Senior Airman Karson Beaulieu said his unit was sending up flags in A-10 Thunderbolt cockpits when they were deployed to Saudi Arabia in 2002 and then sending them back to friends and family as presents.

“We did a few back then, but now it’s much more popular,” said Beaulieu, with the 355th Fighter Squadron from Eielson, Alaska, now deployed to Afghanistan. “We’ve sent up at least 500 in the three months that we’ve been here.”

Requests have become so frequent, he said, they’ve had to set up a special sign-up sheet.

“They can drop off four flags at a time and pick from 14 different certificates,” said Beaulieu. “When we first got here it only took a few days to get them back, but now we’ve got so many it’s usually more like a week.”

The practice has become so popular lately that local PXs at bases in Afghanistan have had a hard time keeping flags in stock. Usually delivered by the truckload, shipments are typically sold out within days.

“It’s definitely an unusual gift,” said Beaulieu, “it’s not something you can just run down to Wal-Mart and get.”

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