Blackhawks Bring Aid to Kashmir

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Blackhawk gunner Sergeant Cory McFadden knows the border with Pakistan as a place where you are likely to get shot at. Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters are hidden in the mountains below, often armed with armor-piercing rounds that can penetrate the skin of his helicopter. But last Monday night, McFadden and his crew joined a small aerial armada of U.S. choppers heading towards this dangerous borderland—without guns.

"I couldn't help but look down, searching for bad guys," says McFadden. "I mean, every day we're getting shot at." The gunner knows a thing or two about that. Over the past three years, he and his crew have done back-to-back combat duty tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this was different. McFadden and his crew were sent on a humanitarian mission, and that's why the Blackhawk was stripped of its two machine guns.

In response to last Saturday's earthquake in northern Pakistan, the U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan quickly diverted eight helicopters—cargo-lifting twin-engine Chinooks and sleek Blackhawks—to help with relief work in the Pakistani Himalayas.

Helicopters offer the only means of reaching mountain villages and hamlets stranded by rockslides and the ultra-maneuverable Blackhawk is ideal for threading up the winding river courses at the bottom of narrow and steep valleys. McFadden and the others carried out as many missions as they could between daybreak to sundown. They were grounded temporarily on Tuesday afternoon when thunder and hail lashed the region. Otherwise, they have constantly ferried foreign rescue workers up into the mountains to dig for survivors in villages that melted away like sand castles when the earthquake hit. McFadden and his colleagues dumped out tents, medical supplies and food to desperate mobs of survivors who lunged into the chopper, fighting each other for the relief bundles. Some Pakistani officials say that several times, desperate survivors denied a place on a crowded chopper tried clinging to the runners of the bird as it lifted off, nearly causing a crash.

The new mission comes at a difficult time for U.S. commanders in Afghanistan: Pakistan needs American choppers for rescue work, but the war against the Taliban is back on the boil and U.S. casualties are mounting. So the same choppers are needed for combat missions back in Afghanistan, too. Says one Kabul-based U.S. official, "We've sliced away some of our capacity in Afghanistan. So far, it hasn't impeded the war on terror—but it will if it goes past another ten days."

But U.S. choppers will be needed in Pakistan for a lot longer than ten days. Pakistani officials who have seen the devastation in these mountain valleys say the death toll could surpass 50,000, and many thousands more have been injured and left homeless. Most likely, says one U.S. military source, McFadden and the others will return to their perilous combat duties in Afghanistan, and other choppers will be diverted to Pakistan from U.S. bases and aircraft carriers in the Gulf, where they are serving as vital backup to the Iraq war. That would put yet another burden on the U.S.'s thinly stretched resources in its two battle theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan. "Fixing Pakistan is going to take a while," one U.S. army official remarked ruefully.