Airman reflects on deployment to Afghanistan for OAR, first sergeant role

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Jonathan Lange
  • 321st Contingency Response Squadron

Editor’s note: Master Sgt. Jonathan Lange is the 321st Contingency Response Squadron contingency response team section chief and has been a C-130 loadmaster his entire career. He met his wife, Laura, while he was stationed in North Carolina and she is currently the lead Key Spouse for the squadron and plays a critical role in supporting family members in the unit, especially during deployments

It was a Thursday afternoon, and I had just arrived at the local pool for dinner with my family. I changed out of my uniform and into swim trunks and had thrown some chicken on the grill when I got a phone call: “Sergeant Lange, we are alerted and will be leaving in the next 24-48 hours. Please notify the rest of the group and tell them to show up tomorrow morning at 0800 with their bags and be ready to go.”

My prompt response was a quick, “Yes, sir. See you tomorrow morning.” My mind immediately went from zero to 100. How do I break this news to my 10-year-old daughter? I knew my wife, Laura, would understand as she has been through something similar before, but my daughter, she would be heartbroken.

I pulled Laura to the side and told her what I knew. I’m leaving within two days and I don’t know where I am going or how long I will be gone. Her response was rock solid as always: “I understand; it’s part of the job. Do what you need to do.” When I asked her how to break the news to our daughter she said, “Tell her the truth.” That was a tough thing to explain to a 10-year-old, but she took it in stride and gave me a great big hug, even though I could see the tears welling up in her eyes, and said, “It’s ok, I understand.”

Shortly after, I was on my way back to work to help plan what we needed to take and I notified everyone in my group on my way. When I was in the planning meeting, I found out I would be going as the first sergeant for about 100 people, which later would become approximately 170 including the people who forward deployed from other areas within U.S. Air Forces Central and fell under our leadership.  We would be going to Kabul, Afghanistan, to run the airfield so we could evacuate as many civilians as we could. The burden that was just rested upon my shoulders felt massive as I realized that I would have to do my best to make sure that everyone returned safely and with honor.

A couple of days later, we were on a C-17 Globemaster III trying to get into Kabul, with half of our force already on the ground that had arrived hours before us, and we wanted to be there to help. The problem was that we couldn’t land since the runway was covered in civilians. We held in the air for hours and finally had to turn around and head back to Kuwait. We didn’t realize how bad it was until we saw the news while trying to get some food at the chow hall. The sheer chaos that happened was unbelievable and the images shook everyone to their core. The next day we were able to try again and this time we made it. The look of relief on everyone’s eyes when we walked off the plane to help was overwhelming. The look of “thank God we have help now.”

Little did I know that this look of thanks would be one that I grew to appreciate. Not only from my own brothers and sisters in arms, but from those who were trying to get out, or even those who I helped from other nations as they were trying to get something done. I also didn’t realize that my days would become a blur from one to the next as I consistently worked 20 hours and was happy if I got more than three hours of sleep. It was those looks of appreciation that kept me going. 

Every day was different than the last, as I would make my rounds to see how everyone was doing. I would come across someone that just needed to hear, “You’re doing awesome; keep up the good work!” or telling someone they needed to get some rest. Sometimes it was even something as simple as handing an MRE or water to someone waiting to get on a plane to go live a better life, or giving a hug to someone who felt overwhelmed by how many people there were. That look would make me realize we were doing something great and we needed to keep going. Those were the better days, as they were simple solutions and they usually ended with a smile. Other days were a lot harder.

Those were the days when you would hear constant gunfire and occasionally a few wiz over your head. The worst day was the day we lost 13 U.S. service members to a suicide bomber. We had to take cover and defend ourselves from a possible attack and then finding out that we lost those people and that more were injured. Trying to muster the courage, put on a brave face and gather as many people as you could to take them to the hospital and provide blood because the medics were running out while caring for the injured. Trying to maintain that brave face as you explained to those around you that we needed to provide dignified airlift for those who lost their lives. All while getting nervous messages from my wife trying to make sure I was ok without straight up asking if I was ok.

Even as things were winding down, the stress didn’t. I had to have many conversations with people on the edge of a complete mental break. I had to analyze those around me to make sure the cracks in their mental armor weren’t starting to give. Discussing the reasons to keep pushing, the good we were doing and the help that we were providing. Talking about the ways to cope, since we had seen a lot of crazy over 16 days. That’s all it was: a crazy, full-throttle 16 days. We survived! I survived! This was my 14th deployment, and I had never seen anything like it. I have been shot at, mortared, provided emergency medical evacuation, and brought home those who had lost their lives in Afghanistan or Iraq. This was on another level.

But it was the support I had that brought me through. Those who were around me, telling me I couldn’t take care of everyone if I didn’t take care of myself. My wife reminding me I needed to get some sleep and that I couldn’t survive on energy drinks and nicotine alone. The close bonds we forged while we were there. But the biggest motivator was seeing those 124,000 people getting on planes to go live a better life. That is something that I will forever remember as I can say that I was part of something great.