A C-17 air transport based in Charleston was among three U.S. aircraft that dropped supplies Thursday to Iraqi refugees trapped on a mountain in northern Iraq, the Pentagon confirmed Friday.
The S.C.-based plane dropped fresh drinking water to the refugees, including Christians and ethnic Yazidis, who had fled advancing forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, terror group.
The U.S. planes, two C-130 transports and the C-17, flew over the area for less than 15 minutes at a low altitude, dropping 5,300 gallons of water and 8,000 meals ready to eat.
The transport planes were escorted by F/A-18 fighters from the USS George H.W. Bush, an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. That carrier’s fighter-bombers, based at Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia, later launched air strikes on ISIS positions near the Kurdish capitol of Irbil in Iraq.
‘Be very careful’
Meanwhile, S.C. veterans of the Iraq war and the state’s congressional delegation sounded off Friday on America’s return to combat in Iraq, three years after U.S. combat forces withdrew from Iraq.
“It’s worth doing, absolutely,” retired Air Force Lt. Col. Ben Bradley of Sumter said Friday of the latest U.S. intervention. “But I think we have to be very careful how far we get involved.
“I would not describe myself as war weary, but I don’t think we should be going headlong into things,” the former pilot who flew 50 missions over Iraq enforcing the no-fly zone before the Iraq War began in 2004.
Bradley, 43, said he empathizes with those fleeing the ISIS forces and is not surprised the U.S. is back militarily in Iraq. But strategically, “For these things, you really have to look at what kind of an outcome can you effect?”
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. William “Dutch” Holland said U.S. soldiers are as skilled in relief efforts as they are in combat.
“The humanitarian relief, we did a lot of that. I know we’ve got the experts who know what to do,” said Holland, who held command positions in the Middle East and at Sumter’s Shaw Air Force Base between 2006 and 2010.
Holland said there is a close link between relief and combat missions.
“If aircraft that are delivering aid get into trouble, you have to be ready to support them,” said the now-director of the Shaw Sumter Partnership for Progress.
Holland would not comment on President Barack Obama’s decision to use military force. But he said veterans have moved away from the Vietnam era’s open criticism of military action to a time when few openly will question renewed action in Iraq.
“You’ve just got to fall back and hope that they’re doing the right thing and it’s for the right reason,” said Lexington County Sheriff’s Department deputy Kevin Blackmon, who was in Iraq as a 25-year-old military policeman during the first year of ground combat.
The nation’s pullout from Iraq left Blackmon, now 37, feeling “that this was going to happen. ... It’s a situation where we’ve backed ourselves into a corner that we had to take action.”
Blackmon said he is not surprised the Iraqi military has been unable to hold back the militants.
When he went on joint patrols with Iraqi police in 2004, “They were so scared. They knew they were going to be targeted,” said Blackmon, now a lieutenant at the Sheriff’s Department.
“Whether we agree with our president’s decision, you’ve got to support it,” Blackmon said. “You’ve got to hope the president is making the right decision – that’s our commander in chief.”
‘Lack of foresight ... disappointing’
Members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation said they supported the president’s decision to launch air strikes and provide humanitarian aid.
But the GOP-majority delegation also criticized Obama, saying he lacks a long-term strategic plan for the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
Appeared on CNN Thursday night, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-Seneca, said he wanted airs strikes to begin “like yesterday.”
ISIS is a direct threat to the stability in the region, Graham said in the interview.
Graham said he and U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said three years ago that the United States had to deal with the Syrian civil war – which the ISIS terrorists used as launching pad for their invasion of Iraq – because that country’s instability consumed the whole region.
“So this thing has spread throughout the region,” Graham said. “Air strikes in Iraq that are not followed up by air strikes in Syria are not going to get to the root cause of the problem.”
Air power, smartly employed, could turn the situation around, Graham said. “But if you keep letting it get worse and worse and worse, you’re going to have to use ground troops eventually, if they continue to take over all of Iraq and their surrounding neighborhood.”
Other members of the S.C. delegation, including U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-Charleston, also were critical of the Obama Administration.
“The threat posed by the ISIS has been known for months, and the lives of countless Iraqi citizens, including tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi Christians and ethnic minorities ... are in danger,” Scott said in a statement. “The lack of foresight from the White House is disappointing, and I certainly hope these targeted strikes are not too little too late.”
U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens, took to Facebook to criticize the president.
“What we’re seeing right now with the rise of ISIS ... is what happens when you allow campaign rhetoric to direct your foreign policy,” Duncan said. “Mismanagement in Syria, combined with rash decisions made by the president in Iraq has helped create this horrible situation.”
Only fellow Democrat Jim Clyburn of Columbia stood behind the president’s actions.
U.S. Rep. Clyburn said the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, another name for ISIS, is a threat to Iraq, the region and the homeland.
But, he added, “Ultimately, there is no substitute for political accommodation between all elements of Iraqi society to join together and expel the ISIL extremists from their country. In the meantime, though, while I agree with the president that American ground troops should not return to Iraq, we must assist the Iraqis in their efforts to stop militant gains and prevent humanitarian catastrophe.”
S.C. could become more involved
If military operations continue, it’s likely S.C.-based forces could become even more involved.
The 169th Fighter Wing at McEntire Joint National Guard Base has not been called up in response to events in Iraq, said 2nd Lt. Stephen Hudson, a Guard public affairs officer.
U.S. Army Central Command, which overseas military operations in Southwest Asia and has a forward headquarters in Kuwait, is located at Shaw in Sumter, where it hosts the Army’s Middle East and Central Asia experts.
Shaw also is headquarters for the Ninth Air Force. Its F-16 squadrons, some based in Sumter, and Marine F/A-18 squadrons, based in Beaufort, played key roles in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Meanwhile, Charleston-based C-17s – like the one that took in Thursday’s air-drop of provisions to embattled refugees – have played a constant role in ferrying U.S. troops and supplies from the United States to Southwest Asia.