Senior Airman Quinton Heyward got the word as soon as he stepped off the C-17 and into the desert.

The thousands of Iraqis who had escaped to Mount Sinjar in the first days of August were facing a threat as formidable as the Islamic State group militants they'd fled: death by dehydration and starvation.

Heyward had heard on the news the plight of the Yazidis, a religious minority group forced from their homes by terrorists who were swallowing up swaths of Syria and Iraq.

Now, the loadmaster learned, he would be part of an impending humanitarian mission to help save them.

"Get some sleep," a supervisor instructed Heyward as he offloaded the C-17 at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, upon his return from an air medical mission to Germany.

It would be his last sleep for a week.

For Staff Sgt. Justin Wright, rest would come only after the airdrops over northern Iraq were in full swing.

Until that day in early August, the loadmasters from the 15th Airlift Squadron at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, had spent much of their careers ferrying people and supplies in and out of war zones. They'd worked for a week or more readying airdrops to forward operating bases over Afghanistan and taken orders that reached them only after filtering down through various levels of the Air Force.

Now orders were coming straight to the squadron from the top: Get food and water to stranded Iraqis, and get it there fast.

This is how they found themselves on the most rewarding mission of their lives.

Crisis in Iraq

They never expected to be here, a half a world away from where they grew up.

Heyward was born and raised in Charleston. Wright grew up 200 miles northwest in the city of Spartanburg. Neither aspired to join the Air Force. In young adulthood, they'd found themselves at a crossroads.

It happened all of a sudden for Wright, who was sitting in a college class in 2006 and realized he was there only because that's where people his age were supposed to be. He was halfway through his second year of college and had already worked a number of jobs — in retail and restaurants and, his favorite, on a farm.

Wright walked out of class and into a recruiter's office. Just like that, his life changed.

Heyward had spent some time in college and was working on an assembly line in Charleston when he enlisted in 2010 at the urging of a friend from church, an Air Force loadmaster. Wright was 22 when he looked into it. He liked what he saw so much that he delayed enlisting for a year to ensure that's the job he got.

Neither had flown before they boarded their flights to basic training.

There have been too many flights since then for Heyward to remember them all. Wright has kept a running tally of all the countries he's visited: 44 in eight years.

Which made them well-seasoned travelers when they landed in Qatar in July for a 60-day deployment. Still, they'd never flown a humanitarian mission and had no immediate plans to. With the war in Iraq long over and the war in Afghanistan fast winding down, all signs pointed to a routine two months spent in the desert.

Few expected Iraq to become a hotbed once more, least of all the Charleston loadmasters. But the country was fast making headlines due to the shocking successes of the Islamic State group. Towns were falling. People were displaced. Among them: the Yazidis, deemed devil worshipers by the terrorists who threatened to kill them if they did not convert. In the sweltering summer heat, thousands of townspeople — many of them women and children — had fled to Mount Sinjar and become marooned.

The loadmasters watched it unfold on the news like everybody else. At Al Udeid, they heard the first rumblings that the U.S. military and its coalition partners might launch an intervention.

Get some rest, pilots and loadmasters alike were told. Stand by.

'No bigger rush'

C-17 pilot Capt. Gabe West was asleep when he was summoned to the office at Al Udeid to start planning for possible airdrops over Iraq.

Capt. Rachel Deroche was among the mobility pilots in Qatar put on alert. It was not in her nature to sit and wait. She joined West and the other initial planners in the office to see how she could help.

Deroche had wanted to be a pilot since she was a little girl; she still remembered the flight meal served in a small plastic tray the first time she flew. She'd been just 3 years old.

West, the son of a retired Army sergeant major, knew he wanted to fly after riding in an F-16 during his junior year at the Air Force Academy. He landed a pilot's slot as a senior in 2007.

Both had demonstrated an ability and affinity to become airdrop-certified during training at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma. It was one more tool in their tool belt, one more way to be useful to their country.

"There's no bigger rush," West said, "than dropping 100 paratroopers out of the back of your airplane in the middle of the night."

All his airdrops in the Middle East had been limited to Afghanistan. The prospect of a new country and a new challenge — delivering food and water to people whose lives depended on it — energized West as he mapped out a flight plan.

In the beginning, the details of the mission remained vague, the situation on the ground dynamic. The airlift pilots knew only the vicinity they were headed.

So they built their route based on that general destination, starting with northern Iraq and working backward to Al Udeid. They factored in weather and wind speed, threats and available airspace. They considered input from other agencies and took into account the service branches and coalition partners with whom they were working. There were other variables to keep in mind: altitude and drop zone terrain, cargo and cargo weight.

As the minutes and hours ticked by, the pilots received more and more information. There were status updates on the needs and numbers of stranded Iraqis and the ever-changing environment they were headed for. As the details came into focus, the pilots made necessary changes to their plan.

They had trained for years to deliver goods and people with such precision they could make a drop within 30 seconds of their estimate. If they lost time due to air traffic control delays or weather or any one of countless other unforeseeable circumstances, they knew how to make up for it.

Three hours before take-off — 21 hours after the pilots were notified of the mission plan — the C-17 crews showed up. West gave them a detailed briefing. They were headed to Mount Sinjar, and there would be no more changes.

Working together

Soon after Wright was tasked with the humanitarian mission, he reached out to nearby Army riggers.

Normally, such coordination fell to someone else, he said. But this was a critical airdrop on a compressed timeline.

Some of the airdrop-qualified loadmasters at Al Udeid were out flying other missions, Wright said, and the riggers had been temporarily idle.

Now, troops across service branches rallied. Soldiers packed into bundles cases of bottled water and Halal meals-read-to-eat — food permissible to eat under Islamic rules. Once packed, a single bundle weighed some 1,300 pounds. The soldiers stacked bundle and after bundle onto a plywood base, wrapped it all in a nylon webbing bag and attached the parachutes that would deliver them gently to earth.

Aerial porters hauled the bundles to the jets. Each cavernous C-17 could haul 88,000 pounds at a time, and they would be packed to capacity once the cargo was inspected.

"We're going from the bottom to the top to make sure it's rigged correctly and it's not going to malfunction and it's going to exit the airplane safely," Wright said.

By the time Heyward joined the other loadmasters, everyone was hard at work, their focus sharpened by a sense of urgency and the unknown. Troops had come together seamlessly when the call for help came. Their spirits soared.

The loadmasters pushed the bundles onto the plane two at a time, rigging up nylon release gates that would aid in the airdrop once the time came. By the time they were ready to go, night had fallen. An oppressive heat lingered, and the air was damp like their clothes.

There was one more thing to do.

Master Sgt. Stephen Brown, a loadmaster with the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, had set aside a bag of Skittles from his in-flight meal for a time like this.

He got out the candy bag and taped it securely onto one of the bundles in the hope that it would find its way to a child on the ground. When other troops saw what the master sergeant had done, they added their own candy to the bundles of food and MREs.

As the first C-17s took off under darkness, so did Brown's gesture. An Army group commander sent for bags full of candy to add to the bundles. One person attached a teddy bear.

Maybe, the troops thought, the treats would make a small difference in the upended life of a child.

Humanity amid horrors

Capt. Joe Boggs had three children of his own back in Charleston. They ranged from age 3 to 15.

When the C-17 pilot thought about the youngest refugees on Mount Sinjar and across northern Iraq, he couldn't help but think of them, safe and well-fed and wanting for nothing, just as it should be for children. The candy taped to the bundles in the back of the C-17 he pointed toward northern Iraq on the third day of the airdrops represented to him a kind of humanity amid horrors most could only imagine.

Boggs came from a family of tradition. Like his father and grandfather before him, he'd headed to Texas A&M after high school. Both his grandfathers had answered their country's call to service — his maternal grandfather flew Hueys for the Army, his paternal grandfather was a minesweeper who worked the waters off Iwo Jima before the invasion.

Boggs' deployment to Al Udeid was his third to the Middle East. While he'd trained for humanitarian airdrops, brushing up on his skills at the North Auxiliary Airfield 65 miles outside Joint Base Charleston, he'd never taken part in a real-life mission. The opportunity at long last left him with a mix of excitement and anxiousness.

Back at the training airfield, an orange triangle marked the drop site on the vast field below. Now he was headed for a rugged mountaintop rising in the vast, open desert, all tinged in eerie shades of green through night-vision goggles.

"There are years of training that culminate to this point," Boggs said. "When you finally get called upon to use it — that's the reward, not just for us, but for the loadmasters, the aerial porters, the planners. Their careers have brought them to this point."

As Boggs and his co-pilot neared the drop zone, they received final clearance. Regular communication with the loadmasters turned constant.

Minutes before arrival, the back of the C-17 opened up, sending in a rush of warm air from the jet's engines. A red light signified drop time was close. It turned to amber, then green. The cargo was released in a rush, 88,000 pounds fed by gravity and slowed by meticulously packed parachutes deployed as the bundles went airborne.

Then Boggs and his crew headed for home.

By the time the mission was complete, C-17s and C-130s would drop more than 815,000 pounds of humanitarian aid, including 121,000 meals and 45,500 gallons of water in the vicinity of Sinjar and Amirli, Iraq, according to Air Mobility Command.

Boggs and the others — fellow pilots West and Deroche and loadmasters Heyward and Wright and the dozens who made it all possible — would see what became of their work later.

It came in startlingly clear imagery beamed back to base: Hundreds of people running for supplies that would sustain them, adults reaching for meals and bottled water and children lugging cases that looked too big for them to carry.

"It will go down in history," Heyward thought to himself. "I'll tell my grandkids."■

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