Part 3 of a 4-part series.
GILGIT AND KOHISTAN DISTRICT, Pakistan -- "They've been very grateful, from my experience."
Army Sgt. Jesus Ramos quickly dismisses concerns back home that he and other U.S. forces participating in flood relief operations in Pakistan are facing hostility in what is frequently depicted as an anti-American nation.
"When we're downloading, they come up to you, shake your hand, smiles on their faces," he explains while resting before another full day of relief flights to the rugged north.
Some 12 weeks since the onset of devastating flash floods left a half-million Pakistanis stranded, U.S. forces are still actively assisting the Pakistani military with delivering aid to populations in need. They are flying food and materials to northern areas cut off after flash flooding washed out roads and bridges.
Though they are here at the invitation of Pakistan and can be forced to leave as soon as the government orders them out, U.S. embassy officials say they expect troops to be here doing this work until at least November.
The troops involved say they have all trained heavily in disaster relief work since enlisting, but many also admit that they never expected to actually be putting the training to work, expecting instead to be engaged in combat. Some service members with 20 years of experience say their Pakistan deployment is their first-ever experience with humanitarian operations.
But Pentagon officials believe that future service in the U.S. armed forces could be characterized more by the type of all-day back-and-forth airlifts to flood-stricken parts of Pakistan than by the counterinsurgency battles winding down in Iraq but still raging in nearby Afghanistan.
A tryout for future climate-related missions
In February, the U.S. Department of Defense released a quadrennial defense review report that for the first time linked global warming directly to national security hazards. The report calls climate change an "accelerant of instability" that could increase the frequency and severity of natural disasters, taxing civilian disaster relief capabilities and requiring more regular military support.
DOD has been among the first on scene responding to a string of mass-casualty disasters caused by earthquakes, including the devastating quake in northern Pakistan in 2005. But many believe the Pakistan super-floods of 2010 represents the first time U.S. forces have been called into action in response to a major climate change disaster.
"We helped out with the [2004 Indian Ocean] tsunami a couple years ago, Haiti just this year," recalled Capt. Clark Noble, a helicopter pilot in an expeditionary unit of the Marine Corps. "It's now a regular part of our duties."
Riding with and interviewing the men and women engaged in efforts here shows that, for most enlisted personnel, relief work in foreign lands is among the most welcome and rewarding parts of their service. It's also almost as exhausting and stressful as combat, and not without its own levels of danger and deadly threats, especially in northern Pakistan.
"I wouldn't say that you're any more or less nervous; I'd just say that it's different," explained U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer William French, a helicopter pilot comparing his service here to a tour in Iraq. "I'm not nearly as concerned about someone shooting at me, but I'm still always thinking of that."
U.S. military assistance in Pakistan's north consists of two main operations. The Marine Corps was flying C-130 airplanes from Chaklala Air Base near Islamabad to Gilgit and Skardu in Pakistani-administered Kashmir. This area finds itself isolated after the flood destroyed parts of the famous Karakoram Highway. The cities are world-renowned as launching pads for trekking expeditions into the scenic mountains and are used to hosting foreigners.