U.S. military personnel say that their work with Pakistani troops has also gone smoothly, with many of the links cemented during their joint response to Kashmir's 2005 earthquake crisis. Pakistani military officials agree, though some admitted to early problems after the government requested assistance in Swat and Kohistan, parts of which are still considered conflict zones.
Two Pakistan Army officers at the Pathan helipad complained of delays and administrative hurdles in the early days of the disaster response as officials at the Pentagon worried that their forces might come into contact with hostile armed insurgents.
The government has since put in place tight security protocols. Landing zones are secured ahead of time, and each helicopter is assigned two Pakistan Army commandos to guard the flights. The locals help to unload supplies, but every civilian is patted down and searched for weapons or explosives before they are allowed near the helicopters.
Exhausted crews give 22,000 free rides
But the threat of armed elements remains, meaning that not all relief drops go smoothly.
After landing in one remote spot of Kohistan, in a designated Provincially Administered Tribal Area, the Pakistani leader of a flight ordered a hasty evacuation after less than a minute on the ground, before any aid could be delivered. The order came after local tribesmen warned him and the security detail that Taliban or other armed men were hiding behind a hill near the landing spot, apparently waiting for offloading to begin to launch an ambush.
The abandoned drop left both Pakistani and American personnel upset, not because of the near miss but because the three dozen men and boys waiting at the site desperately needed the food on board.
"Look, it's not the first time it's happened," said Pakistan Army Capt. Asad Mehmood, the safety pilot during the trip and the same man who ordered the hasty retreat. Mehmood downplayed the incident, insisting that it would be resolved the next day with a better security assessment and other precautions.
Thus far, no relief flight has come under attack. Rather, it's much more common for a drop to get called off because a landing simply can't be made, either because of wind or a lack of space. "There are several areas that we've flown over where we can't land and you see them waving at us like 'We need food,'" said Sgt. Ramos. "There's really nothing you can do."
After a day of constant flying, refueling, and loading and offloading of aid, pilots and flight crews are too exhausted to speak. It's a months-long operation that runs 24 hours a day, with maintenance crews taking over at the end of the day and working all through the night repairing aircraft and reading them for the next day.
The flights from Ghazi, about two hours northwest of Islamabad, continue. To date, U.S. forces have helped deliver more than 16 million pounds of humanitarian relief and provided rides to over 22,000 flood victims.
All soldiers and Marines interviewed agree that the work is remarkably similar to logistic operations in combat zones, with the exception that flights are kept to designated routes, there are no nighttime flights, and the risk of getting shot at is much lower, though not completely gone. No one expressed disappointment with the assignment; rather, they expressed pleasant surprise at finding themselves in a relief operation rather than the typical combat or defense roles military recruits are told to expect.
That's good, because if the February Pentagon defense review on climate change threats is correct, then future U.S. military personnel may find themselves doing much more disaster relief work than fighting.
"When I first enlisted, I thought I was going straight off to Afghanistan or Iraq on a combat mission," said Army Spc. William Rose, a new arrival from Fort Wainwright, Alaska. "It's way better than what I expected."