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Special ops unit wraps up deployment in Philippines

by Master Sgt. Michael Farris
353rd Special Operations Group Public Affairs

09/11/02 - ZAMBOANGA, Philippines (AFPN) -- After seven months of alert in the central Philippines, the 17th Special Operations Squadron is returning home to Kadena Air Base, Japan. Members of the unit will tell you their tour was far from boring.

Besides medical evacuation standby, troops from the 17th SOS flew more than 180 MC-130P Combat Shadow missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines. These missions included airdrops, airlift of ground troops, helicopter air refuelings, search and rescue missions and repatriations.

Capt. Dan Murray, a pilot with the 17th SOS, and his crew flew nearly 80 missions.

"It's nice to be involved," he said. "We were all affected by September 11 and we're happy to support special operations units on the ground in Zamboanga and Basilan Island. The U.S. mission in the Philippines was to train, assist and advise the armed forces of the Philippines in combating terrorism. I was glad we could help."

The captain said the biggest challenge facing his unit was the operations tempo. Most of the 17th SOS have been away from home for more than 120 days.

"It's been rough on the families and at times we've been short-manned at some crew positions. Also, OEF-P isn't the only mission we're tasked with," he said.

"We've been spread pretty thin around the Pacific over the past few months -- and the training doesn't stop," said Tech Sgt Dave Anderson, a flight engineer on Murray's crew.

Murray said his most memorable OEF-P missions were during the 36-hour period following the crash of a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter in late February.

"We established a fantastic camaraderie with the Army 'helo' crews and thought of them as great friends," he said. "There were two pararescuemen on that (downed) flight who belonged to our sister squadron, the 320th Special Tactics Squadron."

Murray's crew was on alert when the chopper went down.

"Our hearts sank as we ran to our plane," he said. "Over a 36-hour span we flew 19 hours. Unfortunately our rescue missions turned to recovery missions."

Several months later, the 17th SOS also played a key role in the return of two U.S. missionaries kidnapped in the southern Philippines.

During a rescue attempt of the missionaries on the island of Basilan, Gracia Burnham was injured and her husband, Martin, was killed. The 17th SOS evacuated her to Manila and brought Martin's remains to Kadena AB.

Those were truly bittersweet missions, Anderson said.

"We were happy to help where we could, but saddened that a fellow American had lost his life," he said.

Murray said the 17th SOS is the best squadron for the job because, "We're flying old planes that are very capable. We make every mission happen."

"The best part of this job is working with special operations units from other services and other countries. Nearly everything we do is 'joint' so we interact with them nearly every day," he said.

Anderson said his OEF-P tour had its ups and downs, but, "If you look at the whole seven months, it was a success. Our planes flew well, our maintainers worked great and despite being away from home, our morale remained high. We did what we were asked. It's nice to read the papers from Zambo and see the difference we've made."

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