07/13/10 — Bagram revisited

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Bagram revisited

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on July 13, 2010 1:46 PM

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Tech. Sgt. Riccardo Bonicelli

It was a different Bagram Airfield from the one Tech. Sgt. Riccardo Bonicelli descended into aboard a KC-135R Stratotanker back in 2009.

A deadly attack had unfolded there in the months since he returned to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

Security measures inside and around the Afghanistan installation had been heightened.

But for the airman, the things that had not changed are what prompted him to volunteer for another aeromedical evacuation mission to and from the desert.

"It's still a rewarding mission. Something I'm glad to be a part of," Bonicelli said. "And it was a good team. Everyone was always looking out for each other. I think that's the key."

Nearly a year after he and other members of the 916th Air Refueling Wing returned from Afghanistan, Bonicelli, a KC-135 boom operator, joined other local Reservists for another Bagram run.

And this year -- the crew left at the end of June and landed back in Goldsboro a few days ago -- the airman remained blown away by the scope of that particular mission.

"Who would have thought?" he said Monday. "Twenty years ago, I don't think anyone would have dreamed that the tanker would be on this mission, but it is. That just proves how capable that aircraft is."

But turning a KC-135 into an emergency room in the sky is not an easy task.

It takes a certain level of focus, something that proves, Bonicelli said, just how elite members of the 916th really are.

"It is the personnel who make the mission, not the aircraft," he said.

More than 60 patients made their way out of Afghanistan over the past few weeks courtesy of the Goldsboro-based team.

And it's a job, Bonicelli said, that seems well worth the risk associated with flying an aging tanker into a base that, not too long before, was breached by the enemy.

"It's no different than listening to traffic reports," the airman said of learning that Bagram came under attack in May. "It's a traffic report, except it's not traffic you're talking about. It's insurgents or whoever the bad guy is at the time. Of course, you can't help but think about it.

"In the back of your mind, it's, 'This is real.' So you just go with what you know. Sometimes, being on edge makes you sharper -- as long as you're in control."

But don't expect the airman to tell his children all that he has been up against -- that each time he and other crew members took off from and landed into Bagram they assumed the risk of being shot down or worse.

At least, not quite yet.

Those stories, he said, will have to wait to be shared until they are old enough to understand that, sometimes, a cause can be far greater than any one man.

"I don't give them mission specifics," he said. "Maybe when I'm retired and sitting on the back porch, maybe then, I'll be glad to share it with them."