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Total force crews support Operation Unified Response in Haiti

Staff Sgts. Steve Pinkerton and Gus Morse, Reserve loadmasters from the 317th Airlift Squadron, Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., stand inside a C-17 Globemaster III that just landed in Haiti in support of Operation Unified Response during the early morning hours of Jan. 22, 2010. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Steve Staedler)

Staff Sgts. Steve Pinkerton and Gus Morse, Reserve loadmasters from the 317th Airlift Squadron, Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., stand inside a C-17 Globemaster III that just landed in Haiti in support of Operation Unified Response during the early morning hours of Jan. 22, 2010. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Steve Staedler)

Staff Sgt. Gus Morse, a Reserve loadmaster from the 317th Airlift Squadron, Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., prepares seats to transport Haitian passengers to Orlando on a C-17 Globemaster III in support of Operation Unified Response during the early morning hours of Jan. 22, 2010. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Steve Staedler)

Staff Sgt. Gus Morse, a Reserve loadmaster from the 317th Airlift Squadron, Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., prepares seats to transport Haitian passengers to Orlando on a C-17 Globemaster III in support of Operation Unified Response during the early morning hours of Jan. 22, 2010. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Steve Staedler)

Staff Sgt. Gus Morse, a Reserve C-17 loadmaster from the 317th Airlift Squadron, Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., helps a Haitian woman insert her ear plugs prior to departure to Orlando during the early morning hours of Jan. 22, 2010. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Steve Staedler)

Staff Sgt. Gus Morse, a Reserve C-17 loadmaster from the 317th Airlift Squadron, Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., helps a Haitian woman insert her ear plugs prior to departure to Orlando during the early morning hours of Jan. 22, 2010. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Steve Staedler)

Sixteen Haitian passengers are fast asleep minutes after takeoff on a C-17 Globemaster III from Haiti enroute to Orlando during the early morning hours of Jan. 22, 2010. The Travis Air Force Base, Calif.-based aircraft was flown by Reservists from the 317th Airlift Squadron, Charleston AFB, S.C. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Steve Staedler)

Sixteen Haitian passengers are fast asleep minutes after takeoff on a C-17 Globemaster III from Haiti enroute to Orlando during the early morning hours of Jan. 22, 2010. The Travis Air Force Base, Calif.-based aircraft was flown by Reservists from the 317th Airlift Squadron, Charleston AFB, S.C. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Steve Staedler)

A soldier from Fort Bragg, N.C. looks out his rear view mirror as Staff Sgt. Gus Morse, a Reserve loadmaster from the 317th Airlift Squadron, Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., guides him and his vehicle out the back of a C-17 Globemaster III after landing in Haiti in support of Operation Unified Response during the early morning hours of Jan. 22, 2010. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Steve Staedler)

A soldier from Fort Bragg, N.C. looks out his rear view mirror as Staff Sgt. Gus Morse, a Reserve loadmaster from the 317th Airlift Squadron, Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., guides him and his vehicle out the back of a C-17 Globemaster III after landing in Haiti in support of Operation Unified Response during the early morning hours of Jan. 22, 2010. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Steve Staedler)

David Wood, a reporter with politicsdaily.com, chats with Staff Sgt. Steve Pinkerton, a Reserve loadmaster with the 317th Airlift Squadron, Charleston, Air Force Base, S.C. while flying on a C-17 to Haiti in support of Operation Unified Response Jan. 22, 2010. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Steve Staedler)

David Wood, a reporter with politicsdaily.com, chats with Staff Sgt. Steve Pinkerton, a Reserve loadmaster with the 317th Airlift Squadron, Charleston, Air Force Base, S.C. while flying on a C-17 to Haiti in support of Operation Unified Response Jan. 22, 2010. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Steve Staedler)

A Reserve flight crew from the 317th Airlift Squadron, Charleston Air Force Base, N.C., fly more than 80,000 pounds of cargo to Haiti on a C-17 Globemaster III in support of Operation Unified Response during the early morning hours of Jan. 22, 2010. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Steve Staedler)

A Reserve flight crew from the 317th Airlift Squadron, Charleston Air Force Base, N.C., fly more than 80,000 pounds of cargo to Haiti on a C-17 Globemaster III in support of Operation Unified Response during the early morning hours of Jan. 22, 2010. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Master Sgt. Steve Staedler)

Pope Air Force Base, N.C. -- One look into Marven Jeannis' eyes showed just how tired he was.

Holding his father's hand, the little boy wearing an orange shirt and a designer cap a few too sizes too big walked up the ramp of an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III. His eyes squinted momentarily as they adjusted to the brightly lit fuselage. After finding his seat, Jeannis and the other seven children on board were given teddy bears to help provide comfort for the two hour flight from Port au Prince, Haiti, to Orlando.

An Air Force public affairs representative helped secure his and his father's seatbelts. The Airman flashed the boy a thumbs-up, and he responded in turn with a smile.

"We're glad you're here," said the boy's father, Mr. Jean Jeannis.

Although the one-and-a-half-year-old boy probably didn't realize the significance this flight would have on his life, his father certainly understood.

"We are so happy to see the Air Force and what you are giving to us," he said. "My son and I are very grateful to you."

The boy and his father and most of the other 14 passengers were fast asleep as the aircraft taxied for takeoff. At 2:40 a.m. Jan. 22, the C-17 lifted off the ground, banked left and headed toward Florida to embark on the next, and hopefully, more promising chapter in their lives. Less than five minutes later, the remaining few passengers who stayed awake for takeoff were all asleep.

Airman answering the call

This late-night flight is just one of hundreds flying in and out of Haiti by U.S. Air Force's Active Duty, Reserve and Guard Airmen since the Jan. 12 earthquake. Pope Air Force Base, N.C., is one of the major staging areas for transporting troops and supplies into the country. In the first 11 days since the earthquake, Pope AFB Airmen airlifted nearly 2,900 soldiers and more than 2,700 tons of cargo and equipment to Haiti in support of Operation Unified Response.

The C-17 and the smaller C-130 Hercules provide the majority of the airlift muscle, with flight crews from bases throughout the United States operating out of this North Carolina base. A Reserve crew from the 317th Airlift Squadron, Charleston AFB, S.C., flew the 16 Haitians to Florida in a Travis AFB, Calif.-based C17.

Departing at 8:20 p.m. Jan. 21, the C-17 carried more than 80,000 pounds of cargo - namely three U.S. Army medium tactical vehicles, a generator and water purification equipment; a few civilian contractors and a reporter for a national news website.

Since Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port au Prince is small with limited parking ramps, arriving aircraft often have to circle above waiting for space on the ground to open up before landing. The inbound C-17 circled for a while before touching down in Haiti just after midnight.

Operating with very little ramp lighting, Staff Sgts. Gus Morse and Stephen Pinkerton, Reserve loadmasters from the 317th Airlift Squadron, worked with their Army passengers to unload the vehicles and equipment in less than 15 minutes. The two then set up seats and prepped the aircraft for its Haitian passengers.

Shortly after 2 a.m. 16 Haitians (eight adults and eight children), many of which are U.S. citizens, boarded the aircraft. Prior to departure, Sergeant Morse handed out foam ear plugs to his passengers. He assisted one woman, who came onboard in a wheelchair, with her ear plugs and ensured they were properly inserted and that she was comfortable.

"I volunteered for these missions as I just wanted to help out in any way I can," Sergeant Morse said. "For us, some have a little more meaning than others. This is probably going to be one of them."

"I think all of us on this crew volunteered to do this because we wanted to do something meaningful," added Sergeant Pinkerton.

One boy, who looked to be about 6, lay down across his seat with his head in his father's lap. Not wanting to wake his son, he took the extra set of ear plugs and put just one into his son's exposed ear. Shortly after takeoff the little yellow foam plug popped out of the boy's ear and landed on the floor. It didn't seem to matter much as he slept the entire two-hour flight, much of it in the comfort of his father's lap.

The flight touched down at Orlando's Sanford Airport about 5 a.m. and was met by immigration and border control agents. The 16 Haitians were escorted off the aircraft and greeted by a gray, rainy Florida sky.

After processing in Orlando, Mr. Jeannis said he and his son planned to move to the Miami area, reunite with his wife and get a job driving taxi. The only injury Mr. Jeannis had from the earthquake was a two-inch cut above his right eye from a piece of debris that fell from his house; his son wasn't injured because he was playing outside at the time.

"We're all friends here," Mr. Jeannis said of the other passengers on the flight. "I'm just looking forward to going to Miami and starting over."