"Operation Smile" Helps Kids Get Medical Attention
As they stepped into the large, gray military cargo plane, their
eyes widened and their expressions were equal parts wonder and
bewilderment. This was the first time many of the Iraqi children
and their parents had ever flown in an airplane, and none had ever
been in an aircraft as large as the U.S. Air Force's C-17
Iraqi children and their escorts deplane an Air Force C-17
Globemaster III at Baghdad International Airport April 29, as Chris
Anderson, an Operation Smile staff member based in the Middle East,
looks on. The Air Force assisted Operation Smile in returning
patients and their families to Iraq from Jordan, where the patients
had received surgery.
On April 29, airmen flew 110 Iraqi children and 97 of their
parents, guardians and escorts from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad in
support of "Operation Smile."
Operation Smile, an international nongovernmental organization,
provides corrective surgery for children with cleft palates and
cleft lips, congenital birth defects that affect about one out of
every 600 children, according to the Cleft Palate Foundation.
Operation Smile had evaluated the Iraqi children and transported
them to Amman for corrective surgery.
According to Chris Anderson, an Operation Smile staff member
based in the Middle East, the leadership of Operation Smile had a
growing concern for the safety and security of the children on the
22-hour return bus trip from Amman to Baghdad through Iraq's
"We basically determined that (returning by bus) at this time
wasn't the safest option for the kids," Anderson said. "For us,
safety of the patients has always been the number one
Operation Smile cofounder and chief executive officer Dr.
William P. Magee, Jr., and chief medical officer Dr. Robert Rubin
wrote to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and requested
assistance from the Air Force to provide safe airlift for the Iraqi
children and their parents.
The Air Force received approval for the mission late April 28
evening, and by early on the 29th, the C-17 was airborne and en
route to Amman.
After the young patients and their parents had settled into
their seats, they listened intently as Dr. Talib, a plastic surgery
resident traveling with the group, read the preflight safety
briefing in Arabic. Members of the crew reassured nervous
passengers that the oxygen masks were only necessary in case of
The passengers recited a brief prayer as the plane began to
taxi. "We're asking God for safe passage to Iraq," one of the
The prayer was repeated several times with increasing urgency
and volume as the plane accelerated down the runway and lifted off.
One Iraqi woman quietly fingered her prayer beads and hugged her
daughter tightly as the plane began its rapid ascent.
"This is turning out to be a rewarding mission," Lt. Col. Chris
Carlsen, the aircraft's commander, said. "You see all the children
with the smiles on their faces. I'm glad to be a part of this. It's
a historic and beneficial event for the Iraqi people."
Airman 1st Class Alexis Elliott, a loadmaster for the C-17,
agreed. "It makes me feel like I'm really helping to do something
important," said Elliott, who is on her first deployment with the
As the plane landed, taxied and came to a halt at Baghdad
International Airport's passenger terminal, the faces of the Iraqi
children and their parents explained very clearly what Operation
Smile is all about. One jubilant father exited the plane, dropped
to his knees and kissed the ground, although it was not clear
whether he was celebrating his return to Iraq or just happy to be
back on solid ground.
"The bottom line is that the military is really trying to do
what it can to help," Anderson said. "The support was a great match
(Aero-News salutes Air Force Major Robert Palmer, US Central
Command Air Forces Forward.)