Next to the ancient city of Bagram and seven miles southeast of Charikar in the Parwan province of Afghanistan, Bagram Airfield has remained amongst the most dangerous air bases in the War on Terror. Enduring multiple deadly attacks and incidents since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, the volatile airfield has tested American deployers for more than a decade.
Colonel Cheryl Knight, commander of the 446th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, was deployed at Bagram during a particularly tragic span that oversaw the crash of a C-130 Hercules that took off from Bagram and killed 14 people at Jalalabad Airport in October 2015 and a suicide motorcycle bomber that killed six at Bagram in December of the same year.
Far from shying away, Knight and the citizen airmen that compose her squadron, meet these challenges head on.
"I'd go back in a heartbeat," reflects Knight, as she remembers back to when she first learned she would deploy to Bagram after a sudden change of plans rerouting her from a leadership assignment at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
In August 2015, Knight soon found herself tapped to lead and command an AES squadron at Bagram Airfield that was responsible for 100 percent of the aeromedical evacuations in Afghanistan.
Major Maureen Hightower, 446th AES unit deployment manager, describes how she prepares AES members that are often tasked with sudden and unpredictable assignments across a wide range of threat levels.
"We get them ready for every scenario," explained Hightower, "every situation possible. You plan for the worst and then you're pleasantly surprised when it's not."
For Knight, the deployment was more than just unpredictable, however, it was a brand new.
"I had not been downrange before," said Knight, "I had not gone and lived out there for a long period of time. The security piece to it and being under attack a lot was an adjustment. For my part I can go out and be the leader because I know the medical piece, but the part about security and threats were very different."
Faced with seemingly overwhelming circumstances, Knight did her best to rise to the challenge and lead the 35 airmen assigned to her from across nine different home squadrons.
"As a leader I knew none of those people when I went out there," said Knight, "so you have to build those relationships very quickly because it's a short deployment. When we all pull together, we all do the same job, and we were able to come together and do the job just like all of us were from McChord."
Amongst the biggest tests of Knight's command came Oct. 2 when a C-130 from Bagram crashed at nearby Jalalabad Airport, killing 14.
"That could have been us, said Knight. "I could've lost a crew because we were out on another bird flying somewhere else at that same time."
The crew that flew the fateful mission was part of a squadron from Dyess Air Force Base that was regular partners with Knight's medical team.
"It was significant," said Knight. "We felt the impact because they were our transport. As a commander I had to make sure that I was right and that they were right so that they could get back up on the plane and fly again, because they're getting back on those same planes where there was a mishap. And you could feel it for the first couple weeks to a month."
The crash sent shockwaves throughout the Air Force community, as Capt. Benjamin Schultze, 446th AES flight nurse, recalled from his deployment to Ramstein Air Base at the same time.
"When we were in Germany and that plane crashed, we were affected by it just as much," said Schultze, "because all their bodies came through Ramstein and we were all very aware that it could have been any one of us on that plane."
"How do you get back on the horse again?" asked Knight. "And getting onto a horse is a lot smaller than getting onto one of those C-130s."
As Knight's squadron wrestled with the human toll of the incident, she had to find a way to remain steady in the face of fear and uncertainty.
"As a leader I had to provide that stability for my folks," said Knight. "Whether it's physically, emotionally, mentally or whatever it is. I had a few folks that struggled because it was their first time in that environment, and I hadn't been there either, but I had to figure it out quick, and use my resources to regroup."
A few short months later, tragedy would strike again when a suicide bomber drove onto the base three days before Christmas, killing six.
"One of them lived three doors down from me," said Knight. "It's a small world when you're out there, you're around each other all the time, so it's impactful. I had to show that I wasn't afraid or struggling."
Despite the fact that Knight's deployment only lasted five months, she was able to arm herself with a trove of valuable experiences learned from her adversity, and pass them on to her squadron back home at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
"I wanted to come back and brief people heading out to let them know what it's like out there. "This is not Hawaii, it's Afghanistan," said Knight, "and even if it just helped one person, that's enough."