CHARLESTON AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- The C-5A transport's four engines let out a collective groan as the gigantic plane lifted off the runway and climbed into the evening sky, hugging the South Carolina coastline.
Inside the plane's cavernous cargo bay -- strapped to its steel deck -- were two vehicle simulators, designed to teach U.S. troops how to survive rollover crashes, and pallets of food and water.
In less than 24 hours, the cargo would reach Afghanistan for distribution to remote U.S. bases on the country's desert floor and rocky cliffs.
For eight years, Charleston has been a starting point for the 7,500-mile-long air bridge to the Afghan war.
Eleven times a day, on average, Air Force C-5 and C-17 military transport aircraft take off from Charleston for Afghanistan.
Though invisible to the eye, the air bridge from Charleston demonstrates the key role the Lowcountry base is playing as the U.S. military ramps up the fight in Afghanistan.
"We're South Carolina's lifeline to Afghanistan," said Staff Sgt. Jeff Harmon of Boiling Springs, S.C., a specialist in loading the giant Charleston-based C-17 Globemasters.
C-5s, which make up amount 8 percent of the military transport plane departures from Charleston, fly into the Lowcountry from other Air Force bases in the United States.
The shift in military activity to Afghanistan, where President Barack Obama is debating whether to send as many as 80,000 more U.S. troops, is noticeable, said Lt. Col. Richard Williamson, on his second deployment in two years to the Persian Gulf region.
"As combat operations have switched from Iraq to Afghanistan, we have also shifted our warfighter mobility support to Afghanistan," said Williamson, commander of the 17th Airlift Squadron, based at Charleston.
When his C-17 squadron was deployed to the Persian Gulf region a year ago, "We flew almost exclusively to Iraq," Williamson said. This time around, most of the missions have been flown to Afghanistan, Williamson said.
That shift could become even more noticeable in the weeks and months to come. As U.S. casualties have dropped in Iraq, where a civilian government now is entrenched, they've soared in Afghanistan.
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