OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- A dark, mysterious storage compound rests on the edge of the Osan flightline.
Vaults litter the sulfur-smelling storage area holding items valued in the millions, with others priceless to the United States.
One small group of U.S. Airmen hold the responsibility of accepting, storing and transferring these critical items aiding in the safety and stability of the Republic of Korea.
From a small blood sample to aircraft ammunition, the 731st Air Mobility Squadron Special Handling Section assists in the distribution of critical military items to military installations across the Korean Peninsula.
“We deal with everything that has potential to save a life or end it,” said Airman 1st Class Kevin Johnston, 731st AMS special planning technician. “Whether that be HAZMAT, radioactive material, vaccines or even nuclear weapons, we ensure the security and delivery of these in support of the defense of the ROK.”
In some way, the 731st AMS assists all Osan units, but they work closely with the 51st Munition Squadron and 51st Medical Group, as well as Army and Marine units around South Korea, including the Demilitarized Zone.
“Anything they bring to the peninsula to sustain that mission goes through us, such as helicopters, bullets and grenades, to help them keep the DMZ postured,” said Staff Sgt. Richard Allen, 731st AMS special planning supervisor.
As well as equipment, the special handlers also support the mortuary affairs capability of the ROK.
“If any of our service members sustained life-ending injuries, we would be the ones to bring their body back to the states for ceremony and recognition,” Allen said.
Due to the high-profile items these Airmen handle, these special handlers follow the wingman concept making sure each are taken care of.
“It’s a close-knit community we have here in our shop,” said Allen. “We know how to look out for one another to figure out when people need a break or help.”
Depending on the situation, special handlers may be called to perform a joint inspection, which Johnston recently assisted with the U.S. Navy.
“The situation was a helicopter was landing onto a Navy carrier and it crash-landed,” said Allen. “To help, Johnston and another Airman had to travel to the location, inspect that helicopter for air worthiness and put it on a plane to be shipped back to the States.”
With the critical nature of their career, special handlers require specific certification and training to handle certain items.
“We handle nuclear weapons as well, which requires a lot of certification and training,” Allen said. “There’s a lot of different caveats for each aspect of the job, like the ability to store blood or ammunition.”
For Allen, one thing is for sure: being a special handler keeps them on their toes as they dedicate themselves to their unique mission.
“What I like the most about my job is its significance to the mission,” said Allen. “We can ship a one-pound box, but the total value of that box can range in the millions of dollars. We have our hands on a lot of multi-million dollar equipment, and for us to support that on a daily basis is amazing to me.”