BOISE -- A group of biologists from Idaho have returned from several challenging and dangerous missions to the Middle East.
Each took part in a national program to reduce the number of deadly and damaging bird strikes to U.S. Air Force aircraft.
21 biologists from across the country have participated in the program, which began in 2009. Three of those biologists are from Idaho.
WHAT THEY DO
Scott Stopak, George Graves, and Todd Grimm work for the United States Department of Wildlife Services in Boise. Grimm is the department's state director, Graves is the assistant state director, and Stopak is a wildlife disease biologist. All three are used to spending plenty of time behind a desk.
However, their new mission was much different, because each completed a four-month tour in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
Stopak and Graves each went overseas twice, with one clear mission -- reduce the number of aircraft bird strikes, or "airstrikes."
Stopak served his tour of duty in Kandahar, at one of the busiest runways in the world.
According to Stopak, airstrikes happen when birds or other wildlife interfere with the flight path of military aircraft. He says birds can severely damage a place, and can also cause deadly accidents.
"The threat of loss of life is definitely a real concern, and that's part of the reason we are there," said Stopak.
The role these biologists is to remove that threat by studying the animals, their migration, and their habitats. Afterward. they work to move the wildlife threatening the aircraft to another location.
"What we are trying to accomplish is to minimize the damaging bird strikes or the catastrophic bird strikes," said Stopak.
SERVING THEIR COUNTRY
Both Stopak and Graves admit they volunteered for the program because they wanted to serve their country. Both men were also never enlisted in the military, but felt the desire to make serve any way they could.
Graves told us how he never served in Vietnam, but always regretted it.
"Ever since then, I felt guilty, and felt like I should have gone and served my country, like my grandfather and my father had/so that was one of my main reasons for going, to make up for lost time," said Graves.
Stopak had a similar desire. He says preventing aircraft damage from dangerous wildlife could mean saving the lives of military members.
"Hopefully, use my skills to get them home safe, and protect our troops while they're there that's kind of why I volunteered to do it," said Stopak.
Stopak says he also learned more about those risking their lives every time they take off.
"The reward of seeing the troops go outside the wire, it gives you a different appreciation of what we have here," said Stopak.
He says the hardest part was living in a war zone where death was a daily danger.
"Walking around the corner and seeing a flag at half mast that means you know someone lost their loved one and some family will be grieving over that and that tears your heart out every time," said Stopak.
But no matter the risk, all three men were grateful for the chance to use a biology background to help protect the people who protect us.
"It's about our troops and if I can do anything to help those guys out I will," said Stopak.
PROGRAM IS WORKING
Stopak says the program is working. At the airstrip in Kandahar, he says the airstrikes decreased more than 40 percent in a year and a half.
Graves volunteered at a base in Bagram. He says the airstrikes in his area dropped 60 percent.
Both men say they would return again for a third tour, if needed.