It is just after midnight. Afghanistan is thousands of feet below. The big C-17 Air Force Globemaster has flown nearly halfway around the world, all the way from Travis Air Force Base in California, for this moment.
Now the plane banks to the right, sharply, and starts down, spiraling into the deeper darkness. The passengers – soldiers and Air Force personnel riding in back with a cargo of medical supplies – put on body armor. The crew loadmaster, a slender female master sergeant named Jennifer Lepore, straps on a 9mm pistol.