The following story was written by Joe Blewitt, a retired C-141 Starlifter pilot about his experience meeting Mother, now St. Teresa of Calcutta. It was originally posted on Facebook. Joe has graciously allowed Avgeekery to share his special memory.
The weekend of the canonization of Mother Teresa seems like the appropriate time to post this image, along with the story behind it. This picture of Mother Teresa was taken in July of 1991 in Tirana, Albania. I was blessed (literally) to be standing just to the right of Mother Teresa when this photo was taken. I was on my first overseas mission flying the C-141. Every mission afterwards had the misfortune of being compared to this one. I’d be hard-pressed to pick one that topped it – although there were many more incredibly memorable, in their own way.
In July of 1991, we were withdrawing troops and materiel from the Gulf War region. It was also a time when many former communist countries were moving towards democracy. The first open elections in Albania in 60 years took place on March 31, 1991. Prior to then, the country was basically cut off from all western influences. This new political climate created an opening for diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Albania, an extremely poor country – to the point of starvation in some cases.
There was a request from the new Albanian government for food. This connects back to the first part of the story – the end of the Gulf War and bringing home troops and materiel – which included massive amounts of unused MREs, since the ground war was much shorter than expected. The request for assistance was granted and we set up an “air bridge” from Sigonella Naval Air Station in Italy and shuttled MREs into Albania several times a day for a week.
What does this have to do with Mother Teresa? Albania is her birthplace. It was one of her lifelong goals to return and establish a mission in her home country. She happened to be there opening an orphanage and learned we were bringing in these supplies. She requested some MREs for her orphanage and the request was granted. Mother Teresa came out to the plane and helped unload the boxes. She didn’t hesitate at all and began picking up boxes and carrying them to her vehicle. She was one month shy of 81 years old, stood about 4′ 6″ – although she was technically 5′ tall. It was amazing to witness her in action.
I had the honor of giving Mother Teresa a personal tour of the airplane, walking her around the entire perimeter of the plane and then inviting her to come in and take a look around. As soon as we stepped inside the airplane, she blessed herself and began to pray. Everyone standing there joined her – as best they could – no matter their religion. She said the Our Father, The Hail Mary and The Glory Be, blessed the airplane, blessed our crew and thanked us for bringing the supplies. Then she signed our log book (AFTO 781 for all you Air Force types). It was a surreal experience to say the least. It’s hard to describe, but I knew then I was standing with a saint – amazing to see it as a reality today.