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Airman of the 374th Communications Squadron find a unique duty station for Air Force service members at Camp Zama.
Airman of the 374th Communications Squadron find a unique duty station for Air Force service members at Camp Zama. (Jim Schulz / S&S)

CAMP ZAMA, Japan — Atop their hill on an Army base, the airmen of Operating Location C of the 374th Communications Squadron are left more or less alone. At least until there’s a problem.

Their job is to maintain the flow of communication from Zama and other bases to the rest of the world. Most of the communication involves Defense Switched Network calls, but they also transfer critical and secret communications.

Their base clients — military, commercial and civilian — number in the thousands. Others include the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and the embassies of several allied nations.

They manage two systems: the Kanto Plain’s fiber optic landlines and satellite for the rest of the world. The group is part of myriad overlapping communication networks that make sure strategic information gets where it needs to go.

The small detachment of 50 or so Air Force personnel live in a microcosm on an Army base.

Operating Location C is attached to the 374th Communications Squadron at Yokota Air Base but technically works for the Defense Information Systems Agency in Washington, said Chief Master Sgt. Jeff Ostermann, site communication chief for the unit.

Why they’re at Zama is a bit of a mystery. The Army has personnel who could do the job, but the Air Force has controlled the system for as long as anyone can recall, probably since just after World War II, Ostermann said.

Until a few years ago, regional transmissions used line-of-site or microwave technology, making a central, high location such as Zama critical. It’s based between Yokota Air Base, Yokosuka Naval Base, Atsugi Naval Air Facility nearby and Tokyo.

Although fiber optics replaced the old microwave technology a few years ago, the unit stayed at Zama, where there are still fewer overhead flights than at Yokota to disrupt the unit’s other mission, satellite transmissions.

The group claims to have some of the most critical and difficult career fields in the military. New satellite airmen aren’t left alone at their job completely for more than a year, Tech. Sgt. Michael Simpson said.

They come from five job specialties and fall into five departments. Some deal with power, others satellite equipment, and others technology.

One logistician and a computer person round out the group.

Mission aside, the airmen say they enjoy living on an Army base. They have a smaller community, but that’s part of the appeal. “Yokota is like a big city,” Simpson said. “Here’s it’s like a small town.”

They have better Internet connections at Zama and the base has more trees and charm than Yokota, said Tech. Sgt. Shawn Roskosky, NCO for the systems control facility.

“We get treated better over here,” he said. “We get treated very nicely by the Army.”

At the Zama American High School, their kids attend classes with the children of sailors, soldiers and Marines.

The small-community feel is amplified on the hill where the airmen work in a small building with a huge satellite dish and a ton of electronics.

The group has improved their hill dramatically in recent years. Using their sweat, labor and no Air Force funds, they’ve created a fish pond, a gazebo and a deck for a place to unwind.

The previous chief started the pond by running out and digging every time stress started getting the better of him, Ostermann said.

The group’s hard work has won them kudos. They’ve earned a list of Pacific Air Forces awards and in 1998 was the Outstanding DISA Facility of the year for large systems controls. Recently, they’ve earned a maintenance effectiveness award and helped their squadron earn an excellent rating in the 2004 Unit Compliance Inspection.

For that inspection, the group really shined — they had a perfect inspection.

“There were zero findings in this flight,” Ostermann said.

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