Senior Airman Gabriel Saunders of the 48th Civil Engineer Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, England, catches some shut-eye Wednesday before deploying with a couple hundred other 48th Fighter Wing members to the Middle East.

Senior Airman Gabriel Saunders of the 48th Civil Engineer Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, England, catches some shut-eye Wednesday before deploying with a couple hundred other 48th Fighter Wing members to the Middle East. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

RAF MILDENHALL, England — Staff Sgt. Stephon Gaines of the 48th Services Squadron at RAF Lakenheath is becoming an old hand at deploying to the Middle East.

He departed Wednesday afternoon for his third visit to the region, along with about 200 of his comrades from the 48th Fighter Wing.

“When they tell you, ‘We are going to leave,’ I know everything to take,” he said.

Even better, he said, the deployment came as no surprise, thanks to an Air Force concept called Air and Space Expeditionary Force, which is designed to put some predictability in an airman’s life.

“When you get back, you know you have 15 months to prepare yourself to deploy again,” he said.

The AEF concept has been around for about a decade, and it has proved its worth in recent years as the operations tempo has increased, say people who have scheduled their lives around it.

The idea of prepackaged, tailored air forces suffered a few bumps when the global war on terrorism began in 2001, jumbling the schedule and requiring some adjustments.

But it now has smoothed out into a program that gives Air Force members the luxury of planning their lives beyond next month, not worrying about a surprise deployment, airmen are happy to admit. Most airmen deploy for four months at a time, then have 15 months until the next deployment.

“You can go to school and stuff,” said Gaines, a 10-year Air Force veteran.

“It does add, for the majority of our people, some stability,” said Brig. Gen. Mark T. Matthews, the commander of the 48th Fighter Wing, which is the lead wing for next deployment cycle, AEF 4.

More than 1,000 members of the 48th Fighter Wing are in the process of deploying to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility this month.

The 494th Fighter Squadron has already flown several of its F-15E Strike Eagles to the region.

Other groups of airmen will be deploying in the next week or two, but the group that was lounging around the passenger terminal Wednesday at RAF Mildenhall was the largest single group to go.

The Air Force would not release specific destinations for security reasons.

Dr. (Lt. Col.) Joseph Anderson, a flight surgeon with the 48th Aerospace Medical Squadron, will be chief of aerospace medicine where he is going.

He’s known about this deployment since arriving in England in the middle of 2003.

“(The AEF) does lend predictability, absolutely,” he said.

The early heads-up provided him time to do the training needed for his specific job, he said. Plus, it also gave him time to savor the opportunity to pay back the Air Force for the training it has given him.

“I’m actually very excited,” he said. “The investment they’ve made in me is just tremendous.”

Senior Master Sgt. Antonio Johnson of the 48th Munitions Squadron at RAF Lakenheath is making his second trip to the area. He says the AEF concept is a blessing.

“I’m living proof,” he said.

Once he returned from the area in late 2003, he knew he could relax for all of 2004 before joining another AEF rotation.

“If anybody in the Air Force has complaints,” he said, “(they should) talk to our Army brothers and sisters.”

Soldiers not only serve longer deployments downrange than Air Force members — 12 months compared to four or six — they often receive shorter notice of the deployments.

As he waited for a signal to board the contracted aircraft waiting outside in the cold English sunshine, Johnson gazed around the terminal at airmen who were sleeping, talking, reading or just sitting alone.

“I recognize some of the faces that were down there with me last time,” he said.

That’s a comfort, too, he said, because the experienced airmen will benefit those who have not been to the area.

“It makes them feel at ease when they’re down there with someone who’s been down there before,” he said.

One person on his first deployment is Senior Airman Paul Cepparo of the 48th Civil Engineer Squadron.

“Looking forward to it,” said the 22-year old native of Long Island, N.Y. “I signed up to do my job, serve my country and be the best civil engineer I can be.”

Cepparo signed up for the Air Force shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that prompted the ongoing global war on terror. He and his family lost friends among the firefighters who died that day at the World Trade Center.

So did his wife’s family.

“It was a hard moment for all of us,” he said. “That’s why we have to (deploy) — to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

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