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52nd AIR EXPEDITIONARY WING — Before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, the Air Force set up two new bases in undisclosed locations north of Iraq.

Within weeks, members of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, along with several United States-based airmen, pieced together the 52nd Air Expeditionary Wing and the 406th Air Expeditionary Wing, whose exact locations are not being released by the U.S. military.

With the help of local contractors, they built tent cities, security perimeters, roads and other improvements. Plans included air control operations and launching pads for search and rescue teams.

In the end, however, the Turkish parliament declined to allow the United States to use its soil or its airspace in a military campaign against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

That left the 52nd AEW and the 406th AEW without a mission.

“The original plan was to have 5,000 people in here, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Capt. Jose Rivera, a civil engineer with the 52nd AEW.

The slowdown in activities at the dusty base has left troops in limbo.

“It’s kind of difficult because you have to keep them motivated and keep pressing them that it’s still important,” Rivera said.

In a recent visit to the two forward bases, USAFE Commander Gen. Gregory S. Martin tried to console the forces who had worked so hard — to no avail — to get a piece of the action.

“You may feel like the fifth wheel right now, but just remember that the fifth wheel is needed when one of the others goes flat,” Martin told troops.

Some of the airmen asked if they would be sent forward into Iraq. Martin said some might be sent, while others might remain in place in case they could be used in a humanitarian mission.

“We will be engaged in Iraq for several years to come, to rebuild that country,” Martin said. Eventually, he said, bases such as those of the 52nd and 406th AEWs will be eliminated.

As of Friday, USAFE spokeswoman Capt. Kimberly Layne said none of the troops at the two bases had moved forward into Iraq.

At least $5 million was spent in improvements at the 52nd AEW site alone, said Tech. Sgt. Willie Lewis, a finance specialist. Because local contractors hadn’t finished some of the initial work awarded them, earth was still being moved at the 406th AEW site.

The 406th AEW site was slated for more than $20 million in improvements. About 15 million dollars’ worth of contract work was under way in late March, said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Pitchford, commander of the 16th Civil Engineer Squadron from Hurlburt Field, Fla. Pitchford was heading the building operations at the 406th.

The base was to include three tent cities with capacity for up to 8,000 troops. Now many of the tent-city sites are simply flattened-out stretches of gravel.

The Air Force paid to improve helicopter-landing pads and had added new shower and toilet facilities near an existing gym.

The bunk beds the Air Force troops had used inside the gym, which initially was a billeting area, will be left behind for the host nation.

“This is a first for me,” Pitchford said of having a mission end in midstream. “We had everything lined up and ready to go and then we got the word to stop. We’re not sure what our future is.”

Martin, who toured eight forward bases supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom in late March, seemed disappointed for the airmen.

“I wish I had a mission for them,” he said after climbing aboard the command jet to leave.

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