As deployment nears, AEF troops brace for long haul
MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — About 1,100 airmen from Pacific Air Forces are preparing to deploy in March as part of the next Air Expeditionary Force rotation cycle.
Airmen in the so-called “stressed” career fields of security forces, services, transportation, intelligence and communications can expect to be gone upward of 179 days, though some may return sooner, Staff Sgt. Martin Jackson, a PACAF spokesman, said in a written response to a Stars and Stripes query.
Last week, Gen. William Begert, PACAF commander, told reporters in Washington that while PACAF fighter wings that fought in Iraq will go back to the normal, 90-day AEF rotation cycle in March, “it’s going to be a while” before airmen in stressed career fields who support the aviators also return to a regular deployment schedule.
In PACAF, most airmen facing deployment in two months are from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, Alaska’s Elmendorf Air Force Base and Misawa Air Base in northern Japan, according to Jackson.
Squadrons in the stressed career fields already are preparing their troops and family members for a longer deployment.
“I tell my wife, ‘Hey, it says 92 days, but the chance exists that it could be longer,’ just to prepare,” said Staff Sgt. Damian Pierson, the unit deployment manager for Misawa’s 35th Communications Squadron, who’s scheduled to deploy in March with about 30 of his fellow squadron members.
Pierson said the original tasking letter for the upcoming AEF rotation said 92 days. But PACAF has “informed me there’s a possibility of it being longer than 92 days.”
Last year, the Air Force set up two “transitional” AEFs — Blue and Silver — to get the rotations back on track by spring 2004.
“We envision these two 120-day rotations filling the requirements of combatant commanders through spring when we can once again implement the normal steady-state AEF rotation,” Maj. Gen. Timothy A. Peppe, then special assistant for AEF matters at the Pentagon, now retired, was quoted as saying in an Air Force Print News story last May.
Pierson said he’s not surprised by the possibility of a longer deployment, but others in his squadron are.
“I know how deployments and rotations work,” he said. “However, a lot of folks that I have been tasking … when I mention to them the possibility exists” of going longer than the 90 days, “the general reaction is: ‘I thought we were supposed to be getting back on to the (normal) AEF rotation. They said the reason why they did this Blue and Silver is to fix the problem.’”
Communications career fields in short supply right now include computer programmers and operators, as well as radio troops, Pierson said.
“The Air Force is looking at ways to balance the force — retrain some people in less-stressed career fields to fill positions in the more-stressed career fields,” Jackson said.
Misawa’s communications squadron is attempting to ease the deployment burden by trying to task only those who haven’t deployed in the last 12 months, Pierson said.
Ulrike McIntyre said her husband, Ben, an Air Force Office of Special Investigations agent based at Misawa, will deploy in March.
“They said 60 to 90 days,” she said. “But we’re not sure.”
She’s expecting the worst, since Ben is in the stressed career field of intelligence.
“I’m not going to get my heart set on 90 days because you never know what’s going to happen,” she said. “Where he’s going, it’s pretty tense right now. I’m not happy about that.”
Pierson is taking the possibility of a longer stretch away from home in stride. Though his wife isn’t happy about it, “I look at it as a break,” he said. “This base has been a real busy base ever since before the war kicked off. Even though I’ll probably be working longer hours and more days in a week than I do here, it’s going to be kind of a break.”
It’s all part of life in the military, he added. “That’s why we signed on the dotted line and put on the uniform, right?”
— Lisa Burgess contributed to this story.