RAF MILDENHALL, England — It looked like Operation Mildenhall Freedom.

Troops on the ground called in airstrikes to A-10 Warthogs looping among the clouds above them. Screaming F-16 Falcons flying low over the base delivered “bombs” on target. And paratroopers dropped from the sky like drifting water lillies.

All of this followed the flyby of a KC-135 Stratotanker linked by its refueling boom to a thirsty F-15 Eagle and flanked by other aircraft.

Watching all of this Monday morning from an observation deck on the passenger terminal were about 50 civilians from America — educators, politicians, business people.

“Very impressive,” said Dick Ewing after the show. “It gives you a much better understanding of how to address a hostile airport.”

“I was very impressed,” said Ward Lay. “It made it a lot more clear what happened during [the war on Iraq].”

As he watched, Lay said, he had one question go through his mind: “Why would anybody want to take us on?”

Ewing is vice president of research at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. Lay is president of Lay Capital Group in Dallas.

For them, and for most of their traveling companions, the world of military operations is as foreign as soil from Mars. But the Pentagon’s Joint Civilian Orientation Conference is designed to bring it closer to home and give them a sense of ownership.

“We don’t get to see too much of this,” said Gary Credle, chief administrative officer for Warner Bros., in Burbank, Calif. “It’s really terrific to see it, particularly in foreign locations.”

Since 1948, when James Forrestal, the first secretary of defense, created the program to familiarize civilian community leaders with the military, the orientation conference has been held at least once a year except during Operation Desert Storm and during the energy crisis of the late 1970s. Some years, it has been held more than once.

Participants at RAF Mildenhall on Monday were members of the 66th such group and the first to travel overseas, flying to England from a meeting Sunday at the Pentagon with DOD officials. They are to leave Europe on Friday after visiting Grafenwöhr and Ramstein Air Base in Germany and Naples, Italy. They were also to make a quick trip to visit Marines in Georgia, the former Soviet state.

Groups normally stay stateside, visiting bases from all the services.

“What we’re hoping is that they go back and talk about it in their communities,” said U.S. Army Maj. Joe Yoswa, a public affairs spokesman for the program.

The program has attracted people from all walks of life, but is aimed at those who will come in contact with others in their community. Participants are nominated by the undersecretaries of the services and by alumni of the program.

The program may have taken on added importance with the end of the draft and the advent of the volunteer military. Fewer people in America now are exposed to someone with military experience.

The bill for this is picked up by the participants, not the Pentagon.

That didn’t bother Randy Bernard, chief executive officer of Professional Bull Riders in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“Well worth it,” he said of the $3,500 he spent to participate in April 2002. “It was phenomenal.”

His group visited U.S. Strategic Command in Nebraska, watched airborne troops train at Fort Bragg, N.C., and saw U.S. Navy SEALs go through their paces in Norfolk, Va. They even visited Marines at Camp Lejune, N.C., and spoke with officials at the Pentagon.

Bernard was impressed, he said in a telephone interview, with the focus of the armed forces members. He described them as bright and motivated.

“When I get an opportunity, I talk about it,” said Bernard, who travels often to promote the sport of bull riding.

Since he returned from his conference tour, he said, he has added a bit more patriotic tribute to the bull-riding events, and the organization provides tickets to nearby military bases.

After the demonstration Monday, the civilians mingled with the troops, including members of the 86th Contingency Reaction Group from Ramstein, who jumped into northern Iraq to help secure an airfield in late March.

The civilians were overwhelmed when members of the 48th Fighter Wing from RAF Lakenheath, England, showed off F-15s, and pilots from the 52nd Fighter Wing from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, gave them a tour of the cockpits of A-10s and F-16s.

And some shook their heads in disbelief when told of the capabilities of the KC-135s of the 100th Air Refueling Wing.

Looking back on his tour in 2002, Bernard said there was one overriding sensation that has stuck with him.

“It really brings it home that while we’re sleeping at night,” he said, “someone is protecting us.”

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