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On Wednesday at Osan Air Base, South Korea, Sr. Airman Jeffery Hunter, at left, shares a light moment with a soldier of the Army's 2nd Infantry Division while taking a headcount as troops board a plane for Kuwait. Hunter is working as an Air Force ground liaison with the troops as they pass through Osan.

On Wednesday at Osan Air Base, South Korea, Sr. Airman Jeffery Hunter, at left, shares a light moment with a soldier of the Army's 2nd Infantry Division while taking a headcount as troops board a plane for Kuwait. Hunter is working as an Air Force ground liaison with the troops as they pass through Osan. (Franklin Fisher / S&S)

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea — With a glaring sun beating on Osan’s flight line, the troops in heavy gear form a long single line. When the band strikes up a sprightly march, the first of them steps off toward the waiting aircraft.

At the head of the boarding stairs stand several airmen, including one who holds a small silver-colored device he’ll use to count each soldier entering the jetliner that will take the troops to Kuwait for eventual deployment to Iraq.

At the foot of the stairs Wednesday stood a two-star general, Maj. Gen. John R. Wood, commander of the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division, and Command Sgt. Maj. James Lucero, the 2nd ID’s top noncommissioned officer. The division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team is deploying to Iraq; Wood and Lucero shook each soldier’s hand as he reached the stairs.

The brigade, known as the Strikeforce, is flying first to Kuwait aboard a weeklong series of flights leaving from this, the biggest air base in South Korea.

“Have a good flight, Sarge,” says Senior Airman Jeffery Hunter, 24, from the top of the stairs.

“Hoo-ah!” a sergeant answers.

Hunter, with Osan’s 731st Air Mobility Squadron, is there in his role as an Air Force ground liaison, one of two airmen who’ve drawn that assignment for the Strikeforce airlift operation. He’s worked as a passenger service agent for most of his almost three years in the Air Force.

His job during the airlift is to meet the busloads of arriving troops as they pull in a few hours before their flight, get them to a waiting area, take the all-important passenger roll-call — the manifest call — then go with the buses to the flight line.

As soon as the buses roll in, Hunter and other airmen will make contact with the soldier assigned as “troop commander” for the trip and will give the troops on the buses a brief rundown of flight line and safety rules.

“Before you guys get out there, remove the bolts from out of your weapons,” he’ll tell the troops on the bus.

He’ll tell them that at the flight line they won’t wear headgear and aren’t allowed to snap pictures. He’ll tell them where they’ll stay during the two hours or so they’ll spend before boarding their plane. He’ll tell them that American Red Cross volunteers will be offering them snacks and cold beverages to tide them over during their wait.

And he’ll invite them to approach any time with any questions they may have.

“They want to know what kind of plane they’re on, what time they’re leaving here, how long the flight is gonna be, your basic flight questions,” Hunter said.

And at roll-call time, he’ll walk into the big air-conditioned tent where the Red Cross canteen has been set up and in a voice loud enough to be heard, but with no hint of a power trip, he’ll get them ready for manifest call.

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” Hunter will say. “We’ll be having roll call located in the first tent nearest to the buses, in 10 minutes. Please at this time use the latrine and bring all your belongings with you.”

Good people skills are crucial to working with passengers, he said.

It’s a job for “somebody who has patience, handles pressure well, able to adapt to changes,” he said. “Outgoing. And overall, one of the most important things, I would definitely have to say, be courteous.

“Because in dealing with passengers, if you want them to listen to you, to comply, they’re not going to respond to somebody who’s being rude to them.

“That guy, he’s already mature, good head on his shoulders, he handles the passengers very well,” said Maj. Mike Oberbroeckling, operations officer with the 731st Mobility Squadron. “He’s taking into account where they’re going, at the same time knowing that we have a mission to do. Very respectful. He’s sharp. He thinks ahead. He sees things before they happen.”

And there’s one other thing a ground liaison can’t afford to get wrong: “Knowing what time to call the roll call, allowing myself enough time to get that accomplished.”

To botch the manifest call is to risk delaying the aircraft.

“Having the passengers at the aircraft when the aircraft’s ready to load … not to delay the airplane … is key, because when you delay the aircraft … that means it’s delayed in the place it’s arriving at and the place after that and after that. It’s a downward-spiraling effect.”

Manifest calls have been running about 30 minutes for the Strikeforce flights. Hunter holds the manifest in his hands and calls out each soldier’s name, arranged alphabetically.

The soldiers answer “Here” and move out with their gear to the buses.

As he watched the faces of a Strikeforce infantry unit Wednesday, Hunter said, he was struck by how many appeared calm and unafraid about what might await in Iraq.

“They don’t seem scared at all,” he said.

Were he to look back on it years later, Hunter said, he thinks he knows what he’ll remember most about the Strikeforce deployment in which he’s playing a part.

It’ll be not their departure so much as their return.

“I’ll think of them coming home to their families, to further endeavors, family, wife, children … because when they come off the staircase truck on their way back, they’re gonna have smiles on their faces.”


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