Subscribe
Tech. Sgt. Christen Whitney, an F-16 crew chief with 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, keeps his 20-month-old son, Cayden, bundled in his desert camouflage jacket as a light rain falls.

Tech. Sgt. Christen Whitney, an F-16 crew chief with 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, keeps his 20-month-old son, Cayden, bundled in his desert camouflage jacket as a light rain falls. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Tech. Sgt. Christen Whitney, an F-16 crew chief with 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, keeps his 20-month-old son, Cayden, bundled in his desert camouflage jacket as a light rain falls.

Tech. Sgt. Christen Whitney, an F-16 crew chief with 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, keeps his 20-month-old son, Cayden, bundled in his desert camouflage jacket as a light rain falls. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

Senior Airman Simanga Cele, an F-16 avionics specialist with the 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan, files through his last out-processing line at the passenger terminal.

Senior Airman Simanga Cele, an F-16 avionics specialist with the 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan, files through his last out-processing line at the passenger terminal. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Catrina Sheperd’s thoughts already turned to the homecoming this fall even before she bid farewell to Iraq-bound Tech. Sgt. Duane Sheperd of the 13th Aircraft Maintenance Unit Saturday afternoon.

It was an exercise in positive thinking to will her husband home safely and numb the emotions of saying good-bye for four months.

Still, the family said it’s prepared for anything.

“You just never know. Once you’re in Iraq, you’re fighting a war. We had him explain it to the kids, what might happen,” she said of Brianna, 11, and Alexander, 7.

Sheperd was among more than 260 Misawa airmen who were to leave Saturday for the Middle East, with the majority going to Iraq in support of the 13th Fighter Squadron. Misawa is deploying about 700 airmen for the next Aerospace Expeditionary Force rotation, lasting from roughly June to September; Saturday’s wave was the biggest yet to go forward for the upcoming AEF.

Pilots, maintainers and other support personnel will relieve the 14th Fighter Squadron at Balad Air Base north of Baghdad. The 14th, with help from other Misawa units, has been providing close-air support to coalition ground troops since January. Now it’s the 13th’s turn to say their good-bye’s.

Sheperd, 36, gave his kids teddy bears in military uniforms to keep by their bedsides while he’s away; they returned the favor with a school photo that Sheperd’s supposed to look at every day, his children said.

“I just tell them cherish what they have now because you never know what happens in a war,” he said while standing outside the passenger terminal among a sea of desert camouflage.

A number of airmen said Saturday they were ready for the challenge and eager to get to Iraq so Misawa’s downrange airmen could come home.

“I want to get started; I don’t like the waiting around,” said Tech. Sgt. Christen Whitney, 30, an F-16 crew chief with 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. “We need to relieve the guys that are there so they can get back to their families.”

Heading into his maiden deployment, Whitney said he has no qualms about going to Iraq.

“My personal opinions, I keep them to myself,” he said. “This is what I’m charged to do, to protect and serve my country.”

To the suprise of one onlooker, Senior Airman Simanga Cele, 22, an F-16 avionics specialist with 35th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron said he was excited to go to Iraq.

“You’re exicted? You’re not scared?” said a terminal attendant who stood outside the departure lounge as airmen filed inside.

Asked to explain the draw, Cele said it was a chance to be part of history. “How are you going to be in the military at this point in time and not go? It’s my turn to serve,” he reasoned.

Cele packed light, figuring he’d need only some books and his iPod to stay entertained off-duty while deployed.

“I want to read and go to the gym and just kind of get in shape and experience Iraq,” he said.

Answering the call

About 700 airmen from Misawa Air Base, Japan, are deploying throughout the month in support of the Air Force’s next Aerospace Expeditionary Force rotation. Here’s a look at what three Misawa airmen will be doing downrange:

Tech. Sgt. Omar RichAge: 3235th Logistics Readiness SquadronHometown: Seattle, Wash.

Rich is deploying somewhere in Southwest Asia where he’ll work as a quality assurance fuel laboratory technician. His job will be to oversee and run tests on aviation fuel, ensuring it meets Air Force specifications. “We make sure it’s clean, dry jet fuel, with no contaminants,” he said. He compares the tests to running coffee through a filter to weed out soil, small rocks and other contaminants, while also making sure the petrol contains the right mix of additives. “Too much water will cause the engine to burn out and crash,” he said. For this deployment, he’ll leave behind a wife and two kids, ages 8 and 6.

“I’m a patriot. I choose to serve my country.” The one thing he won’t leave home without, he said, is his Bible.

Staff Sgt. David WrightAge: 2435th Civil Engineer SquadronHometown: Lynchburg, Va.

Wright is headed to Ali Air Base, formerly known as Tallil Air Base, in southern Iraq with one other airman in his shop. While there, Wright will work at the base power plant. “If the electricity goes down, we’ll be the ones to put it back up,” he said. The “power plant” he speaks of really consists of a series of huge generators that supply power to base facilities. “It’s the Air Force version of a deployabe power plant,” he said. It’s Wright’s first time deploying in five-and-a-half years with the Air Force. “I’m actually excited about going,” he said, “because I get to finally contribute ... to Operation Iraqi Freedom. I’m looking forward to making contacts ... and of course getting real world job experience.” He’s definitely packing the Play Station Portable his wife gave him for his birthday, he said.

Staff Sgt. Wanda GrahamAge: 3635th Services SquadronHometown: None; Army brat

A dining facility shift leader, Graham is deploying to an unnamed base in Iraq to help with lodging, fitness or recreation programs; airmen in her career field are trained in all three areas. She might set people up in dormitories or tents or help airmen reach their fitness goals in a desert environment, depending on where she’s needed most. Staying fit downrange is especially important since “you probably eat better on deployment than you do at home,” she said. The food is good, because it has to be, she said. “They want to give you what you need to do your job.” Graham wants to make sure her younger airmen deploying with her are prepared. “If you get nervous, don’t be,” she tells them. “You’re going to go with the best Air Force in the world.”

author picture
Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up