MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Why are we at war?
Where would we go if evacuated?
Will new recruits be sent to Iraq?
Those were among the questions 600 Edgren High School students had Thursday for Brig. Gen. Dana T. Atkins, Misawa’s 35th Fighter Wing commander.
To help allay some of their fears and concerns about what’s happening with the war in Iraq, Atkins spoke to students and faculty in the school’s gymnasium. And he addressed one question many may not have asked but indicated later they were wondering: When were their parents coming home?
“You and your parents are critical to Misawa’s mission, and to Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Atkins told the seventh- through 12th-graders, who sat on gymnasium bleacher seats and spilled over onto the floor.
Saying he is aware many of the school’s students have fathers and mothers deployed to the Middle East — 500 from Misawa are there now — and to other parts of the world, he told them why some parents may be gone for a longer time.
He walked students through a presentation shown on a giant screen about how Misawa airmen are deployed under the Air Expeditionary Force concept — 10 individual Aerospace Expeditionary Force packages of people and aircraft drawn from bases around the world, custom-configured to meet the needs of specific missions.
But, he said, an expeditionary force’s “normal deployment time of 90 days may have to be extended. It all went away because of the Iraqi war.”
Some deployments, Air Force officials announced previously, may be extended up to 179 days.
Atkins characterized the performance of Misawa F-16CJ pilots supporting Iraqi Freedom operations as “simply outstanding.” He explained that the role of the jets is to suppress enemy air defenses by employing weapons such as missiles — which the pilots fire miles away from their targets.
“They really don’t get too close to the threat,” Atkins assured students.
He praised the Pentagon’s decision to let journalists embed with ground units but said, as a consequence, much of the Air Force’s work isn’t that evident in televised news reports. “There’s a political dimension to that,” he said. “Countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain don’t allow news media in … so we don’t see a lot of what the Air Force is doing.”
Atkins also captured his audience’s attention with a video clip of F-16 pilots evading surface-to-air missiles during Desert Storm operations in 1991.
Since that tape was made, he told the students, the F-16CJs’ capability has been greatly improved. The versions flown by Misawa pilots are the newest in the air, he said.
The wing commander also encouraged students to reach out to seek support if they become weary of war talk and coverage. “Watch TV, but not too much, or you’ll have high points and low points like me,” he said, asserting that overall, “The U.S. campaign is hugely successful.”
He said parents, teachers and others, like friends and chaplains, can provide comfort. “You are blessed with this excellent faculty at Edgren,” he said.
In response to written questions students handed to teachers, Atkins touched on a range of concerns — while noting that his responses were personal.
One asked, “Why are we at war?”
“Because some people in the world don’t like our democratic ideals,” he responded, adding the Iraqi regime “is running that country in a dictatorial fashion.”
Another asked where people at Misawa would be sent if forced to evacuate. “The United States would be a safe haven if that was necessary,” Atkins replied. “We would have advance notice so we could collect our personal property.” He added, though, that he saw “no prospects” of needing to evacuate noncombatants anytime soon.
One student asked if new Air Force recruits would be sent to Iraq. “It’s unlikely … because it takes about one to two years of training before they would be competent to do the mission,” the general replied.
Several students said they found Atkins’ hourlong talk helpful.
“I feel a lot more informed,” said Timothy Beard, an eighth-grader whose father deployed Dec. 16. “I didn’t understand what our parents did to support the war.”
Beard added that his family keeps in touch by e-mail “but we haven’t heard from him in a while.”
Andrea Morgan, a 16-year-old junior, called the general’s talk “assuring.” She said she now understands why her father — an Air Force weapons safety specialist who left Misawa on Thanksgiving Day — “may not be home in June or July when he was supposed to come back.”
Beth Vaillancourt, 14, an eighth-grader, said that although Atkins’ talk was helpful, the war has left her family coping with uncertainty. “My dad’s been gone five months, and we’re supposed to move in July,” she said. “We don’t know for sure what’s going to happen.”
Vaillancourt added that right now, she tries to avoid watching television news.
“It’s just too scary,” she said.