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Members of Company K, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Division from Camp Lejeune, N.C., try to relax on Feb. 4 after their eight-hour flight across the Atlantic. The Marines would leave for the east African nation of Djibouti in a few hours for duties there.
Members of Company K, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Division from Camp Lejeune, N.C., try to relax on Feb. 4 after their eight-hour flight across the Atlantic. The Marines would leave for the east African nation of Djibouti in a few hours for duties there. (Charlie Coon / S&S)
Members of Company K, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Division from Camp Lejeune, N.C., try to relax on Feb. 4 after their eight-hour flight across the Atlantic. The Marines would leave for the east African nation of Djibouti in a few hours for duties there.
Members of Company K, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Division from Camp Lejeune, N.C., try to relax on Feb. 4 after their eight-hour flight across the Atlantic. The Marines would leave for the east African nation of Djibouti in a few hours for duties there. (Charlie Coon / S&S)
From left, Jose Luis Carrera, Fernando Montiel and Rafael Balle prepare box lunches for passengers at Morón Air Base, Spain. The Morón cafeteria, which prepares up to 800 box lunches per day for troops passing through, was named best in United States Air Forces, Europe, in the single-service category for the second year in a row.
From left, Jose Luis Carrera, Fernando Montiel and Rafael Balle prepare box lunches for passengers at Morón Air Base, Spain. The Morón cafeteria, which prepares up to 800 box lunches per day for troops passing through, was named best in United States Air Forces, Europe, in the single-service category for the second year in a row. (Charlie Coon / S&S)

MORÓN AIR BASE, Spain — The passengers are troops either in transit in the war against terrorism.

Some are going to Iraq, while others are going home. Halfway between is Morón Air Base.

Morón is a big slab of concrete and some buildings. It’s not a fancy base, but it’s a busy one. More than 7,000 troops came through here in January, the beginning of the largest troop rotation since World War II.

The staff has transformed offices into lounges and warehouses into dorms. Volunteers bake brownies and supply coffee. The cafeteria provides nearly 24-hour service.

They want to make Morón a nice place to stay, if only for a little while.

“These are not normal passengers,” said Ron Mercurio, base operations manager. “This morning I was talking to a 20-year-old kid from Montana. He’d been in the Marine Corps for five months. Now he finds he’s on his way to Iraq.

“You can see that in their faces.

“Other times we get people who are going home,” he said. “The last thing they want is to be stuck in Spain.”

Morón was built in the 1950s to handle big, beefy bombers. It wasn’t built to handle passengers. But Morón is halfway between the United States and Iraq and has become a pit stop for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

For the next few months, thousands of troops will be spending a few hours or a few days at Morón.

Morón is run by the 496th Air Base Squadron and has a permanent staff of about 120 airmen. It expanded by bringing in another 600 people — a melting pot of reservists, U.S. civilians and Spaniards — to help meet the demands made by Operation Iraqi Freedom.

For troops, the stop at Morón usually means eight hours down and eight hours to go to get to their final destination. They don’t care who’s working, they just want some basic comforts.

“A nice hot shower, a good meal and bed,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Jeff Davis of the Virginia-based 206th Mobile Inshore Underwater Warfare Unit.

It’s done.

The base recently installed portable showers. The cafeteria is open 22½ hours per day. (The other 1½ hours is for cleaning.) Bunk beds have been brought into warehouses.

“I’d like something nice to eat, maybe an Internet cafe,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Josh Nolan of the Navy Cargo Handling and Port Group, Williamsburg, Va.

Done.

Volunteers stock the waiting room with brownies, cookies and coffee. The library’s Internet cafe is open until midnight.

A layover at Morón takes at least five hours. That’s how long it takes for the plane to be checked out, refueled and made ready for flight.

Sometimes something breaks or a part is not available and the layover lasts a day or two.

Morón doesn’t have a selection of restaurants, stores and lodging like the bases at Ramstein, Germany, or Mildenhall, England.

So the Morón staff does its best.

“This wouldn’t happen without people who are willing to extend themselves beyond their job,” said Lt. Col. Randy J. Davis, commander of the 496th ABS.

The U.S. Air Force talks a lot about becoming “light, lean and lethal.” “Expeditionary” is its buzzword.

“Expeditionary means bases can expand and contract based on the needs of the combatant commanders,” said Col. Ed Worley, the public affairs chief for U.S. Air Forces in Europe. “It gives us the flexibility we need with our operations.”

On Wednesday, Francisca Munoz Ojeda, a passenger services representative from nearby El Arahal, climbed the stairs and boarded a dark, cramped C-5 cargo jet. She climbed another ladder into a room where 51 Navy reservists were sitting.

They’d spent the last eight hours inside a plane. The plane was now resting on a runway in Spain. Still seated, they look at her.

“Welcome to Morón,” she says. Then she tells them a little about the base. Buses are waiting outside to take them to the chow hall, to the bunks, to wherever they want to go.

“For me,” Ojeda said later, “it’s important that they have a good impression of us.”

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