New air expeditionary wing takes shape
March 6, 2003
AN AIR BASE IN THE MEDITERRANEAN REGION — From chaos comes order.
Or, at least, “organized chaos,” according to Capt. Brian Thomas, executive officer for Col. Terry New, the commander of the 401st Air Expeditionary Wing.
He was describing the creation of an expeditionary wing, the joining of disparate parts into one unified whole.
Thomas knows about this. His job back at Aviano Air Base, Italy, is executive officer for the commander of the 16th Air Expeditionary Wing.
“You can’t apply a cookie cutter mentality,” he said. “You have no idea what you do or do not need until you hit the ground.”
For reasons of political sensitivities inside the host country, the location of this base cannot be named. But it is, for the time being, the home of the 401st, which will eventually number more than 1,000 people. The mission is to provide air refueling for the ongoing war on terrorism and possible war with Iraq.
So far, there are about 700 people in place from nearly two dozen air bases, from RAF Mildenhall, England, which sent more than 200 members of the 100th Air Refueling Wing, to Keesler Air Force Base, Miss., which has contributed one person, Capt. Rob Bonner, a communications specialist.
Thomas said people at the Air Expeditionary Force Center at Langley Air Force Base, Va., look into their “magic book” to see who is available and deployable.
Then, he said, it’s “tag, you’re it.”
People are at the base from Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark.; Beale Air Force Base, Calif.; Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany; Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.; Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D.; and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., among others. The Air National Guard from Sioux City, Iowa, is represented, as is the Minneapolis-St. Paul Air Reserve Station.
However, the organization is not put together by chance.
“It’s not like we just go out going ‘you and you and you,’ ” said New, who was tabbed to be commander here in January. “It would be a group of people who traditionally work day in and day out together.”
An example is the services unit that arrived from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. Nine people from the 442nd Fighter Wing services flight, a reserve unit, are taking care of lodging, laundry and recreation chores, among others.
Master Sgt. Mark Steele said the unit trains for the various jobs at Whiteman so it is prepared for deployments.
Unit members got the official word for their deployment on Feb. 11.
“I’ve been training for this for my career — a little over 21 years,” said Steele. “It’s part of history. I’m excited.”
So how is it, Thomas was asked, that people from these corners of the Air Force can come together and do the mission from the minute their boots touch the ground?
“The biggest thing there — and it’s something we’ve really pushed in the Air Force — is standardization,” he said.
Whether stationed at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., or F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. — two bases also represented here — every job is performed the same way, Thomas said.
Staff Sgt. Diane Meyer of the 52nd Contracting Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, said it is an easy fit.
“We train to deploy and fit into particular groups,” she said. “This is actually what we train to do.”
But versatility is also necessary when establishing an expeditionary wing.
“Every one of these people … there was a lot more work to do than their specialty,” New said. “I’d say 99 percent of the people here haven’t had a day off for approximately two months.”
Thomas said, “When you get into this type of environment, people step up and say, ‘How can I help? What can I do?’ ”
Thomas said the 18-hour workdays and the long travel time and the initial discomfort are all worth it when the new wing takes shape and the mission gets performed.
“Out of the chaos,” he said, “you see things coming together.”