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Staff Sgt. Jason Thoel of the 48th Communications Squadron, RAF Lakenheath, England, remembers well the first time he deployed alone as a young airman.
Staff Sgt. Jason Thoel of the 48th Communications Squadron, RAF Lakenheath, England, remembers well the first time he deployed alone as a young airman. (Ron Jensen / S&S)

RAF LAKENHEATH, England — On Staff Sgt. Jason Thoel’s first deployment for the Air Force, in 1997, he learned a simple truth about the world.

“If you don’t call them, they don’t know you’re coming,” he said.

It was on that journey from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, that the airman with the 48th Communications Squadron learned something else.

“Not everything is 110 volts,” he said.

Unlike the Army, which sends soldiers off on deployment with several hundred of their closest friends, the Air Force frequently sends people off on their own — an airman from here, one from there and one from another place become a team when they reach their destination.

“This is my third deployment in the last four years, all of them alone,” said Staff Sgt. Pamela Morris, now the only airman working in the post office at Ali Air Base, Iraq. “It really does not become easier. You just learn what you have to do, but it is still not easy.”

Based at RAF Croughton, England, she met up with the Army unit in Germany, soldiers who knew each other. She was the odd airman out.

“Eating meals is a lonesome experience. It seems to be the worst time for me,” she said in e-mailed answers to questions. “Eating is a social thing. You do not realize how alone you really are until you have to eat your meals alone.”

Morris isn’t treated like a leper, of course. Her friends are people she met during a layover on the trip to Iraq.

For Maj. Travis Harsha, commander of the 332nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron at Balad Air Base, Iraq, the journey from Maxwell Air Base, Ala., was spent concerned about matters other than lack of traveling companions.

“For me, coming in from a command perspective, I was more concerned for the troops,” he said. “I was thinking, as a commander, how can I pull these people together as a team as quickly as possible.”

He relies on his deputies and senior noncommissioned officers for assessment of his troops.

“You don’t know their strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

Thoel laughs now about that deployment in 1997, which was also his first time outside the United States. For one thing, he recalled, he over-packed.

“By the time I’m done, I’m dragging seven bags on my own,” he said. “I learned to pack extremely light after that trip.”

He also has learned to send items to himself through the mail. And to take the proper equipment. And to call ahead.

Last year, he deployed to the Middle East.

“It went without a hitch,” the older and wiser Thoel said. “It was a very smooth deployment.”

For Morris, the mission is nearly at an end. She’ll return to friends and familiarity.

But she can’t help but envy the airmen she has met, many Air National Guard members, who will have a major reception when they step en masse from the airplane.

“That does not happen when you come back alone,” she said. “Yes, family is happy to see you, but there is no welcome home banner or groups of people waving flags.”

A large number of airmen at her base deployed together from McConnell Air Force Base, Kan.

“I bet they have flags and banners when they get home,” she said.

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