Summit put Lajes Field in world spotlight
For a moment in time, the eyes of the world focused on sleepy Lajes Field.
The small military base in the Azores islands hosted President Bush and some U.S. allies on Sunday in a summit over Iraq’s disarmament.
The magnitude of the event is only sinking in for people such as Richard J. Christie, an American who manages the Top of the Rock Club, where the summit was held.
“When it was pointed out to me that we were going to change the face of the world here on Sunday, good or bad — I mean, only history will tell — I actually got weak in the knees,” he said.
“When I realized 100 million people or however many were going to be focused not only on Lajes but my club, it really hit me. We changed history here.”
While the summit has passed and a war between the United States and Iraq appears imminent, things are just now getting back to normal at Lajes, a Portuguese base shared with about 1,200 U.S. forces.
What most people do not know is how U.S. and Portuguese military and civilian personnel worked around the clock to transform the base from a modest stopping point for U.S. warplanes to the site of a major summit.
President Bush and Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain, Jose Maria Aznar of Spain and Jose Manuel Durao Barroso of Portugal spent only about four hours on the base. But Lajes put in an immense amount of work for the brief visit. Some people put in what Christie called “36-hour days” to make it happen without a hitch.
On Friday morning, the White House and Secret Service agents gave the base a daunting list of items that needed to be done within 48 hours.
When Staff Sgt. Ramon Soler Jr. heard how many international telephone lines they needed, he wasn’t sure they would be able to pull it off.
“For a small base like this, it was truly challenging,” said Soler, who worked 16 hours Friday and 19 hours Saturday.
But the base found a way.
Air Force personnel put in 140 new telephones lines, laid 3,000 feet of cable and made room for a truckload of communications equipment. The White House was impressed.
“They said that in two days we were able to provide the [communications] support that other sites normally provide with a two-week preparation time,” said Maj. Arthur Moore III, the base’s mission systems flight commander. “So they were extremely pleased with the work our folks did.”
The club underwent a complete face lift. Christie, along with Ken Riggins, the business support commander, and Pedro Lima, a Portuguese national who is the club’s assistant manager, led a team that painted the complex, moved in more furniture and converted several dining halls into “hold rooms” for delegations.
The White House commandeered Christie’s office so aides to Bush could make it the president’s temporary Oval Office in the Azores.
The fire station became a media center to accommodate the 200 journalists scheduled to cover the event.
Workers had to build a platform and lay carpet for the leaders to stand on during the press conference. It would be the part of the summit broadcast live on television and seen by millions across the globe. It is where Bush urged other nations to demand Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein disarm immediately and unconditionally, calling Monday a “moment of truth for the world.”
The base, home to the Air Force’s 65th Air Base Wing, was considered an ideal spot for Sunday’s summit because of its location, 900 miles from the coast of Portugal and 2,000 miles from the U.S. coast. Organizers thought the base would be difficult for anti-war protesters to reach. However, a small gathering demonstrated against military action outside the perimeter fence as the leaders arrived.
The last time the island hosted such a historic meeting was in 1971, when former President Nixon and leaders from France and Portugal discussed international monetary problems. Nixon stayed overnight at the base, but the meeting was held elsewhere on Terceira Island.
On Sunday, only a handful of American military personnel and their families were able to see the president and the other leaders arrive.
Most did not get to see one minute of the summit or the press conference because they were too busy making sure everything went smoothly.
Nearly everyone on base helped, whether they worked for supply, engineering or on the flight line.
“Lajes is a small base in a remote location,” said 1st Lt. Kevin Golart, maintenance engineer for the 65th Civil Engineering Squadron. “To sponsor such a large event really requires everyone to work together.”
The summit and all of the work that went into it is something everyone at Lajes will not forget. To mark the event, the base plans to put up official White House photographs to display at the club. Commanders are also considering renaming a room the “Summit Room.”
“The Azorean summit is going to be in history books forever,” Christie said. “And maybe our names won’t be in it. But I’ve been there and was a part of it.
“The only judge of what we did here is time.”