The day shift
By KEVIN DOUGHERTY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 27, 2003
BASHUR AIRFIELD, Iraq — In the late afternoon, as the day shift at Bashur airfield in northern Iraq gives way to the late crew, it’s easy to tell walking around the aircraft ramp who is punching in and who is punching out.
“One has a tan and one doesn’t,” said Staff Sgt. Brian Munn, one of the many night owls. “We’re jealous.”
Munn was musing that moment over the prospect of not working midnights. Nah, he indicated with a shrug of his shoulders, the graveyard shift is just fine.
Within the 86th Contingency Response Group, the banter among the airmen flies back and forth like planes at a busy airport. And in this environment, when airfield operations are running 24 hours a day, it’s only natural that one 12-hour shift ribs the other, and vice versa.
“We’re all one family,” Staff Sgt. Omar Perez said of the rapid-deployment unit. “We’re just divided into two.”
Grass is always greener …
Last week, after the Army moved south and the Air Force seized the better ground, Master Sgt. Paulo DaSilva and Staff Sgt. Alex Schmidt were all aglow one sunny morning over their new “requisition.”
It seems the Army had left behind a Humvee, though it was a shell of its former body. Soldiers had stripped the damaged vehicle clean of nearly everything — wheels, seats, engine parts and all sorts of accessories to include the hood.
But to DaSilva and Schmidt, it hadn’t outlived its usefulness just yet. They grabbed a pair of forklifts and carted it over to the 24-man tent they and other day shifters were staying in. The night shift had a functional porch, with a khaki camouflage cover. “Paco” and “Schmidty” wanted a platform, too.
“And my guidance counselor said I wasn’t going to amount to anything,” said Schmidt, beaming like a proud papa. “He doesn’t have a Humvee on his porch, does he?”
“Give it a couple of days,” DaSilva chipped in. “With this crowd, who knows what will come out of it. The possibilities are endless.”
A moment later, Master Sgt. Gerritt McCrory, strolled by on his way to bed.
“Now it really does look like a trailer park,” the night supervisor said, shaking his pale face. “Damn good conversation piece.”
And so it goes.
About the same time, some day folks placed a rubber snake near a chair occupied by Staff Sgt. Andre Chilton. The group roared when the snake hater screeched.
Much of it is kids’ stuff.
“You can go to the edge,” DaSilva said, “but not over.”
Airman 1st Class Sonya Stewart is the only female aerial porter. The 20-year-old spent time on both shifts.
“You have to have an upbeat personality and a good sense of humor to work with these guys,” Stewart said.
Often they are the butt of their own jokes and quips.
“The only thing that separates us from a refugee camp is heavy equipment and e-mail,” Staff Sgt. Justin Losey said one night.
Maj. Konrad Klausner, the director of operations for the 86th Aerial Mobility Squadron, said if you move someone to the other shift “they will conform to that group.”
A few work the swing shift, allowing them to bridge the two worlds and, at times, work behind the scenes to pull pranks.
“You get to see what’s going on” during the day, said Staff Sgt. Hector Nieves, a crew chief and aircraft mechanic. “I get the best of both worlds.”
Livable and possible
When you get past the banter and the pranks, members of one shift often compliment the other.
At Bashur, the night shift initially handled all the planes and cargo, which were only arriving under cover of darkness, while the day shift worked to set up the camp.
“The day shift makes it livable,” Munn said, “and the night shift makes it possible.”
On occasion, the two shifts join forces to poke fun at one and all.
One afternoon last week, two staff sergeants, Todd Jackson (night) and Cliff Oney (day), made like kids and set up a crude stand not far from the aircraft taxiway. They weren’t selling cups of lemonade, though.
Made of duct tape letters on brown cardboard, their sign read: “Iraq rock 4 sale. Buy, sell, trade. E-1 and up we finance.”
“We were talking about it one night,” Jackson said. “So Cliff and I decided to set it up one day. Most of the aircrews snapped pictures, laughing.”
Most everybody got a good laugh when Klausner presented a banana to Brig. Gen. Erwin F. Lessel III, commander of the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.
Bananas and other fruit had been treasured commodities in the early days of the deployment. By the time Lessel paid his charges a visit the day before Easter, bananas had become fairly abundant because of purchases on the local economy.
Wanting to give the general a token gift, Klausner looked around for something to present the general. He picked up a banana as a possible present. That was when Capt. Tim Lee issued a “triple-dog” dare to Klausner to award the boss a banana.
Klausner did it, and the general took it all in stride. A couple of days later, the general reciprocated by flying down four crates of the stuff.
Whether he knew or not, Lessel had turned the tables on the whole bunch.
“From this point on,” joked Staff Sgt. Jon Harrison, an independent duty medical technician, “we’ll be known as the Chiquita Response Group.”
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jeff Morris checks with Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on the next plane due into Bashur Airfield in northeastern Iraq. Morris works in the Tanker Airlift Control Element's operations center, which tracks and manages the flow of aircraft, cargo and personnel.
KEVIN DOUGHERTY / S&S