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RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Master Sgt. Gregory Theroux and his team ought to earn frequent flier miles for all the planes they handle.

Things were so hectic at Ramstein Air Base on Friday that Theroux, noncommissioned officer-in-charge of ramp services for the 723rd Air Mobility Squadron, bought 80 pizzas because his crew was too busy to come off the tarmac.

“They should give me a special rate!” Theroux said hurriedly before heading back to move people, equipment and supplies to the desert, where the second day of Operation Iraqi Freedom was picking up steam.

The squadron, one of the largest at Ramstein with about 600 members, processes passengers and cargo on every en-route heavy lifter that hits the deck.

“Whatever they need downrange, we’re moving it,” Theroux said.

The operations tempo at the primary airlift hub in Europe was already at breakneck speed before the war began. Many squadrons were pulling 12-hour shifts at a minimum to get assets to the front. Now, airmen are working the same long shifts with even fewer people because more are moving to the Gulf region.

In addition, more than 450 86th Airlift Wing members deployed in November as part of a scheduled Aerospace Expeditionary Force rotation — and many left early. Most are staying up to six months, twice as long as the typical AEF rotation.

At the 37th Airlift Squadron, the only active-duty C-130 unit permanently assigned to Ramstein, crews are flying twice the number of cargo missions they were in January, said director of operations Lt. Col. J.R. Reid.

“In order to meet the time line we are asked to meet to move all the assets forward, we’ve got to work 24 hours, seven days a week,” Reid said.

Surging

Some units are getting welcome relief from Air National Guard and Air Reserve troops, but it’s barely enough to steady the load.

“We’re still surging,” said Master Sgt. Dan Frazier, foreman of the 86th Logistical Readiness Squadron’s vehicle maintenance shop.

The shop, the largest in the Air Force after Kadena Air Base, Japan, keeps 2,400 vehicles purring. While that might seem mundane, airplanes can’t be loaded without a running forklift and a pilot won’t make it across the ramp on a chilly morning if a de-icing truck isn’t there to clear the frost from its wings.

“Everything is used more,” Frazier said. “The more you use it, the more it breaks. The more it breaks, the more they bring it here.”

To complicate matters, the AEF deployment took away most of the vehicle shop’s journeymen mechanics — the senior airmen and staff sergeants who help make the shop hum. With deployments to support the war against Iraq, nearly a third of the shop’s 140 airmen are gone, Frazier said.

“When we go back to 10-hour days, we’ll think we’re on normal shifts,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Johnson, noncommissioned officer in charge of the special-purpose vehicle shop.

The overload means senior NCOs have to do some creative scheduling to get the job done back at Ramstein. Sometimes, they turn to contractors and local nationals to help. Sometimes they just suck it up and work all night.

Nearly a third of the 786th Civil Engineer Squadron’s 400 plumbers, carpenters and electricians are at forward bases, building tents and roads and showers, said Senior Master Sgt. Maurice Stansbury.

“I’m having to take a look at every job that we’re doing and say ‘Can we finish it this week? Can we finish it in a couple of days?’ I can’t afford to start a job I can’t finish,” Stansbury said.

Marathon airmen

Nowhere is the increased pace more obvious than on the flight line. Air Force C-5 Galaxies and C-17 Globemasters sit wingtip-to-wingtip next to contracted 747s. In the hours leading up to the war’s first salvo, so many planes were waiting to land at Ramstein they had to be diverted to Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt and the commercial airport in Luxembourg.

“This place is starting to look like JFK,” Theroux said.

In January and February alone, the 723rd AMS helped move more than 900 tons of cargo, more than four times the tonnage during the same time in 2002. The goods were moved on 200 C-17s and 600 B747s, compared with 112 C-17s and 356 B747s the squadron processed last year at this time.

In February, the squadron sent 5,000 troops forward to the war, Theroux said.

Airmen driving pallet loaders and forklifts swarm like ants around clusters of aircraft on the ramp. Planners map out the time needed to unload and load planes based on where the aircraft is going. Every minute is accounted for based on when the plane has to touch down in Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

Planes come from bases all over America and go to bases in the Middle East and Central Asia. Newly minted posts in Eastern Europe, such as Bulgaria and Romania, also are getting regular visits.

Inside the cavernous belly of one 747, Senior Airman Robert Babington grimaced as he put his back into aligning an enormous pallet onto wheels that would slide it to the back of the plane.

“I work 14- to 16-hour days at least a couple of times a week,” Babington said. “But I like to do my job. I like to be able to tell people, ‘Today we did 17 747s,’” he said.

Coffeeholics

Back at the 37th, dawn had yet to arrive as one C-130 crew was getting ready to fly and another bedraggled crew was just coming home.

“We’ve been in the air for 23 hours,” pilot Capt. Bryan Graddy said after sinking into a chair while clutching a Styrofoam coffee cup. “We flew all night.”

In early February, the squadron, known as the Blue Tail Flies, began a steady rotation of planes to Sigonella, Sicily. From there, crews fly to nascent forward operating bases. Eventually, they’ll fly regular missions to Burgas, Bulgaria, where the Air Force has built a tent city for troops supporting the war.

“I’ve worked for the past four weeks every day for 12 to 16 hours,” said Reid, who seems to have coffee mug glued to his palm. “Are there days when I don’t see my kids awake? Yeah. And I hate it. But that’s what I’m supposed to do now.”

“And it’s not just me,” said the father of three. “If you are qualified and you are not sick, I am using you in some manner to support the operation.”

Airmen like Tech. Sgt. Michael Elson, who controls the 37th’s ramp operations, is among those being used.

Elson just switched from a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift to just the opposite. His body clock gone awry, Elson had a lighthearted way of dealing with sleep deprivation.

“Sleep’s a crutch,”he quipped.

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