Coming full circle

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Todd Cooper
  • 823rd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron
(Editor's note: This is a part of the weekly submissions from the 823rd Security Forces Squadron, which is currently providing security at the Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince.)

I was excited to deploy with the 823rd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in support of the humanitarian relief effort following the Jan. 12 earthquake.

It was my first opportunity to deploy as a flight sergeant and I was excited to take the Airmen I've been training with for the better part of a year on a real-world operation. Additionally, I was excited to go to a "bare-base" operation and see how far the Air Force has come since the last time I opened an airfield.

Nearly eight years ago, I was a young staff sergeant assigned to the 786th Security Forces Squadron as part of the Air Force's first contingency response group. There, I participated in the opening of Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan.

What the group accomplished there was recognized by the Air Force as the "best practice" for opening bases at the time. It became the model now used by the Air Force to establish and open air bases as reflected in the Global Mobility Concept of Operations (CONOPs).

Deploying to Haiti gave me a chance to participate in a real-world application of the CONOPs and I was going to get to lead Airmen through the process.

One of the units already on the ground in Haiti from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., was one I am pretty familiar with. After Kyrgyzstan, I had been assigned to the Air Force Expeditionary Center at McGuire AFB before I moved to the 820th Security Forces Group at Moody.

While at McGuire AFB, I put my experience at Manas AB to work for the military and worked closely on the Air Force-wide concepts used by response groups to open and manage air bases in remote and austere locations.

We conducted numerous large-scale exercises to test our ideas and theories, providing the Air Force the best possible solutions to bare-base operations. The processes and ideas we came up with would be used throughout the Air Force to complete missions very similar to this one.

Deploying to Haiti gave me the opportunity to see these ideas I had previously worked on in a real life scenario.

With my background, I had a pretty good understanding of what we would find when we arrived at Port-au-Prince. The focus of the 823rd ESFS was securing the aircraft parking ramp, as well as the larger area of the airport itself and I tried to mentally prepare my Airmen for that task.

Knowing that civil engineers were already on the ground building a living area for U.S. forces, I was also able to reassure my Airmen that we would all have tents, environmental control units, electricity and shower facilities in short order.

While the security situation was a little different than anticipated, I can say in all honesty that I was not surprised or disappointed. Going from "establish to open" to "operate" flowed just as it was outlined in the CONOPs.

Command hand-off from the contingency response group commander to the air expeditionary group commander took longer than I had expected, but the transition flowed exactly the way it was intended.

Interestingly enough, many of the things I had seen happen during previous exercises, both good and bad, have happened here in Haiti. The tent packages the engineers used to construct living, work and hygiene facilities were built very rapidly.

The tent city's capacity to house Airmen doubled almost daily. Compared to our U.S. Army counterparts, we lived in luxury. While our tents have wooden floors and air conditioning, theirs lack even a ground tarp. Air conditioning is beyond the average Soldier's wildest imagination.

As our mission draws to a close, I find myself doing something I've never done before- closing an airbase. At the expeditionary center we had "table-topped" how to structure a base-closing exercise, but had never tried it in the field.

It's not as simple as reversing the opening steps. Only time will tell how well our group concludes operations and what lessons we can learn from it. But for me, this deployment has been about completing the circle that began with the formation of the 86th Contingency Response Group at Ramstein AB, Germany.

From idea, to theory, to practice, to employment, I've been fortunate enough to be a part of the development of expeditionary concepts.

Years from now, one of the Airmen with me here will be in the position of seeing their work come full circle as well. Hopefully, their journey will be as rewarding as mine has been.