Back from Southwest Asia

 

By John Ring

 

Where do you start?

Where does it begin?

How do you describe the efforts taken over a 6-month period that resulted in meeting and working with hundreds of people from different cultures in a foreign country that you had never met before that in the end, resulted in supporting combat operations that killed over 400 insurgents and capturing 500 more?

Forget the politics of this. You carry out orders, regardless of if you are in the Army, Marines, Air Force or Navy. Some more joyfully than others. “We hear you, we find you, we listen to you, we send fighters to kill you, ha ha ha,” said the head maintenance guru of U2 aircraft assigned to Southwest Asia. He looked to be Chinese but he is the worldwide expert on these aging aircraft that soar to 70,000-plus feet in the air for reconnaissance missions. “We find you,” he reiterated, “and then we bomb you.”

“Ha ha ha.”

He was obviously a man who enjoyed his work. He was also one sharp individual that knew the U2 aircraft inside and out. He gave us a 45-minute class on this aircraft, most of us had never even seen before.

We needed the class because we were firefighters. There were 47 of us on the Fire Department at Al Dhafra Air Base. That was ironic in itself because the Galesburg Fire Department totals 48. As the Fire Chief there, I didn’t have to worry about railroad tracks impeding response times or a budget (I spent a lot of government money while I was there) but instead I had to deal with  a bad water supply system on the flightline, no water system at all in the POL (fuel farm) area, poor building construction, an area saturated with high heat and high winds, little or no communication with the Host Nation firefighters, molding 7 firefighting teams from 7 bases into one working department, inheriting a storage area more resembling a junkyard, taking over from a fire chief who bolted in the middle of the night and providing fire protection for the air mission and over 1700 airman and officers on the base.

The second time I met with my boss, a Lieutenant Colonel, he ended our meeting with this gem. “I’m watching you,” he said, “and I’m watching your Fire Department.”

 

The Fire Department

My boss was watching 47 guys coming together for the first time. No females, which was a good thing (sorry you feminists out there but it’s the truth.) I knew none of them, which was a good thing. We were rank heavy, another good thing. The Fire Department I inherited was comprised of three Stations--- Station 1, the main station by the flightline; Station 2, the structural station comprised of 5 firefighters; and Station 3, a small two-man station on the remote side of the far runway. It was placed there to insure response times of under four minutes anywhere on the runway and ramp.

Station 2 was long neglected and an afterthought. It wasn’t for me because my background was primarily structural with the Galesburg Fire Department. I lucked out in putting two guys in charge who were from Scott AFB in Illinois—Mark Cornell and Mike Nicklow. I laid out what we expected from them and how important they were. They bought into the entire program. They reconfigured their hose load to insure a quick, rapid fire attack, junking the “high-rise” pack in place. I wanted water on the fire within 90 seconds of their truck arriving on the scene, in any building, on any floor, in any area. Their respective crews were young, aggressive fire-eaters who molded into great teams. Station 2 turned out to be a low-maintenance area for me. It was the best of our best.

Station 3 was a “punishment house” when I arrived which meant that the so-called perceived bad boys were sent there to rot. This was similar to the Brooks Street station in Galesburg. We changed the culture at Station 3; we scheduled it into two-week rotations, assigned additional responsibilities for them to do, gave them ownership of the structural trainer by their station and I made each Assistant Chief make daily trips out to Tranquility Base—so-named by me because it looked like lunar landscape out there, the old stomping ground of Neil and Buzz in July 1969.

I was supposed to have had a three-day transition with the previous Chief. It never happened. He was in a hurry to get home. Between that and disciplinary problems he was having with his guys, I was lucky to get a full day. Put it this way—we landed at 3 in the morning, I got to my room at 6 and I was at work at 7. Fortunately for me, he left early. He complained to me about one of the guys stealing a towel of his but he forgot to talk to me about the poor state of the water supply, the 18 out of service flightline fire extinguishers, the lack of tracking any fire extinguishers on base and the inability of his fire inspector to actually conduct inspections. I had to deal with a few of his malcontents for a week and had a mini-revolt among the Airmans Union over when their last duty day would be but we got them out of the way and went to work.

By the time they left, I understood why my boss said he was watching us.

I didn’t blame him.

 

The FDNY Connection

Four months is a long time to stay focused on a deployment. Just getting the department on track took care of the first four weeks. But I knew that I would have to create some things to make the time go by fast. Some were automatically built in--- an “Iron Falcon” exercise involving aircraft from seven different countries that generated over 700 sorties, base competitions which the Fire Department dominated, incidents in and around the area which altered the mission of the base but one of the things we wanted to do as a staff was remind our guys why we were here in the first place.

I went to New York City in October of 2001 along with two other Galesburg firefighters, Mike Whitson and Terry Woolsey. We became close to the firefighters at Ladder 4/ Engine 54. 11 of them responded to the World Trade Center that day and only four survived. My first day on the job at Al Dhafra, I spoke to each shift at each station. I told them who I was and where I had worked. The experience I had at Galesburg gave me instant credibility withy the guys; though none of them had heard of Galesburg, I told them the Department makeup and we were heavy on structural and medical calls. I closed with our experience in New York City, what we saw, what we learned and what we experienced. Looking at their reaction while I spoke, I could see the young guys were buying into it. The mid-level NCO’s looked pretty supportive. The Deputy Chief, a MSgt David Moreno, was the most loyal, supportive person I could want. But the other senior NCO’s had blank looks on their faces.

Of the 47 firefighters, 46 of them--- all of them--- were active duty. I was the only one in the Air National Guard.

Like my boss, the three of them weren’t quite sure what kind of hand they got dealt with me.

But I went ahead with a plan anyway. April 12, 2008 would be the 6-year anniversary of the recovery of the remains of the firefighters who died from Ladder 4/Engine 54. I put together a ceremony to pay tribute to them and also redesignate our Engine 10 to Engine 54. I contacted FDNY, sent a letter, asked for support and they came through big time. They sent FDNY hats, badges and a letter from their Fire Chief. I asked for volunteers to help out with the ceremony and 24 firefighters answered the call.

It came off without a hitch. I couldn’t get a bagpiper (we had to use taped music) but I got everything else and we conducted it at the Circle of Honor which paid tribute to all the victims of the attacks on September 11th. It lasted 30 minutes and I was ordered to invite the entire Base after I got permission to do it. They had never seen anything like it. It was rich in fire service tradition and it was there that our Commander presented the FDNY hats to the guys who worked at Station 2.

 

On Generals in General

Before this deployment, I had spoken with a General one time in my life. That was just in passing. Not at Al Dhafra.

I gave briefings to three different Generals, including the head ramrod of CentAf (Central Air Force that includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Kurkistan, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, East Africa, Turkey and Iran). The thing that impressed me about these guys was their capacity to know a lot about everything. They could do a 60 minute brief covering numerous topics without notes and not miss a beat. And when they wanted information, they wanted it spelled out simply and accurately. I was asked what percentage of smoke detectors had been cleaned at the base in the hopes of reducing the number of false alarms that are triggered because of the environment we were in. We had actually replaced 150 smoke detectors with heat detectors (in non-sleeping quarters) and reduced it by 48% within three months. But I didn’t have that information. “I don’t have the exact number sir,” I rallied, “but it’s been a good chunk of them.” He didn’t like that answer at all but he was in a good mood that day.

 

Your Tax Dollars At Work

“Money is no object,” I was told my first day on the job. I took that to heart, I spent more in my first week at Al Dhafra than I have in two years with the 183rd FW in Springfield. In the end, my total came to about $200,000. Nearly all of it was on equipment we lacked or equipment that we needed to test to meet National Fire Protection Association standards. The rest of it was to upgrade our living conditions at the fire stations. We saved lots of money by doing the labor ourselves--- called, “Self Help” projects. Painting, drywalling, laying carpet, all sorts of jobs.

Our firefighting vehicles were in a sad state of disrepair when we got there. But again I got lucky—the fire department mechanic assigned to us by the Motor Pool was the finest one I have worked with in 26 years. On a typical day he would be wearing his desert overalls, grease up to his neck and a big smile on his face, He reminded me of Goober (Andy Griffith) without the beanie hat. Our vehicle capability for the 122 days I was there was a staggering 98% in-service. Amazing. I recommended him for an achievement medal, something I rarely do, bit in this case he deserved it.

 

Part II

 

The Army

Working at an Air Base in Southwest Asia means you work with a lot of different folks from different Nations. Al Dhafra was no different.

The British wanted to always get drunk. The Germans were all business. “We have a bad history,” a German Luftwaffe pilot said to me during a long conversation. When I mentioned that our own Air Force had a history of fire bombing civilians in Dresden and Tokyo, he just shook his head. “If we could have done that to your cities,” he said, “we would have. We have a bad history.”

125 Army soldiers came on our base to install Patriot missiles. Most of our young firefighters didn’t even know what they were—those missiles came on-line during the first Gulf War when most of them were three or four years old. They installed the missiles out by Tranquility Base (Fire Station 3) and the activity out there stepped up.

I was concerned about medical calls and accidents at the site so I had our lead emergency medical technicians inventory and update the equipment at Station 3. I also had our guys at Station 3 monitor all of the activity to insure our access points to the runway were unobstructed. I up channeled this information but was told to back off because the Army guys were already medically trained. I paid a visit out there and found a “medic” standing by their ambulance. He was actually a truck driver who had some combat medical training. I asked to look at his equipment and he pulled out a first aid box that Hawkeye Pierce might have used in Korea.  It had a lot of tourniquets and bandages but no airway equipment, oxygen or other things a first responder would need.

The next week we responded for a call at their site for a major head injury. Our guys stabilized the patient, did reassessments and transported him to the clinic. While this soldier had a serious wound, he lived. Our three firefighters who responded were recognized by the CentAf Commander, a three-star General at Station 1. As he did, I stood in the background with the other guys and applauded. Great, great satisfaction.

And we never backed off.

 

Ray Rangel

A few weeks after the war began in 2003, SSgt Ray Rangel died in the line of duty at Balad Air Base. Rangel was a firefighter stationed at Dyess Air Force Base in Abiline, Texas. He responded on a call of an overturned Hum-Vee that was in a canal. He drowned while attempting to rescue one of the three soldiers that also died. Two of our firefighters at the base knew Rangel, his wife and his family.

When we arrived at Al Dhafra, the entranceway at Station 1 was decorated with a couple of “story boards” of the accomplishments of the last firefighter rotation. Throwing those in the dumpster was one of the first things I did. We converted this to into a memorial for Rangel, complete with turnout gear, photos, the firefighters prayer and the American flag. The centerpiece was a framed statement of who Ray Rangel was and what he did. Underneath that were quotes from Martin Luther King and Vince Lombardi. (Rangel was an ex-football star and a youth football coach)

We also established the Ray Rangel Award, given to an NCO and an airman for outstanding achievement and dedication for the rotation.

When my replacement came in, I asked him for just two favors--- to continue the Rangel Award and foster the strong ties that Station 2 has with Ladder 4/Engine 54 in New York City. He promised to do that but I’m not holding my breath.

 

Firefighters of another culture

Regardless of where you are at in SW Asia, the “Host Nation” firefighters look upon the US Air Force and their firefighters as what they aspire to be because we are the best. It doesn’t matter if it is Iraq, Kuwait, Kurkistan or the United Arab Emirates. At Al Dhafra, the relationship was non-existent at best. My boss kept after me to work on it. He was relentless on getting me to get this to succeed. For two months, I hit one roadblock after another. I tried everything. Sports, firefighting tradition, just about every possible avenue I could think of. Nothing worked.

Then I hit a breakthrough. The time needed to invest in this I didn’t have. And time is what was needed to gain their trust. Whenever you would visit these guys, you couldn’t just set up training and leave. That’s considered rude. You need to sit and bullshit and drink about six or seven cups of hot tea. Several of them dreamed of going to America, they wanted to see the California beaches. So I sent two of the guys at Station 3, one of whom was from California. They loved the guy. His last name is Reuben but they called him “Rubinski” because he looked Russian to them. Before long, Rubinski and his crew were having lunch with them, dinner with them, doing PT with them and we started training with them. I would bring a translator over for the training and everything clicked. With no training at all, I responded our water tanker (a resupply vehicle) and had them tie in to one of their trucks while it was pumping water. Our guy was pumping water to them within 90 seconds of his vehicle coming to a stop. They did the same to our truck. We quickly established four classes (one per month), did weekly PT with them and then we invited them to our daily roll call formation. I invited a photographer, the base newspaper, the translator and our Commander.

I spoke some Arabic during this formation--- simple things like “one base, one team” and “one fire house, one brotherhood”  We presented them fire protection badges and a plaque in Arabic.

One of the biggest mistakes I made during this deployment was not learning Arabic quickly. The second mistake I made was not having Station 3 working with these guys from the start.

I took one of their crews to our Circle of Honor, which memorializes the victims of September 11, 2001; The translator with us looked a little worried about it. But I gave them the nickel tour like anybody else. When it finished, one of them said through the translator, “I’m very sorry for bad people in our faith. I hope you are not upset with us.” My reply was “No one wearing this uniform will ever treat you badly because of what happened. This is an honorable country with honorable people.” Osmond (our translator, who is from the Sudan) said to me he had never witnessed anything like it. I took it as a compliment.

By the time I left, we were actually functioning as one team. Essa Mohammed, one of the Host Nation firefighters, called me “Number One. You number one. Bush number two.”

It wasn’t me—it was Rubinski and my boss for kicking me in the butt to get it done.

 

USO Shows

Like many of you, I’d heard about USO shows from World War II and Vietnam. I actually got to see a few of them while I was deployed. The ones I saw were pretty mediocre. From what I heard, the most popular ones are (1) Athletes. They don’t perform or sing but the guys love to mingle with them, take pictures with them and talk. (2) Comedians. Robin Williams is the most sought after. (3) NFL Cheerleaders. The team represented is irrelevant. They had an event called “Al Dhafra Got Talent”. Out of 1700 people, you would think there would be some. That wasn’t the case. A couple of the singers weren’t bad, there was also a juggler and a ventriloquist. The ventriloquist got my vote. Naturally, he lost.

 

Getting in trouble

For the record, I had a total of three ass-chewings for the 122 days I was there. They were comparatively mild, on a scale of 1 to 10. The ones I got at the Galesburg Fire Department were a lot worse. Of the three I got, one of them was well-deserved and the other two were as a result of something done by one of our firefighters on the basketball court, of all places.

The strange thing was for a base in Southwest Asia, it was more like being stateside in several respects. I got nasty calls and emails from my superiors about some of our guys’ sideburns, throwing cigarette butts in the wrong places and one of our guys had a toothpick in his mouth outside the Base Exchange.

One afternoon, a Chief Master Sergeant barged in my office dragging one of our young firefighters in with him. I was meeting with the Deputy Chief on scheduling the annual hose testing that was due. The young guy was Senior Airman Michael Snyder--- originally an orphan in Korea, he was adopted by a couple in Kansas City and grew up in Missouri. His crime was he had chewing tobacco in his mouth but he wasn’t in the smoke pit.  Those who know me well knew what I wanted to say--- but I was outranked. Besides that, I had clashed with this Chief before over a major fuel spill on the flightline with near zero visibility, a “hot zone” that was initially impossible to manage because of the fog and combat sorties cranking up adjacent to our emergency aircraft.

I promised him Snyder wouldn’t perpetrate such an outrage again. It was then Snyder who re-supplied the HN vehicle with no notice training, it was Snyder who successfully completed several academic courses and later it was Snyder I recognized at a roll call formation.

 

 

 

The Military and the Private Sector

When it comes to fire prevention, the military is far ahead of civilian departments. They have a big advantage simply because any hazard or deficiency has to be fixed. And if it isn’t fixed immediately, it is at least identified until it can be corrected.

But one other thing I’m most proud of is this--- we had a very ethnic fire department, something that didn’t hit me until well into the deployment. Guys with names like Santiago, Moreno, Aguilera, Ramirez, Romano, Roybal and Jiminez.  There truly is strength through diversity. I had never worked with such a diverse group of firefighters and I came away with a lot of satisfaction with that. I had never dealt with that at Air Guard bases in Peoria and Springfield and certainly never in Galesburg.

 

The Welcome Home

Thanks to email I was able to correspond with my family and good friends while I was deployed. My brothers at the Galesburg Fire Department were great with keeping in touch with me. Phone calls (morale calls) were limited and every email was screened for security reasons. The Zephyr would arrive on an inconsistent basis and sometimes would be battered and tore up. My wife sent me Packinghouse cinnamon rolls (very popular with our guys) and smell-good stuff from the Calico Cat. Cooks and Company did a nice job sending her flowers from me every month.

I flew back from SW Asia to Leipzig, Germany—it used to be East Germany, by the Polish border. It was a converted Red Army base. Then on to Baltimore where we were greeted by about a dozen veterans in a show of support. This was embarrassing to me but I thanked each and every one of them for their service. I went to the Memorial Day parade in Galesburg my third day back home. I was glad to stand in the background. I haven’t done anything. Certainly, not in comparison to those who served before me or are in the streets of Baghdad today. I was lucky. I was with a great group of guys. I had great training, great equipment. Running three miles every Friday was a pain, all the equipment you carry is a necessary evil, the heat drains the hell out of you, you get sick of drinking water and you get mentally exhausted after working every single day.

But if I go back again in 18 months, so be it.

 

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