08/23/06 — Captain helps build 'bridges'

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Captain helps build 'bridges'

By Dennis Hill
Published in News on August 23, 2006 1:47 PM

MANAS AIR FORCE BASE, KYRGYZSTAN -- An Air Force captain from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base is not only helping build one of America's new breed of air fields around the world but is also constructing friendships with a people who have never thought of Americans except as the enemy.

Capt. Gayle Peters from Seymour Johnson has been assigned to the 376th Expeditionary Communication Squadron at Manas Air Base in the Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, a former member of the Soviet Union.

In her role as a communications expert, she is helping design the infrastructure of the base, one of America's new military way stations in a volatile part of the world.

But while Capt. Peters helps the U.S. prepares for war, she is at the same time helping laying the groundwork for peace. Volunteers at the base have created an organization that ventures into the neighboring towns and villages, helping orphans, the sick and the elderly -- showing them America's softer side.

"Here we are, Americans, in a former Soviet Union country," she said in a telephone interview Saturday, "and we're building bridges ... It's nice to be able to find something you can put your faith and energy into."

The organization is called the Manas Air Base Outreach Society, and it is made up of both military and civilian volunteers. Men and women, whether military personnel or civilian contractors, take time to help at schools, orphanages and hospitals, build houses for the homeless, or in the case of Capt. Peters, meet with a small group of elderly women once a week just to let them know that someone cares about them.

The women, referred to as "babushkas," a term that means grandmother in Russian, receive gifts and get a chance to eat in a restaurant. It might not seem like much to Americans used to a comfortable lifestyle, Capt. Peters said, but to the babushkas it is a welcome treat in the midst of a harsh life.

Most of the women have no family, Capt. Peters said, and live on a meager income provided by the government. Many are former professionals, teachers and state workers who have been cast aside because their husbands have died and they have no family left. In that part of the world, she said, elderly women depend on their children. These women either have no sons nor daughters, or else their children are unable to support them.

"Most of them have pretty sad stories," Capt. Peters said. "We can get rid of some of that loneliness."

The gifts are simple, she said, food, toiletries, and often, yarn. The women, who do not speak English, augment their incomes by making cloth goods for sale, and the yarn is always appreciated, Capt. Peters noted. The money comes from donations. The 4th Communications Squadron at Seymour Johnson recently made a large donation to help the group with its volunteer work.

Manas Air Base is one of the smaller air bases the U.S. military is building around the world as democracy's future line of defense. In the war against terrorism, Pentagon leaders have decided that a global network of small bases, or "lily pads," adjacent to the world's "hot spots," will be of more practical use than the huge, sprawling bases that were maintained in Germany, Japan and other locations.

Manas fills the bill. Kyrgyzstan is on China's western border. Capt. Peters described the region as quiet, but the base puts U.S. planes in quick reach of potential trouble zones.

Upgrading the facility is a big job, Capt. Peters said. Most of her work involves preparing the base's communications infrastructure, ensuring that contractors do a good job of installing telephone and computer networks, along with other electronic media. She has a bachelor's degree in computer science and is working on earning her master's degree in technical and program management.

On Saturday, she said she started her day with physical fitness training and spent the rest of the day meeting with security personnel at the base and with local contractors, talking about the job at hand. Saturday night, she planned to attend church services. On Sunday, she and other volunteers planned to visit an orphanage supported by the outreach society.

"There isn't an average day here," she said. "Every day's different. That's what makes it exciting."

Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous, desert country for the most part. Capt. Peters said they have had no rain for six weeks. The temperatures are about the same as here during the summer but the heat is dry, not humid. Accommodations aren't opulent, she said, but they are comfortable.

She said she misses her family. Capt. Peters, who is a native of San Diego, has three sons, twins age 3 and a 6-year-old. Her husband is a fighter pilot at Seymour Johnson. Next to her family, she said, she misses the food and the beach the most. She keeps up with her husband and her boys regularly through telephone calls and e-mail but she still looks forward to the end of her tour in a few months. She has been at Manas since May.

"I'm excited about getting home and sleeping in my own bed," she said.