By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on March 9, 2008 4:04 PM
They slip out in the middle of the night when few are awake to notice — 20, 30 at a time.
They are touring in Iraq, but for nearly twice the typical Air Force deployment time.
They quietly appreciate the ribbons, medals and Purple Hearts members of their detail have earned in the desert.
But most would rather not talk about the firefights and roadside bombs.
For them, being a member of the 4th Fighter Wing’s Security Forces Squadron is the only honor they need.
Well, that and the honor that comes with serving their nation with the “brothers and sisters” they have found in their comrades.
So when they found out that they had been recognized by the 9th Air Force as one of the command’s 2007 Outstanding Security Forces units, they accepted the news as quietly as they deploy — and as humbly as they return.
John Whisman is one of them.
He, like many in the unit, would rather not get into the details.
Sure, there were firefights and roadside bombs, but why relive them, he says.
After all, the staff sergeant knows it is just a matter of time before he endures them again.
He knows he will likely miss more milestones in his 3-year-old daughter’s life.
Like the day she was born.
He was in the desert then.
But don’t ask him if he would trade the life of patrolman for more time at home.
He loves his job too much.
Don’t question his judgment for putting his life on the line in Iraq while his family waited for the next e-mail or phone call back home.
At 23, this airman knows the stakes all too well.
“Once you get over there and you make a rapport with the Iraqis who have families just like you, no matter where you go, family is family.
“The mission, it becomes sentimental to you,” Whisman said. “When you are out there working side by side with them, they almost become your family, too. It makes it easier to go back because you know they want you there.”
If you could find them, every airman attached to the Security Forces detail would tell you the same thing.
But the truth is, most are still in Iraq, enduring six- to seven-month deployments only to come home for half a year and head right back out the door.
The tempo of this squadron is particularly high-paced, Capt. John Tesar said.
Maybe that is why the Air Force saw fit to honor them.
Understaffed at home.
Spread thin abroad.
But still fighters, Tesar says.
Still “the best of the best.”
“Somebody in this unit is always deployed,” said Tesar, who has served as acting commander of the unit since Maj. Grant Hargrove deployed himself in August. “Our average deployment runs between 45 and 60 people gone at any given time.”
And for a squadron charged with air shows, traffic and housing issues back at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, it can be a strain — both physically and mentally.
“When we deploy for six, seven months, that doesn’t include the spin-up training we have to do,” Tesar said, adding it can run from 21 days to six weeks. “As soon as they complete their training, they head straight over to Iraq. So, you’re talking about an eight-and-a-half-month deployment.
“And these guys heading out now, they just got home in September.”
Roughly two-thirds of the 200-airmen unit have endured that rotation for years now.
“That makes it tough. It’s tough on the families, and it’s tough on them,” Tesar said. “But these kids have really stepped up. They have answered the call (when) the nation needed them to.”
The Air Force recently rewarded the squadron for its efforts, naming the 4th Security Forces detail the best of its kind command-wide.
But the news came as no surprise to Tesar.
“I have to say this is probably the hardest working unit I have ever, ever seen. Not only do we have people deploying constantly, we will have a third of our unit or half the unit gone and still get asked to do things here at home station — air shows, special events, awards banquets,” he said. “Pretty much every event that happens on this base, this unit is involved. My staff is depleted; we’re short-manned; ... and this unit, no matter what it is, they get the job done. They always get the mission complete.”
Some ask how they do it.
How do they adapt to spending half their lives at war?
“Dedication,” Tesar says.
And knowing that those in the unit left behind are “wrapping their arms” around their families.
“The best way we do it is by getting a hold of those families and letting them know, ‘If you need something, we are going to do whatever we can. Just give us a call,’” Tesar said. “We have to do that. You have to understand, the troops downrange need to know that the family is being taken care of. In all the deployments I have had, if I didn’t know my family was taken care of, my mind was not where it needed to be.”
And he should know.
When his daughter was born, his wife was supported back home while his brothers and sisters kept him grounded in the desert.
“It was pretty hard. You know, my wife, she was here by herself except for family. And obviously, I’m the most important person to her, but I couldn’t be there,” he said. “It’s hard to explain because it is such an emotional time in your life, when you are having a kid, but you’re also in Iraq fighting the war. It’s a lot of mixed emotions, but I had the support of the people around me. You have to have the support of people around you.”
Support is at a premium inside a Security Forces unit.
On Seymour Johnson, it is no different.
Sometimes, it comes in the form of civilians hired to complete work left behind by the deployed.
Oris Bishop is one of them.
And although he wore the uniform for 30 years before taking on flight superintendent duties with the 4th Fighter Wing, he can look on and offer perspective from his role as a civilian within an active-duty squadron.
“It’s really kind of inspiring to me, what they do,” Bishop said, choking up. “You have to have your back watched and they watch each other’s backs.”
And to see them win a major award for the hard work and dedication they have displayed on behalf of their country is a “proud feeling.”
“These kids go for six, seven months at a time, they slip out quietly and slip back in unnoticed,” Bishop said. “They are often so unappreciated for what they do, and they are doing the heavy lifting over there. So this award, it’s fitting.
“I can see it. It’s a really good team.”
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