Commentary Search

Given an opportunity to serve, all stepped up

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Antonio Baxter
  • 6th Maintenance Group superintendent
One late September evening, I was contacted by the Air Force's Chiefs Group informing me there is an opportunity for me to serve a one year deployment in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Without hesitation, I wanted to reply with a "YES", but I knew this was something that I needed to discuss with my family. Although I may be the individual serving in another country, my family serves as well at home. This had to be a family decision. I discussed the opportunity with my family and we agreed to step up to the plate.

It's December 2010, my family and I had made all the necessary preparations for a long year deployment. I was looking forward to the opportunity and new experience that I will be encountering. During the deployment, I would serve as the senior enlisted manager for 220 active duty, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard personnel maintaining 16 KC-135R/T air refueling aircraft flying combat missions in Afghanistan. In addition, I was appointed as the expeditionary maintenance group's focal point for Air Mobility Command and Air Force Central Command manpower and equipment issues. Fortunately for me the assignment wasn't too difficult; due to the people I worked with every day.

I had the privilege to work with the men and women who maintained the KC-135 aircraft flying 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Most planes are retired after 20 years, but the KC-135 has reached 50 years of age. Keeping aircraft flying this long is nothing short of a miracle.

The miracle workers are the men and women who provide back shop maintenance support, scheduling, analysis, aircraft maintenance inspections and repairs. Depending on the time of year, they perform this incredible work in not so good weather conditions. The 376th Air Expeditionary Wing is located in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, which is north of Afghanistan and next to China. The temperatures in this region can get down to subzero degrees. These maintainers are launching, recovering and repairing the aircraft in snow, ice, and freezing winds out on the flight line. This doesn't prevent them from keeping the aircraft mission ready to safely fly over the skies of Afghanistan in support of our armed forces men and women on the ground.
The maintainers arrive in theater knowing they will be working 12-hour shifts the entire time during their deployment. Due to their tenacity in getting the job done, they actually work 14 plus hours. More often than not, the production management team find themselves faced with directing maintainers to end their shifts in order to return to their quarters to recuperate.

The heart and spirit of these men and women is truly incredible. Their sense of accomplishment is when they see the aircraft taxi from its parking spot down to the end of the runway and then see the landing gear retract into the aircraft after takeoff as it rises over the Jengish Chokusu Mountains. At that moment, what a maintainer feels can only be described with one action and one word, head slightly moving up and down and the word that is spoken is "Yeah". Deep down, we know the aircraft are critical in accomplishing vital missions in support of our nation and helping save lives over Afghanistan.

On a bigger scheme of things, what the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing accomplish everyday can be viewed as a "huge wheel of success". On this wheel, everyone plays an important part, as one of the spokes, in keeping the wing's mission rolling smoothly. The cohesiveness of the Expeditionary Mission Support Group providing fuel for the aircraft, the Expeditionary Maintenance Group preparing a safe aircraft for flight, the Expeditionary Medical Group ensuring everyone remains healthy to execute their jobs and the Expeditionary Operations Group flying the aircraft over the skies of Afghanistan delivering fuel to fighter, bomber, and surveillance aircraft directly enables the wing to support AFCENT's critical air operations downrange.

During the deployment, I had an opportunity to experience a military-to-military exchange with the local country's noncommissioned officer academy. A few senior enlisted leaders along with AFCENT's Command, Chief Master Sgt. Richard Parson, visited Kyrgyzstan's Koi Tosh NCO Academy. This was an awesome experience. Our initial session was geared toward establishing a basic foundation to learn from one another.

With that said, we agreed the first order of business will be to tackle the language barrier. Therefore, numerous language workshops were held at the Koi Tosh NCO Academy as well as on base. This military-to-military exchange program was open to all U.S. military personnel assigned to the Transit Center at Manas. It became a huge success. Once we looked passed the technical advancements, we discovered both countries have many similar things in common, such as perseverance and leadership principles. One memorable workshop was when students from a local high school visited the base to share valuable life experiences while serving in the U.S. and Kyrgyz's military.

The airmen and soldiers in both our military services instilled in these students a sense of pride and honor to serve. Now of course all work and no play can eventually put an end to a program. Therefore, several friendly volleyball and soccer events were scheduled, to build on the Kyrgyz and U.S. relations on a more personal level. After the first segregated matches, teams were intermingled with military personnel from each country. The camaraderie shared between the two country's militaries has evolved into an awesome program and boosted U.S. and Kyrgyz relations tenfold.

One of the reasons I have served for so long is because I love my country and my family. I know that "freedom is not free". Thousands of men and women have made sacrifices in order to defend our freedom in America. Serving has given my daughter and sons the freedom to choose, the freedom to choose whatever they want to do in their lives. My family accepted the opportunity to contribute to their country and freedom as well. My wife, who has accepted this opportunity 28 years ago to serve her country by allowing me to enlist in the Air Force, has been by my side and deserves any recognition and promotion I've received.

She has been the father, mother, care provider to our children from infant to adulthood. In my absence, she has moved from one house to another, handled all financial matters, and ensured the family's spiritual needs were met. She has served her country with distinction. My son accepted the opportunity by not going off to college. He chose to remain at home and attend a local college so he could fill my shoes (man of the house) in my absence in order for me to serve. My daughter has provided encouraging support to her mother and brother while finishing high school as well as attending a local college, like her brother, until I return.

There is no way I could have accomplished our country's mission without my family's support. There we were, as a family, refusing to let an opportunity to serve our country pass us by.