Airmen take year-long journey patroling streets of Baghdad

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Eydie Sakura
  • 341st Space Wing Public Affairs Office
When you're a gunner on top of a HUMVEE driving through Baghdad, it's safe to say you're an easy target. 

This is the sentiment of Senior Airman Nick Meyer, 341st Missile Security Forces Squadron member, who returned from a 365-day deployment where he volunteered for convoy duty along with 14 other security forces members from Malmstrom. 

Their mission with the 372nd Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron was to train the Iraqi police and make sure they were doing their job to the fullest extent of their abilities. 

"The security forces members in Air Force Space Command have the right skill set for combat missions world-wide," said Col. Steve Asher, 341st Security Forces Group commander. "Day-to-day we patrol, secure resources and people, and train for war. These deployments allow our Airmen to test their training and core competencies in a combat environment." 

Downtown Baghdad was the combat environment for the Airmen who returned to Malmstrom, and each has a different story to tell and a unique perspective regarding their time overseas. However, they all started out in the same place ... at an Army training post at Fort Hood, Texas. 

Training for combat
"The training at Fort Hood was two-and-a-half months and there were about 80 of us from 65 different bases," Airman Meyer said. "It was fun and different because I was able to meet up with people from all over and see how they do things at their bases. I honestly wasn't sure what to expect." 

The pre-deployment training brushed up the Airmen on basic movements they learned in technical school and went in-depth on convoy movements, clearing out buildings and dismounted patrols -- all situations they would use on a daily basis while in the area of responsibility. 

"We also did the Army's combat life saver class and learned how to insert IV needles on each other; we worked with sodium chloride and learned about needle chest decompressions, which is used for releasing air from the chest cavity if you get shot," said Senior Airman Ian Ramirez, 741st MSFS member who is now stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. "I thankfully didn't have to use any of my training and I'm pretty stoked about that." 

Airman Meyer was the only person selected from Malmstrom to attend .50-caliber semi-automatic rifle training at Fort Bliss, Texas, just one week after receiving word that he was deploying. 

"I don't know why I was chosen for this training," he said. "But as soon as I got back from it in August [2006], I was on my way with the rest of the team for our training at Fort Hood in September." 

Driving the dusty roads of Baghdad
"Our squad was hit a couple of times by [improvised explosive devices]," said Senior Airman Anthony Cabanillas, 341st MSFS member who is now stationed at McChord Air Force Base, Wash. "My vehicle was never hit in the convoy. It was always the one right behind [the blast] or right in front of it. In fact, IEDs were the biggest danger to our squadron over there." 

Reacting and dealing with attacks and unexpected explosions was part of the team's initial training while stateside, and they were trained extensively on land navigation and IED searches. 

"[The Army] trains you to think that everything could be an IED," Airman Ramirez said. "In Baghdad, there was a trash pile every five feet, so the threat was very real everywhere we went." 

The day-to-day routine for these Airmen in the AOR normally started around 4 a.m., and about 12 to 14 hours later, they were back at their camp. Their mission was to train Iraqi police officers and help the Iraqis start from scratch by assisting them in standing on their own two feet. 

"We did a lot of training and in the mean time had to build rapport with these people," Airman Cabanillas said. "We did a lot of weapons and ammunition inventory and showed them how to run a police station." 

Airman Meyer, a gunner on a HUMVEE, spent 90 percent of his time in Iraq with Airman Cabanillas, who was the driver for their convoy vehicle. 

"It's nerve-wracking sitting up high on the HUMVEE because you are not protected," Airman Meyer said. "You just have to keep your eyes open and stay as low as possible; try to move around as much as you can so they can't get a shot on you. We used to hear shots all the time ring off the side of the truck. I'd think, 'I didn't know where it came from but someone was trying to shoot me.'" 

Airman Meyer said that in the end, there was nothing that could be done about it, and he just had to keep going and get used to it. Airman Ramirez, who was also primarily a gunner on a HUMVEE, also shares those sentiments. 

"I was pretty damn scared my first month," Airman Ramirez said. "But you get used to it. You hear gun shots every day and it's normal. [Terrorists] were trying to engage us daily." 

Don't forget your wingman
"I met a lot of good friends on my squad and we became a big family," Airman Cabanillas said. "You hear the term 'wingman' and you really put into perspective what it is out there ... to take care of somebody else and have them take care of you. If we noticed people were dragging, we'd pick them up. And the same went with me. If I was dragging, then someone would help me pick it up. The wingman role was used a lot." 

Taking care of each other often comes naturally for servicemembers, and Airman Meyer said each squad and flight member had some good times, and they made the best out of a bad situation. 

"Everyone who was there volunteered to be there and were motivated to go," he said. "We weren't forced to do the mission and everyone knew what they were getting themselves into. It made things a lot easier knowing that everyone who was there wanted to be there. We got really close and joked around a lot." 

There's no place like home
After 12 months of work in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it was time to head back to Great Falls and acclimate back into life at the 341st Space Wing. 

"Being away from home and civilization for 365 days is a really long time," Airman Cabanillas said. "Once we heard our relief was in-country, you could see everyone's faces light up. People started making plans for when they got home. I made a list of all the things I always wanted to do but never did, such as travel." 

Airman Ramirez proposed to his girlfriend, Jessy, just before leaving for the deployment and said he was excited to get back to her and get to know her again. 

"I called my fiancé whenever I had the chance when I was over there," he said. "But I know she's really excited for me to be back. I'm just happy I don't have to carry around 87 pounds of gear anymore!" 

Team Malmstrom has sent roughly 40 security forces Airmen downrange in support of the Global War on Terrorism, and Colonel Asher said that each volunteer had to convince their commander they knew what they were stepping up to do. Each Airman had to know they would be outside the wire and on the streets in Iraq. 

"We had no shortage of volunteers," the security forces group commander said. "In fact, I had to stop letting so many go. We have a very important mission here, too!" 

Each person who left Malmstrom to support OIF, and then returned, brought back experience, training and ideas that compliment their mission success here in AFSPC. 

"Our folks' superior performance in a combat environment is indicative of the great work they do every day right here at Malmstrom," Colonel Asher said. "They have returned with valuable combat experience, and the one thing the majority of them ask is that we get equipment that is readily available downrange for use right here in our day-to-day mission. I have heard them and am working to get the effective gear they used in combat and employ it here." 

The 40 341st SFG Airmen who volunteered or were selected to deploy downrange for a 365-day deployment to support GWOT were: 

-- Airmen 1st Class Kayne Brady, Garrett Waller, David McComb, Justin Heflin, Bobby Lamberth, David Bear, Jonathan Higgins, Charles Holloway, Christopher Seery and Christopher Stevens; 

-- Senior Airmen Darren Vedder, Andrew Porter, Justin Williams, Brian Grondziowski, Justin Richardson, Zachary Osborne, Daniel Smith, Vito Vitelli, Matthew Swaney, Ian Ramirez, John Soules, Steven Muir, Gonzalo Munoz, Anthony Cabanillas and Nicholas Meyer; 

-- Staff Sgts. Nicholas Schwickerath, Justin Duncan, Michael Rodden and Christopher Nelson; 

-- Tech. Sgts. Thomas Shaffer, Thomas Grace and Edward Satterfield; 

-- Master Sgts. William Schaal, James Bedenbender, David Nicholson and Joseph Lamb; 

-- Capts. Matthew Foisy, Joseph Parsons and Jonathan Bennett; and 

-- Lt. Col. (retired) Frank Schadalee.