An exercise in deployment
A1C Sean Ellenburg, of the 27th Comm Squadron, secures a pallet full of equipment before it's weighed in the cargo yard at Cannon Air force base Thursday during a training exercise (Staff photo by Eric Kluth)
CANNON AIR FORCE BASE — Col. Robert Yates wants his Cannon Air Force Base personnel in the 27th Fighter Wing to practice until they’ve reached perfection.
“We exercise eight to 10 times a year and it could be anything from an airplane impact somewhere on the airfield to a more realistic exercise like this one today,” Yates said Thursday as he described preparations being made by the base over the past week to go through the same steps they would follow during a deployment to a war zone.
Getting a squadron ready to deploy is a massive undertaking, Yates said. The multi-day exercise put Cannon airmen and officers through everything from pre-deployment briefings to medical checks to reviews of wills and power-of-attorney documents all the way through loading equipment on massive cargo planes as if 500 of the base’s personnel were on their way to battle along with about 500 tons of equipment.
That’s a realistic scenario. As an expeditionary force, the 27th Fighter Wing will soon have one of its squadrons rotate into an undisclosed location in southwest Asia.
“Before we deploy, we need to make sure they are medically ready and have all the training we need to make sure we’re ready to tackle anything we could find on the ground,” Yates said.
Getting ready for combat includes spiritual readiness as well, and Chaplain (Capt.) Ralph Elliott stood ready to assist airmen who, if the mock deployment weren’t just an exercise, would be on their way to a war zone. Elliott, who prior to his ordination went through deployments as an enlisted airman, offered Bibles and religious literature to people passing through a series of checkpoints.
“Of course this is an optional station, but if someone needs to speak to a chaplain before they deploy, we have a room prepared for them to speak with us one-on-one,” Elliott said. “It’s always a difficult situation when you leave the family, and I had a number of people pull me aside for prayer.”
As she went through the pre-deployment checklists, Staff Sgt. Carrie Orta said she wished the deployment were for real and not an exercise.
“We do all these exercises, it’s practice, practice, practice, but you never take the test,” Orta said. “When we finally get to deploy, I expect it to be an exciting experience.”
While she’s not been to an active combat zone, Orta said she enjoyed an earlier deployment to what she called the next-best thing: Osan Air Base in South Korea, just 48 miles south of the heavily defended border with North Korea. Orta said she comes from a family with a long military tradition and her grandfather fought in the Korean War, during which Osan was twice overrun by Communist forces.
“My parents could not be more proud of me,” Orta said of her eight years in the Air Force.
The whole point of training exercises is to find problems and fix them before they show up in a real deployment, and Cannon personnel found their share of difficulties. Freezing temperatures didn’t make the early-morning cargo loading go any easier, and traffic management officer Kirby Schueler said some of the hydraulic equipment used to load pallets malfunctioned in the 26-degree temperatures. When massive cargo transport planes arrived at Cannon, the seating was configured incorrectly and had to be repositioned, delaying the departure time by nearly half an hour.
But those problems were more of a challenge than a crisis, according to airmen working to load equipment.
“It’s nice to see what we’re capable of doing with this forklift,” said Airman 1st Class Joshua Gibbs.
While training exercises such as the one last week are routine at Cannon, Yates said he wants to help members of the public understand what goes on at the base during its day-to-day regular operations.
“I think it’s important for people to know what we do and that their taxes are doing something useful,” Yates said. “We take our work very, very seriously, and we train hard.”