Providing ‘red carpet’ service, without the carpet
SATHER AIR BASE, Iraq (AFPN) -- Capt. Edgar Lopez and Staff Sgt. Marcus Oats welcome one of many distinguished visitors who pass through the aerial port here while entering or leaving Iraq. The 447th Air Expeditionary Group protocol staff hosts DVs including senior officers, diplomats and celebrities. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Will Ackerman)
by Master Sgt. Will Ackerman
447th Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs
2/13/2006 - SATHER AIR BASE, Iraq (AFPN) -- Day and night they arrive -- four-star generals, ambassadors. congressional leaders and even Vice President Dick Cheney. Whether they stop for a formal visit or are here en route to another location, a two-person protocol team is there to greet them with a salute and a smile.
“We are the first people (distinguished visitors) see when they get off of the plane here,” said Capt. Edgar Lopez, 447th Air Expeditionary Group protocol chief. “We have to present a crisp military image, because that is often what they base their impression of their visit from.”
According to Captain Lopez, Sather Air Base is the primary hub for people entering and leaving Iraq on military aircraft. When passengers are DVs, Captain Lopez and Staff Sgt. Marcus Oats, protocol noncommissioned in charge, ensure DVs have a smooth transition once they arrive here.
Although they preplan when they get the next day’s passenger manifests, the times DV aircraft are scheduled to arrive are anything but set in stone.
“We frequently have last-minute ‘no shows,’ or they don’t arrive when they are scheduled,” Captain Lopez said. “We have to be much more flexible here than if we were working in protocol at home.”
For example, the Iraq minister of the interior was scheduled to arrive. However, unbeknownst to the protocol team, who were standing by, the minister stopped for the night in Egypt. But they were there to greet him when he did arrive the next day.
“Part of our job is to foster and maintain international relations,” Captain Lopez said. “That can come from simply smiling when we greet them.”
Because arrival times tend to be fluid due to flight delays or maintenance problems, protocol works closely with the base command post, which tracks all DV flights scheduled to land here.
“Sometimes we will get a call in the command post that the helos are five minutes out or the C-130s are 30 minutes out. Or a C-12 will land with a ‘code’ (a DV) on board that we didn’t know about,” said Senior Airman Carrie Corder, a command post controller.
“Because we only track C-130s, C-5s, C-17s, (etc.), protocol often gets information on the C-12 DVs that we don’t,” Airman Corder said. Then the command post can pass on the number of DVs to the pilots who will take them on the next leg of their trip.
“We wouldn’t be able to get DVs on connecting planes or helos without the protocol team,” she said.
Frequently there are delays between when DVs arrive and when their next mode of transportation is ready. When this occurs, the protocol team tries to make the DVs’ time here relaxing. That can entail providing “red carpet” treatment but without the red carpet.
Unlike a permanent Air Force base, there is no luggage detail here and frequently no transportation to the DV lounge. Consequently, the protocol team helps carry the DV’s luggage across the flightline to the lounge in the headquarters building, while trying to ensure their guests walk there safely.
“We don’t have to (transport the baggage), but we want to,” Sergeant Oats said. “Our goal is to ensure they have a smooth transition.”
When multiple groups of DVs are here at the same time, it presents logistical challenges. Not only does protocol have to orchestrate getting each set of DVs back to the headquarters safely, or to their next mode of transportation, they usually will not put two sets of guests together in the same place.
“Whoever gets here first we put in the DV lounge. The others we will put in the DV tent,” Sergeant Oats said. “We keep them separate to avoid chaos.”
Protocol’s calm, cool professional demeanor, even under the most arduous conditions, ensures visitors who transit through can relax, even if only for a few minutes.
“Every time I come through here, I am impressed with their dedication,” said Army Maj. Gen. John M. Urias, the former commander of the Joint Contracting Command for Iraq and Afghanistan. The general was returning home recently after a 13-month tour in the International Zone in Baghdad.
“I’ve been through here 50 or so times. Every time (protocol) provided very responsive and professional service,” the general said.
Protocol also performs traditional functions, which include arranging the occasional office visit with the group commander or meetings in the group conference room. This includes preparing refreshments and setting up the room.
No matter what the task or the challenge, “composure is the key to our job,” Sergeant Oats said. “If we are rattled, then everybody else will be rattled. We are supposed to be handling everything.”
So whether it’s a celebrity, congressional leader or senior military officer, Captain Lopez said protocol’s mandate is the same.
“Our goal is first-class treatment, whoever it is. We treat all our guests the same as DVs,” the captain said.
The 447th is the primary military aerial port for transient military aircraft entering and exiting Iraq. The group was established in April 2003 after elements of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Division captured the airport April 4, 2003. The base is named in honor of Air Force Staff Sgt. Scott Sather, a Clio, Mich., native, who was killed in combat in Iraq April 8, 2003.