First Transit Center commander reflects on decade of change

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Cindy Dorfner
  • 376th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Even in his wildest dreams, he never could have envisioned what he started 10 years ago would turn into what he sees now. But when the Transit Center's first commander, then-Brig. Gen. Chris Kelly, landed on Runway 08 at the Manas International Airport on Dec. 16, 2001, he saw potential of what this place could, and should, become.

"To say that things are very different now would be an understatement," said the now-retired lieutenant general, who visited Kyrgyzstan recently to attend a ceremony recognizing the Transit Center's 10-year existence and the enduring partnership between the U.S. and the Kyrgyz Republic.

For example, the 1,500-acres that make up the Transit Center today was once a 33-acre area with only five buildings.

In the short months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the installation was established as a hub for combat operations. Kelly's guidance was to create a wing that would eventually host five different types of aircraft: French Mirages, F-15Es and F/A-18s to support ground operations, and KC-135s and C-130s to provide aerial refueling and passenger and cargo transportation.

Upon arrival that winter day at Manas International Airport, Kelly and his team set about the task of building the support structures to enable the flying mission.

"I took a look around the airfield in order to understand the tasks my team would have to accomplish before we could begin operations," Kelly said. "With the help of many Kyrgyz partners, we were able to quickly prepare to accept aircraft and begin operations."

As the years passed, the purpose of the Transit Center has also evolved. The 376th Air Expeditionary Wing now hosts approximately 1,300 military personnel as well as nearly 900 U.S. and host-nation contractor personnel performing day-to-day operations in direct support of international efforts in Afghanistan. The wing's around-the-clock missions include aerial refueling, airlift, movement of troops to and from Afghanistan, and strengthening the partnership with the Kyrgyz Republic.

The partnership piece is something Kelly noted during his first meeting with the U.S. Embassy's Charge D'Affairs the day he arrived in country.

"Soon after our arrival, Ambassador John O'Keefe made it clear that he expected our U.S. and allied forces to play a role in supporting the local communities on a voluntary basis," he said. "I'll be the first person to tell you that that concept was not one of my primary focuses. But after some thought, I also knew that the ambassador was absolutely correct -- and I think the record of the past 10 years speaks for itself in this regard.

"From blackboards in Naryn to coats in Issyk-Kul to clinic and school renovations right here in the Bishkek area, more than 100 humanitarian projects in all, the Liberandos have delivered more than $4 million in assistance to the Kyrgyz people," Kelly said. "And it is not just brick-and-mortar help that have been delivered."

He noted that in the past year alone, Transit Center personnel have hosted or taken part in almost 80 security cooperation activities; volunteered more than 10,000 hours to community service; and partnered with the Ministries of Health, Education, Emergency Services, local mayors and school officials to identify and implement humanitarian assistance projects and community outreach programs.

During his visit, Kelly saw first-hand the results of the community support he once only envisioned. Stopping at the Razdolnoya Kindergarten, he saw the school's $295,000 renovations, including a new roof, floors, electrical and lighting systems and gymnasium, as well as an upgraded heating system.

Today, when talking with Kyrgyz citizens, many still refer to the Transit Center as Ganci Air Base -- a name his team first attached to the operations at Manas International Airport.

The general was in Manas for about three weeks when a couple of young officers approached him about naming the installation. He knew by their question that they had an unofficial name in mind: Ganci. The name was emblematic for the victims of the attacks on 9/11. Peter Ganci, the chief of the New York City Fire Department, died while attempting to rescue people during the terrorist attacks that day. Kelly thought the name was a great idea, but knew he needed the permission of Ganci's family. So, he tasked the officers with finding a connection and they did. Soon, Kelly called Ganci's brother, Dan, a colonel at Fort Hamilton Army Reserve Base in New York. Dan talked to Ganci's son, Pete Jr., who talked to his mom and she said yes. The rest, as they say, is history.

During his visit, Kelly also reflected on the enormity of the changes elsewhere on the airfield.

"The physical changes in the facilities that I have seen since my arrival are not only apparent, but somewhat hard to believe," Kelly said. "The 33-acre tent city that we erected on a snow-covered field is long gone. The area we called the 'compound' is nothing but a memory. Where once was an empty field, there is now a modern strategic parking ramp, large enough for more than a dozen cargo aircraft.

"In the next few months there will be even more dramatic improvements, including an upgraded runway and a state-of-the-art air traffic control tower and air traffic management system," he said. "These improvements will increase efficiency and safety for all air traffic in Kyrgyzstan."

While Kelly remarked about all that had changed, he found one important item remained unaffected by the passage of time.

"You don't have to be here long to know that something very, very special has endured," the general said. "A decade later, the people of the Kyrgyz Republic and the people of the United States know that along with our other coalition partners, we stand together against those who promote and participate in international terrorism. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a very noble cause."