FORWARD OPERATING LOCATION CURACAO, Netherlands Antilles (AFPN) --
After three days of travel to U.S. Southern Command bases, the Airmen he has met have impressed Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Rodney J. McKinley.
The chief said Airmen serving at forward-operating locations in the region "are doing wonderful things for our Air Force."
The chief said they do an important job with little fanfare. Airmen in the region have as tough and vital a mission -- counterdrug operations -- as those Airmen fighting the war on terrorism. The mission of stopping the flow of drugs into the country is a task shared by Airmen, other U.S. military and interagency partners.
The mission is absolutely critical to the nation, Chief McKinley said.
"I would guess that, probably, we have stopped over a billion dollars' worth of drugs from entering our country's borders," he said.
The chief stopped at this small base, located on a tropical isle off the coast of Venezuela, after one-day stops at both Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, and FOL Manta, Ecuador. He received an in depth briefing -- like at his two previous stops -- about how Airmen are helping fight the war on drugs. And he delivered thousands of cookies to Airmen at the base as part of 12th Air Force's holiday Cookie Caper.
Chief McKinley learned that from this base, E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system aircraft -- or similar planes from U.S. military and interagency partners -- fly daily intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions to deter drug shipments. A couple of KC-135 Stratotankers, currently deployed from the Wisconsin Air National Guard, keep them refueled.
But even though there is a big war on drugs going on in the region, most Americans, and many Airmen, still do not know much about the war. The main focus is on events in Afghanistan and Iraq, said the chief from Mount Orab, Ohio.
Also on the trip is Chief Master Sgt. Wade Johnson, the 12th Air Force command chief at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. He knows many people do not know abut the counterdrug struggle going on in Central and South America and the Caribbean. That is one reason he invited Chief McKinley on the tour. Chief Johnson wanted the Air Force's top enlisted leader to learn more about Southern Command operations.
"I asked (Chief McKinley) to take our message back to the Pentagon. To take it to the major commands and spread it through his senior enlisted peers -- to try to get the word across so they understand what we're doing," said Chief Johnson, a native of Patterson, Ga.
Chief Johnson said there's a direct correlation between drugs and terrorism. So the counterdrug and counterterrorism missions Airmen do in the region -- flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions -- are vital.
"We're fighting a war in Afghanistan and Iraq -- the war on terrorism. But it also exists right here in our back yard," Chief Johnson said. "And our Airmen are doing an outstanding job (fighting it)."
Few Airmen in the fight are there for long. Tours of duty at the bases can vary. Airmen can serve one-year remote tours or 180-day and 120-day Air Expeditionary Force rotations at the remote Southern Command bases. The variety of assignments can benefit some Airmen.
"This is a great opportunity for Airmen to come here and do a great job," Chief McKinley said.
But Airmen are doing more than that, said Col. Mark Mouw, who commands the 474th Operations Group, which supports all the forward bases. The group, out of Davis-Monthan AFB, provides the care, feeding, housing, force protection and like services to the aircrews that fly the interdiction missions. Airmen are establishing closer ties with local people, he said.
The colonel from Tucson, Ariz., said each of the bases has a "robust community relations program that is difficult to put a value on." Airmen help needy families by improving their homes and lives. He said the community interaction helps local people appreciate the mission the Airmen are doing.
"A lot of what we do is go out (in local community) and be good citizens," he said.
Learning about the mission Airmen carry out at the forward bases and the work they are doing in local communities "has been very educational," Chief McKinley said. Comment on this story (include name, location, and rank if applicable)