Meet the Airmen of Wake Island

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Alexander W. Riedel
  • 36th Wing Public Affairs
About 1,500 miles east of Guam, in the middle of nowhere in the Mid-Pacific, lies the small coral limestone atoll of Wake Island.

Ahead of Guam by about two hours, a select group of four Airmen here are the first Americans to turn the calendar page every day.

The team comprises a fuels, infrastructure, acquisitions and contracting specialist. Working with civilian contractors, they ensure the airfield is run properly and all organizations using the island have mission-essential resources.

The Wake Island mission

Seemingly lost at sea, this tiny island paradise may just be one of the Air Force's best kept assignment secrets. The calm on the airfield, however, may be misleading. From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, numerous organizations use the island as research ground or waypoint at certain times of the year.

"We are essentially an air bridge for the Pacific," said Master Sgt. Yusef Saad, the lead contracting officer representative with Detachment 1, Pacific Air Forces Regional Support Center. "We have numerous transports that travel through Wake Island and we serve as a hub location for in-flight emergencies, when aircraft need to divert. We are strategically positioned nearly perfectly in the middle of the Pacific. It's a perfect location for this mission."

But their job description is only the core of what the Airmen are tasked to handle. The far flung location, hours away from any support agencies, requires the island teams to be largely self-sufficient.

"Every day is a challenge and brings something new that you were either ready for or not," Saad said. "It is challenging at times because I don't think a lot of people know we are here. Sometimes we have military flights coming in and the aircrew meets us as we process their arrival, and they'll be surprised and ask us whether we actually live here."

The demanding mission and self-reliance is part of the mission for the select few who are chosen for duty on Wake Island.

"Our mission is unique in the Air Force," said Tech. Sgt. Joshua Reitz, a Det. 1 civil engineer contracting officer representative. "Yes, we work our normal days in the office, but we also stand ready 24/7. If there is an issue that arises on the island, we're the ones to get the call and we have to take care of it.

"Even if we have no experience with it, we automatically have to get experienced and take care of it, because nobody is going to do it for us," Reitz continued. "I have to have at least a working knowledge of all aspects of mine and other career fields. Every day brings something different and I enjoy that challenge."

For the commander of the team, Maj. Ronald Dion, an acquisitions officer by trade, taking care of the mission is only part of the work on Wake Island.

"I fill a logistics officer position, but it is so much more than that," Dion said. "In a way (the Air Force team) is the security on island, we're peace officers and we even occasionally host distinguished visitors among other duties. There is a lot that we do that goes beyond our normal career fields."

Even far beyond the horizon of the next base, the military routine for the Airmen continues even to the far reaches of the ocean, to include meetings, physical fitness and promotion testing.

There are regular inspections, teleconferences with their home station at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, and other entities that have a footprint on the island. The team also works from Tuesday to Saturday, matching the West Coast's regular work week.

"We get up in the morning, work out, then put on the uniform and get to work," Saad said. "At the office, plenty of emails are usually waiting for us to respond because our morning here is already the evening for the West Coast."

Personal challenges

To some, an assignment to quiet Wake Island may seem like a lottery win. A pristine, turquoise lagoon stretches along the flightline and opens to the hushed reef break in the distance. Beside the military footprint, the island is nearly unchanged from decades ago. There is no traffic, no pollution and no line at the grocery store.

Only, there is no grocery store at all -- only a small company store that opens a few times a week, carrying assorted snacks, drinks and toiletries. There’s also a souvenir shop that occasionally opens when aircrews leave the airfield, allowing buyers to prove their visit to this unlikely duty station.

To spend their off-duty time, the Airmen fish, scuba dive and comb the beach for historic items, marine life and the occasional swept up curiosities. When necessary they also have to use some of their time to battle the nearly unrestrained rat population on the 2.9 square mile island. According to a recent survey, 2.5 million rats are currently roaming the atoll as a result of the eradication of a feral cat population in 2006.

"It's pretty remote around here," Dion said. "There isn't much entertainment, no base exchange, commissary or other services. It can be a challenge."

Mail only arrives about twice a month per rotator flights, and for their personal use, island workers rely on a slow dial-up internet connection reminiscent of the early days of the internet.

Internet phone calls are thus nearly impossible and even emails are slow to send.

With a wife and three daughters back home, Reitz said this makes it sometimes difficult to man an island thousands of miles away from home -- but family support keeps morale up and the Airman motivated.

"I've been on a number of temporary duty assignments and deployments during my career, so my wife is pretty much a pro at this," he said. "When I'm gone she picks up the work and totally takes care of everything. And when the assignment is over, we'll get back to real life."

The days without aircraft visits or projects to coordinate can be slow, however, turning some days into a personal challenge of a different kind.

"Wake Island defined to a point ... it's groundhog day," said Saad, who is closing in on the end of his yearlong tour. "People see the pictures and wished they were here. And in the first few days after arriving here you're excited. But you're very isolated from the world. You don't know some of the things you take for granted until you're away for a while."

On the shores of history

While Wake Island now is a quiet ocean paradise with languidly rolling waves touching its shores, during World War II, it was fiercely fought over as a strategic waypoint for airpower in the Pacific. To this day, unexploded ordnances are found along the atoll's shores.

In 1943, during the height of the conflict, 98 American civilian workers who had been held prisoner on Wake Island were killed in captivity. Today, an almost unchanged number of American and Thai civilian contractors again work to maintain and operate the island's airfield.

"We're a part of history," Saad said. "This island and base have a lot of history. Knowing we are part of that history is special. We're assigned to Wake Island and not a lot of people can say that."

For major holidays Airmen and contractors gather at "Drifter's Reef," the only bar and the only gastronomy establishment in addition to the dining facility. People bring food to the bar and share in highly anticipated bingo nights.

Sharing life with those braving the isolation of Wake Island, Saad said, will be one of his favorite memories of this special assignment.

"We're family," Saad said. "Even though everybody kind of has their group, we stick together. This is our home."

Until their tour is over, the Airmen wake up on Wake Island, ready to bridge the empty vastness that is the Pacific Ocean during emergencies and contingencies. When the time comes, they are the closest refueling and repair station in more than a thousand miles in each direction.

"It's a once in a lifetime experience, because travel to the island is extremely restricted," Reitz said. "Only few have even heard of Wake and there is only a select few who really know what it's like to be here. It's an awesome feeling to experience that."