Defenders on the Line

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Shawn McCowan
  • 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
The population of Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, represents a melting pot of the ongoing international effort to support stability in Afghanistan.

Service members from America's four major military branches, military members from several NATO member nations, civilians and Afghans, all work together toward the common goal of ensuring the nation remains free and secure.

The thousands of men and women from around the world who call BAF their temporary home depend on an effective security force to keep them safe. It might be easy to imagine such a major responsibility belonging to an elite special operations unit. In actuality, Bagram's safety rests in the capable arms of U.S. Air Force security forces teams deployed from active-duty, Reserve and Air National Guard units from all over the world.

While the mission may be challenging and complex, both leadership and security forces individuals agree that the current team is ready for the trials their job may bring.

Lt.Col. Thomas Sherman, 455th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron commander and Bagram Defense Force commander, said the plan for this blended band of "Defenders" has been in the works for years, but is being expertly executed today.

"This operation is a great actualization of the ideals that began with Operation Safeside in Vietnam in the 1960s," said Sherman. "Enemy forces can not touch us in the air. We have an incredible amount of air superiority. Our adversaries realized they need to get those birds while they were in the nest. Having Air Force defenders responsible for that is the best way we can accomplish that mission.
"We have Air Force defenders working in an integrated base concept both from the source to the perimeter and throughout the Bagram security zone. Air Force defenders ensure Bagram Airfield is protected," He credits their effectiveness to the professionalism of the diverse team of defenders who work for him, from personnel management to the newest patrol member.

"We have got an incredible mix of everything from America's sons and daughters, coalition and allied forces and even contractors. We have new Airmen and experienced personnel, combat veterans to first-timers, and the great integration of the (Air National) Guard, Reserve, and active duty components. The way we structured this is absolutely seamless. As our defenders arrive on the ground, we're compartmentalizing them into mission sets."

Looking back at his years leading security forces both deployed and stateside, Sherman believes his current team at Bagram is the best he's known.

"I've had the pleasure in my career to work with the (Air National) Guard, Reserve, and active duty through a variety of mission sets. I have to admit, this has probably been integration I've seen in 17 years of doing this job."

Integration as seamless as this may reflect great planning and great management, but Sherman says it starts with positive and dedicated individuals, all willing to step into harm's way in one of the most dangerous places on earth.

Airman 1st Class Kory Caldwell, who lives in Dayton, Ohio and is deployed from the Ohio Air National Guard's 179th Airlift Wing, spends his days standing guard at one of Bagram's many entry control points. He did not hesitate to echo the positive attitude Sherman refers to.

"I love this (job)," said Caldwell. "Since I first joined, I always wanted to deploy. This has definitely been an experience of a lifetime. As a little kid, I saw camo and guns and I just thought it was cool. Then as I get older, I knew I wanted to do something for my country. Now I can see it means more than that. If we weren't here people back home couldn't do what they do. My favorite part of the job is camaraderie and meeting new people from different places."

He was also quick to point out that individuals from varied backgrounds at units all over the U.S. truly work together seamlessly.

"I feel very integrated here." said Caldwell You sometimes hear stories about active duty, guard and reserve ... but it actually works very well here. Everyone meshes together very well, side by side, and it works for everyone."

Another (overwatch) responsibility performed by the blended base security team is that of the advanced designated marksman. Staff Sgt. James Neace, from Moody Air Force Base, is one of those (ADM) Airmen, who specializes in keeping a watchful eye on potential threats from afar. He takes his duty to protect those he cares about seriously.

"I grew up with playing with guns, hunting; things like that," said Neace."This is one of those career fields that allowed me to keep doing the things I love to do. Now we come here and represent our country, while both keeping this (threat) away from home and helping your brothers and sisters. It's like a family out here."
Some of the local populace works on Bagram during the day, which is why Senior Airman Ryan Rucker, a Reservist deployed from the 514th Security Forces Squadron at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, monitors one of Bagram's special security measures; an array of X-Ray scanners used to protect Bagram. Rucker and his active duty co-workers make sure any type of contraband, weapons, or any unauthorized items are discovered before workers enter the base.

Not only does the Teaneck, N.J. native, work with active duty regularly, but his team also coordinates with an Afghan counterpart if anything looks suspicious. Rucker said he appreciates the opportunity to work side-by-side with Afghans and active duty Airmen.

"We get all different types of backgrounds out here," said Rucker. "I like knowing that active duty and reservists can work together. We all get along with no issues. Back home I do my job one weekend out of the month, but I have to know my job as proficiently as he does. Once we get into this environment, we all have the same training, and do the same jobs."

Some of the Defenders' responsibilities reach "outside the wire." (Mike) teams regularly patrol the local area around Bagram. Many of their missions appear to be closer to community relations than the perceived traditional base defense. But these missions protect the Bagram family in a different way; by building positive relations with Afghans who live near the base.

A security mission like (Mike) teams was a perfect fit for Senior Airman Arsenio De la Cruz. The Corona, Cal., native says he wanted to experience new things on a different side of the world away from what he called (secluded to the world) he knew back home.

"Being deployed in Afghanistan, I've got to witness a different side of life," said De la Cruz. "Outside here, they didn't get to grow up with what I grew up with ... it's a real eye-opener. I didn't really expect to see that coming here."

De la Cruz said he's happy to bring his individual strengths and personality to the team.

"It's like playing a sport," he said. "You're coming together, meeting new people and finding your weaknesses and strengths. You pull together and work it all out. I've never thought that I'm in a different unit, so I'm better than anyone. We're all the same here, all in the same mission, and we all work it out just fine with each other."

De la Cruz said he'll take home his deployment experiences and grow from them.

"I learned not (to) take things for granted," he said. "This makes you feel proud to be serving your country and making a change in everyone's life, even if it's just giving a kid some food or candy. It's all about being grateful for what you have."

Once the sun sets over Afghanistan, base protection continues along the fence line. Alabama native Airman 1st Class Kirsten Hamilton is a member of a perimeter response team. Deployed from Altus AFB, she and her co-workers ensure outside threats remain clear of the base fence line. A common event that can cause anxiety for Hamilton and her team is when unfamiliar vehicles approach Bagram's entry gates, but she says she understands the importance of her job, and that makes it worth the tension.

"This can be stressful, but I like it because I know everyone is able to sleep because of what I do. It feels like I'm actually doing something with my life," said Hamilton.

One of Hamilton's co-workers is Staff Sgt. Elijah Langhorne, a perimeter response team leader from Leesville, La. Although his job is centered on protecting people on base, he finds his dealings with those outside Bagram even more satisfying.

"I think interaction with the locals, both positive and negative, is the most rewarding thing about this job," said Langhorne. "We see locals asking for our help, dealing with mines, insurgents ... things like that. It's nice to see the positives happen, because it lets us know we're making a difference. Seeing locals respecting us for us coming here, recognizing that we're trying to help. We're not trying to be a disruptive force here, even though we're completely alien to their lifestyle and what they have around them."

But Langhorne says his greatest personal reward comes from an overall understanding of what his diverse blend of "Defenders" contribute to the big picture in their own lives, and the lives of those in Afghanistan and back home.

"I feel justified in what I do every single day," he said. "Not just because of what's outside the fence, but because of who we're protecting inside the fence. Seeing the effect on the local population, it's nice to know I'm not just protecting Americans. We're also making a difference for the people around us.

"I try to live up the standards my dad set. Being a man, living with integrity. Trying to take pride in doing a good job even if no one notices. Every single day we have a good day, when nothing happens, and everyone I'm responsible for goes home safely, I get that gratification."

Langhorne admits that not every day is a good day in his job, but he knows how to keep it all in perspective.

"The low parts help you appreciate the high parts. And there are a lot of both. But either way, right now I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing."

His thoughts seemed to echo those of the rest of his squadron; something one might expect when a team comes together as successfully as the Defenders have.