‘Folks Over Here Struggle To Survive’

With recent airstrikes on terrorist targets in Somalia and the retreat of Islamic extremists from Mogadishu, northeastern Africa is a hotbed of activity. In the neighboring country of Djibouti, U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. William Welch is group superintendent of the 449th Air Expeditionary Group in Camp Lemonier.

Welch is preparing to return to his home and family at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington, where he is group superintendent for the Air Force Survival School. Beyond the Air Force role in Djibouti, he’s proud of the personal efforts the airmen have made to the humanitarian mission.

Stationed for the first time in 28 years of service “anywhere that didn’t have a winter,” Welch has had to adjust to the African climate. He spoke recently with Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan about this deployment.

Tell us about your assignment. We’re primarily responsible for refueling helicopters in the Horn of Africa, as well as para-rescue men that perform personnel recovery roles there. We also have administrative control for almost 200 folks.

What’s the mission for the Horn of Africa? It’s to counter ideological support for terrorism. Through the good work that we do, we prevent conflict and promote regional stability and support coalition interests to defeat extremism.

I’m totally sold on the mission. Of course I don’t have to be; I could salute smartly and press on. But I believe we’re doing the right thing, wholeheartedly.

What type of personnel recovery have you dealt with? Our para-rescue men are ready to perform personnel recovery missions for Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa personnel. During my period they have assisted the stabilization and transfer of personnel who have suffered injuries or illnesses at some of our operating locations away from Camp Lemonier. One was a heart attack patient; a couple were deep cuts.

You’ve been a SERE specialist since 1978. What’s a SERE? It was called a survival instructor. What SERE stands for is Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. We’ll have a SERE specialist in a deployed location as the subject matter expert and help with decision making for recovery. I’m not deployed in that role. I’m purely deployed as a group chief, and it’s more a management and leadership position.

I couldn’t be more impressed and proud of the airmen, especially these maintainers. If there’s a broken airplane out there, they’re on it. They live for hydraulic fluid and a hot day. [He chuckles.] Those maintenance guys are truly the backbone of airpower in the HOA.

Describe the climate in that part of Africa. Now it’s pretty pleasant. It’s been mid-80s the last several weeks with lower humidity. In early September, 110 degrees with high humidity was not uncommon.

Supervisors go on the flight line making sure their folks look OK and rotate them. In September the black asphalt gets pretty hot and the temperature off the flight line is right around 150 degrees. So we rotate them and keep them hydrated. The dining facilities serve drinks that provide electrolytes.

Tell us about the 449th Air Expeditionary Group. From the 449th, we manage the C-130 Hercules aircraft cargo load. We work to identify what personnel and equipment needs to get moved when and where. The CJTF-HOA is involved in a number of humanitarian type missions, like medical and veterinary capability, building wells and schools. And it takes manpower and equipment to do it. Air power provides the airlift to do those missions.

We were also involved in planning the execution of flood relief in the latter part of November. And we did air drops in Kenya in early December.

The people live in improvised shelters, have subsistence living and are a little nomadic, so floods wreak havoc on those types of homes and that lifestyle. Providing them food and water immediately and something to make shelter were essential.

What’s a typical mission? For areas being resupplied, they’ll be brought in food, water, mail through the C-130 aircraft. We’re also providing the personnel movement. A majority of work is airfield to airfield and is coordinated through embassies.

The Air Force is in the supporting role for the humanitarian mission, but our airmen have opportunities to be in that mission through outreach programs in Djibouti. The chapel has orphanage visits, and a lot of folks participate in that. There are English discussion groups that help people in Djibouti learn English and American values.

Another program we’re very proud of was started by the junior enlisted airmen. They organized a pie-in-the-face contest and raised $14,000 to help a dilapidated orphanage that was just a step above homelessness.

What’s your take-away from this deployment? There are two things. Personally, it is how fortunate we are in America. Folks over here struggle to survive and have so little. When I visit the boys’ orphanage, they’re still boys, whether they’re barefoot or in sandals. You see families living in grass huts, very subsistence living; they still care for their children and possessions, their animals. I have a greater appreciation for our country and all the blessings we have. I feel compelled to give more.

On a professional note, I’ve seen a lot of bright young men and women. It’s an all-volunteer service; they’re motivated, skilled; everybody brings a different skill set to work. I’ve met a lot from Florida from the reserves and guard who are schoolteachers and policemen – all different kinds of civilian trades. But you would never know they were in the guard or reserve because of their job, their fitness level and professionalism.

What’s the reaction of the Djiboutians? Very positive. We have about 600 Djiboutians that work on the camp. They’ve been doing a fantastic service. If you were to go downtown, it’s not a place where you would feel threatened. There are a lot of people trying to sell and show you things. I would say they’re pleasantly assertive folks here.

What will you tell family when you get back? I sent pictures of an orphanage to my family and my unit [in Washington]. The 336th Training Group did a drive for the orphanage. My mom in Chicago made contact with a Girl Scout who organized an event, and between them all they raised 35 boxes, over a thousand pounds of needed supplies for the orphanage here.

They have a pretty good feel of what the mission is. They feel it in their heart, and that promotes the goodness of America.

The Tribune arranges these interviews with service members through U.S. Central Command. MyLinh Shattan can be reached at mylinh@mylinhshattan.com.

Jan 14, 2007

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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