The Baghdad bullet train

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Paul Haley
  • 446th Airlift Wing
Welcome to the bullet train. 

Those were the words of Chief Master Sgt. Gordon Swarthout to arriving members of the 447th Air Expeditionary Wing, Sather AB, Iraq, where he served for four months as the group superintendent. 

"Imagine you're standing in your neighborhood. A bullet train comes through at 120 mph, and you just reach out and grab hold. You're instantly going 120, and you do that for 120 days, then you let go and you're suddenly standing back in your neighborhood," he said. 

Chief Swarthout, who normal serves with the 86th Aerial Port at McChord, said 12 to 18 hour days were not unusual, and the only way the mission could be accomplished was by using creativity. 

"Many people don't think about what it means to be on an Air Expeditionary Force rotation. When we deploy, we have the same mission to perform as when we're home, but we don't have the same resources. It requires extraordinary effort and creativity to get the job done," he said. 

Chief Swarthout was in charge of 1,800 people total; 1,500 at Sather AB, and another 300 elsewhere in Iraq. 

One example Chief Swarthout gave of the high operations tempo was the aerial port. There were 60 people working in the aerial port at Sather AB who moved more cargo than the 600 aerial port workers at Ramstein AB, Germany, during the same period.
When Chief Swarthout arrived at Sather AB, there was no dining facility, and people were missing meals regularly. They had to make a one-hour round trip to get to an Army chow hall for meals, and it was difficult to do so. The only other option was to eat Meals Ready to Eat. 

Once Chief Swarthout found out about the situation, he went into action to change it. He scrounged food containers from the Army, so that food could be brought to the base, and he had a postal tent converted to a dining facility. It took only six days before it was fully operational. By the time the permanent dining facility was finished, the temporary facility had served more than 100,000 meals. 

Chief Swarthout said he learned two important things while he was deployed. The first was that it's brutal, hard work. 

"You will learn more about yourself than you will doing anything else. This is the hardest I've ever had to work," he said. 

The second thing he learned was an even greater appreciation for the Air Force Reserve. 

"I really saw how much the Air Force needs us (Reservists). Doing annual tour and things, I always thought we were useful. But Reservists bring innovation and creativity. On active duty, people do things that may not make sense in combat, but that's the way they're always done. Reservists ask why things are done that way, and if it doesn't make sense, they change it," Chief Swarthout said. 

The need for change was apparent with the Baghdad international airport control tower. When the chief first deployed and went into the tower, he saw four American controllers and about 30 Iraqis. The tower was trying to get International Civil Aviation Organization certification, and was having trouble. One air traffic controller was a Reservist, who also works as a controller in his civilian career. This Reservist made a list of changes needed to gain certification, which included securing the tower. During security screenings, several of the Iraqi trainees stopped coming to work. 

Though Chief Swarthout and his team tackled head-on the problems they encountered, there is still plenty of work for anyone else preparing to deploy. 

"Every team that deploys will have its own set of circumstances to overcome. It's those shared experiences that make a deployment so memorable," he said. 

Memorable - like hanging on to a bullet train going 120 mph.