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Guardians of hope: Reservists guard Manas, rebuild lives

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Leo Brown
  • 442nd Fighter Wing public affairs
Thirteen Airmen from the 442nd Security Forces Squadron deployed to Manas Air Base, Kyrgyzstan in March to provide security for military members going to and returning from Afghanistan.

When the Airmen came home to Whiteman AFB, Mo, in September, they returned having accomplished their mission, and brought back a host of unusual and humbling experiences.

While these Airmen worked with active-duty, Guard and Reserve members to cover duties at the base's visitor's center and the flight line, and patrolled areas outside the base, they also spread good will, visiting with local people to experience their culture and help with various projects.

Staff Sgt. Bryan Byler, a 442nd SFS fire-team member and a Greene County, Mo., deputy sheriff, said, "you see and appreciate the stuff we have here. I encourage anyone to (deploy). It was a good experience for me. I'd go again. You see a different culture and it's always appreciated when (the locals) thank you and pat you on the back."

Master Sgt. Louis Vallejo, a 442nd SFS squad leader and a Kansas City, Kansas, police sergeant, agreed.

"I encourage everyone to deploy at least once," he said. "You see two totally different cultures and see how another culture lives."

The Airmen said the local area around the base, including the village of Oktobersky, with a population of approximately 500, was, in Sergeant Vallejo's words, "very economically depressed. Their economic structure was very poor, but they know how to survive."

The Airmen said that some of the images standing out in their mind are outhouses, horse-drawn carts, Soviet-era vehicles from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as goats and sheep being herded.

"There was almost no indoor plumbing," Sergeant Byler said. A toilet, most of the time, was simply "a hole in the ground."

"Culturally, the people were nomads," said Senior Airman Gabriel Martin, a 442nd fire-team member and a senior at the University of Central Missouri (UCM) majoring in criminal justice.

So it was not unusual, he said, to see many people living in tents.

The Airmen also said the food, in general, was very appetizing, although there were some surprises. Sergeant Byler said he ordered steak off a menu at one establishment only to find that the meat, in his words, "just looked different."

After trying it, Byler said he thinks he was dining on horse. He said he asked his interpreter about that possibility and the interpreter responded, "It's quite possible."
Regardless of cultural and historical differences, the Airmen said the locals welcomed them with open arms.

"They appreciated us and were very good to us," Sergeant Vallejo said. "We did a lot of community service," he said, which included building a playground at an orphanage, refurbishing a gymnasium and raising money for various appliances.

The Airmen were able to help the local community by joining the Manas Air Base Outreach Society, which is staffed by military members deployed at the base.

The Airmen said their work at the base was, fortunately, uneventful, but interesting.
In addition to seeing U.S. military members passing through Manas, the Airmen saw French, Spanish, South Korean and Afghan troops, along with members of the United States Marshals Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Secret Service.
When they arrived at Manas, approximately 80 percent of the security forces were made up of Guardsmen and Reservists, the Airmen said.

However, six months later, approximately 80 percent of the security forces were active-duty Airmen. Regardless, the 442nd Airmen said everyone worked well together.
"We meshed well," Sergeant Byler said.

No matter how smooth their work went, the Airmen said being away from loved ones and boredom was difficult to face.

"Just keep your spirits up and don't let certain things get you down," Sergeant Byler said. "You're stuck on the base, you see the same movies, you can only play so many games of pool. Don't let it bring your spirits down."

The Airmen said the wonders of modern communication helped relieve some of the stress and boredom. They were able to speak with family members about twice a week by phone, had e-mail availability daily and standard mail took roughly 10 days.

The Airmen said they were very proud of their family members for how they handled the deployment.

"It was hard for my wife," Sergeant Byler said. "It was hard for me, but harder for her. I'm real proud of her. She got a lot of support from her mom and dad."

Loved ones supporting each other was crucial, according to the Airmen.

Airman Martin's fiancé, "took (the deployment) well. You have to make sure families stay close together. Christina and my parents helped each other a lot."

Despite any difficulties, the three Airmen agreed that they would deploy again.
"It was one of the best experiences I've had," Sergeant Vallejo said.