‘First in, Last out’ : Tinker, Robins combat comm groups served throughout operations in Iraq

  • Published
  • By Randy Roughton
  • Airman Magazine
Fifth Combat Communications Group members at Sather Air Base, Iraq, in 2003 were somewhat amused as they watched news reports in Arabic and English speak of the air war beginning Operation Iraqi Freedom. The Robins Air Force Base, Ga., based combat communications unit was in the fight before most of the world knew there was a war.

"It didn't just start," said Master Sgt. Tobias Chipman, now noncommissioned officer in charge of the 689th Combat Communications Wing combat readiness section at Robins. "We'd been there for months when the air war kicked off. We knew our brothers and sisters from around the combat communications world were setting up at other bases. Everything was going on simultaneously. It was an exciting time."

The 5th CCG, which still calls itself the 5th MOB, dating back to its Mobile Communications Group days, was in the area of responsibility before OIF began March 19, 2003, and remained in the war practically to the last plane home in December 2011.

They literally lived by the combat communications motto, "First in, last out," as they continued to maintain and defend the cyber systems that linked the communications network at several bases in southwest Asia.

The last 30 members returned to Robins between Dec. 14 and 16 from Sather, including two technicians who remained behind to operate a communications fly-away kit until the last flight out, said Capt. David Cox, 53rd Combat Communications Squadron site engineer.

The names of Airmen and combat communications units on the T-walls at deployed locations throughout southwest Asia, as well as photos on the 689th CCW walls, reflect the footprints the 5th CCG left throughout their involvement in the war in Iraq, Captain Cox said.

"It's like walking the halls of history," Captain Cox said of the photos of wing combat communications members at Sather on the wing headquarters' hallway walls. "There were 12 rotations of leadership and people through there. You see the T-walls there, and one of the things you do is paint and put your names and the names of your units there, so you can see everybody who's gone before us. That part is kind of cool to have that closure and see we started it here and left it here."

The 689th CCW, nicknamed "The Beast," is one of the 24th Air Force's three operational cyber wings and includes the 5th CCG at Robins and the 3rd CCG at Tinker Air Force Base. There's a healthy rivalry between the two groups, but when deployed, the rivalry often takes a back seat to the overall combat communications mission. The wing's 1,500 Airmen provide tactical communications, computer systems, navigational aids and air traffic control services to support combat operations and humanitarian relief operations. About 1,500 wing members served in Iraq during the past eight years, said Col. Joseph H. Scherrer, wing commander.

"In 2003, with Iraqi Freedom, the 3rd CCG and 5th CCG went in and established four air expeditionary wings and four main operating bases in Iraq," Colonel Scherrer said. "Once that was completed, over a period of time, you reinforce your defenses and build up your base. There were a number of forward operating bases throughout the country, so our folks were all over Iraq. It was a pretty significant effort from our standpoint."

Chief Master Sgt. Shawn Ashley, the 5th CCG superintendent, deployed with other 51st Combat Communications Squadron members in January 2003 to set up an airfield and provide initial communications. Sergeant Ashley deployed as operations flight superintendent and was responsible for the Airmen who set up the network, as well as the deployed first sergeant. The initial group also had to set up a tent city, and because there was already equipment on the site, but not the personnel to operate them, Sergeant Ashley and the rest of the group also had to learn how to operate a dump truck and grader.

"We sent out a team of four folks to do a site survey of the location we were going to be deployed to," Sergeant Ashley said. "It was a bare base site, and there weren't any additional communications set up, so we rolled in without any advance notice as far as what the situation was going to be when we arrived and any types of threats there would be. About a week later, we started rolling out chalks of personnel and equipment, and we met the team that did the site survey for us and started making preparation for the site buildup. Approximately two months later, we had a well-sustained air base we'd established from a disparate group of individuals."

In 2003, Sergeant Chipman deployed from Robins as NCOIC of satellite communications. He knew something important was about to happen, not only from news reports, but from what he saw happening at the group.

"When I got the chance to come to Robins to be part of combat communications, I wanted to be on one of the first deployments out the door to Iraq," Sergeant Chipman said. "As soon as I got here, everybody was getting ready, pushing forward and building pallets. We weren't sure what we were getting ready for, but we knew it was something big."

The team helped set up a base in Bashir, which provided search and rescue operations in the area. Master Sgt. Brad Thrift, logistics support NCOIC, was part of a five-man response team staged in Saudi Arabia in January 2003 for almost six months. He recalls Hadi al Bashir not being a particular dangerous place at the time because northern Iraq had already been secured by Army paratroopers, but he was on edge during a nine-hour convoy to Kirkuk.

"We provided site security for the middle of the convoy, just our five-man team and a couple of Army guys," Sergeant Thrift said. "There were a lot more people in Irbil blocking the convoy, with taxis or cars jetting in front of us, and you never knew what their agenda was. There were a few scares, and I think it woke everybody up.

"But I loved what we did over there. It was the first time I'd been in the MOB since 1995, and that was the first time I'd been able to go out and do something initial like that. It was pretty cool to see all the units come together as a team and get things running. At first, everyone was scared out of our minds, but once we got over there and began experiencing things and got into that mindset, you could see people were just proud to be there doing what we were doing."

Steven Feeley, the wing's director of training, deployed in March 2003 with a combination of group members that staged at an air base in Southwest Asia before they moved into Kirkuk. The group that called themselves "The Bad News Bears" found primitive living conditions as they set up a temporary home in a recently evacuated Iraqi air force control tower. Scattered throughout the area, they found hand grenades, ammunition, mines, AK-47s and even aircraft and vehicles that had been destroyed during Operation Desert Storm.

"It was kind of crazy the first couple of days," Mr. Feeley said. "But we got on the ground, cleared out what at that time was their old vehicle maintenance bay and made it our network control center. We brought up communications so the rest of the aircraft and follow-on forces could come in.

"It was like mission accomplished for me, because when I was active duty with the 5th, I'd gone to every location surrounding Iraq in support. I was in Desert Shield and Desert Storm with the 51st CBCS, in Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt, and even went back to Prince Sultan in the '90s in support of those operations. So the most rewarding part to me was when we went in OIF, we were finally going in to finish what I was a part of in the early '90s."

Living conditions improved for combat communications members who deployed through the next eight years, and the job shifted more to maintaining the systems and cybersecurity for people like Staff Sgt. Anthony Young, a network management specialist who deployed in 2008.

"Communications are different everywhere, so I really didn't know what the job was going to be like," Sergeant Young said. "I knew it was going to be more of a sustainment role, since by '08, everything had been set up for the most part.

"We kind of rotated out of squadrons from here to Sather, so a lot of times we could talk to guys coming back to see what was going on at the time."

Staff Sgt. Dominque Nelson married a fellow MOB member three months before she deployed to Sather in 2007. The radio frequencies journeyman left Robins nervous about the separation and dangers and living conditions in Iraq, but came home five months later recharged and "re-blued."

"You couldn't say (anything) about my country when I got back," she said. "Some of my friends are anti-military and make it a point to say the Air Force this, and Air Force that. I came back and said, 'So what do you have to say about my Air Force?' We're doing what we're supposed to be doing over there. I should've gone into recruiting afterward, because I was talking to everybody. It made me really proud of the job we did, the people I was with and the service I was in."

When Captain Cox, Senior Airman Andrew Wilshire and Airman 1st Class Christopher Howard returned to Robins on the last couple of planes from Sather in mid-December, group members met them as they stepped off their bus. Their deployments were considerably shorter and the living conditions much easier, than what their fellow MOB members faced earlier in the war, but they still faced their share of challenges in their few months in Iraq.

"We had so many first-time deployers, and they don't know the difference between a short tour and a long one," said Master Sgt. Turvon Casey, a power production NCOIC who was the deployed first sergeant at Sather. "Even though it was short, people were ready to go home halfway through it because your mission by then is pretty much sustaining. You're basically coming to work to maintain what you already set up."

Not everyone was itching to come home early. Many Airmen wanted to hang around to be on the last flight out of Iraq. Some had to stay for a ceremony on Dec. 15 that was attended by Vice President Joe Biden, but others just wanted to be a part of history.

Sergeant Casey and the 1,500 others from the two groups at Robins and Tinker who deployed in the past eight years were already a significant part of that history. It's a role they reflect on with pride, as evidenced by the photos on the hallways of wing members on duty at Sather.

"That was nine years of war we shut down," Sergeant Casey said after he returned home from his sixth deployment in a 15-year Air Force career. "All of these guys were in high school, middle school and elementary school when the war kicked off. (Wilshire and Howard) probably saw the towers crashing when they were in grade school. They came in and enlisted in the military after the war had already started and got to actually close the war down. They took it home and ended it."