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SECDEF calls deployed Air Force NCO to ring in the New Year

By Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Larlee , 438th Air Expeditionary Wing

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KABUL, Afghanistan (January 2, 2012) — The NCO picked up the phone in his office at Kabul International Airport and on the other end was the Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta who called Jan. 1, 2012, to wish him a happy New Year.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Charles Heathman, a rotary wing maintenance adviser with the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing, said the experience is something he will always remember.

“It was really exciting,” he said. “I’ve never talked with someone that has so much importance to our military.”

The sergeant, a native of Siloam Springs, Ark., started his day much like he has started every day on his deployment. He walked the flight line mentoring Afghan maintainers about subjects including fleet management, calendar inspections, maintenance practices and supply procedures.

“It’s a very trying, but rewarding job,” he said. “There have been a lot of barriers to break down with language and culture, but it is a great feeling to see them start to use what we have been teaching.”

Heathman said he has seen marked improvement by the Afghans since he arrived in October.

“Seeing the Afghans take some of these things we have mentored them about and make it their own has been great,” he said. “It is a satisfying feeling for me to see them launching missions by themselves.”

During the 10 minute call Panetta asked the sergeant for his take on the mission in Afghanistan and how things were going in the maintenance world. Panetta then shared with Heathman some of his vision for the future of Afghanistan. After talking about the sergeant’s family and letting the maintainer know how much his efforts were appreciated by his country, the phone call ended.
The sergeant was hand-picked as the Air Force representative to receive the call. His supervisor, Air Force Capt. Darren Tabor, the flight line maintenance lead here, said Heathman was extremely deserving of the honor.

“Sgt. Heathman has been on the ground for 120 days,” said Tabor. “Since he has been here he has demonstrated outstanding leadership ability and has shown a great knack for training the Afghan forces.”

The captain has many responsibilities on the flight line and he said having a NCO of Heathman’s caliber is extremely helpful. The St. Louis native said it was great to see a maintainer get recognized for his work.

“It’s an outstanding feeling,” he said. “Maintenance personnel put in a lot of hard work and logs a lot of hours on the flight line. It is very neat to see that one of our folks is getting recognized for all of the contributions he has made since he has been here in Afghanistan.”

Heathman said this is his third tour to Afghanistan but his first as an adviser. He said it has been a markedly different experience this time and he feels humbled that the secretary of defense took time out of his day to call him.

“The experiences I have had here will stay with me forever,” he said. “It makes me feel appreciated to know someone got up early in the morning to call me and check in with how I’m doing.”