BAGRAM AIRFIELD, AFGHANISTAN, –
All around the dimly-lit tent are enduring symbols of a constant presence. A name scrawled across a wooden wall, a lengthy list of deployment dates written underneath, updated year after year. A library stacked with books and games to pass the time. A built-in couch labeled “Snooze Town.”
All the things people to do to make a place feel like home are apparent in this place where its inhabitants often spend half their time each year.
The 41st Electronic Combat Squadron and the 755th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron based out of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, have been continuously deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, and now the Resolute Support Mission, since 2002. They have been at Bagram since 2004.
They are the longest continuously deployed Air Force unit in Afghanistan.
The unit operates the EC-130H Compass Call, a modified version of the C-130H Hercules airframe. It serves as an airborne weapons system capable of disrupting enemy command and control communications and limiting adversary coordination essential for enemy force management.
This capability is known colloquially as “jamming” and ensures that when a U.S. or coalition unit goes on a mission, the enemy is unable to communicate with one another.
The effect is an indispensable asset to ground forces and has led to 2,193 terrorists removed from the battlefield, just since 2014.
“The special forces guys will come by after a mission we supported and say thanks,” said Tech. Sgt. Michael Meredith, 455th EAMXS expeditor.
Many of their maintainers have been with the unit since the beginning. The members of the 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron’s EC-130 Compass Call aircraft maintenance unit currently deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan have 146 deployments among them.
“I’ve been on 13 deployments, 9 of them here [at Bagram] and all of them have been with this unit,” said Meredith.
“I just left here last July,” said one of the new arrivals.
These numbers are not unusual, and individuals throughout the AMU often have deployments in the double digits, with months out of each year spent away from home.
“His kid just started walking and he shows us videos all the time – but he doesn’t get to see it,” said Senior Airman Richard Marshall, Aircraft Electrical and Environmental Systems journeyman, about a fellow squadron member.
For those with families back home, they say the key is to make the most of the time they have. Tech. Sgt. Tony Rivera, a 455th EAMXS crew chief, has two sons back home and says he spends the time he has with his boys participating in their lives and making every moment count.
Despite the strain of an undeniably high operations tempo, the mood in the unit remains positive. When they’re not working out on the flightline, they play sports or video games together and work out in their “prison gym” in front of a vividly painted “Muscle Beach” sign.
“We just call it high-fiving. You don’t skip a beat,” said Meredith about the constant change-over.
“I’ve been deployed 13 times in my career, and the last two since I’ve been with this unit have been the best by far,” said Rivera, who just arrived at Bagram for his third deployment in the two years since joining the EC-130 AMU. “This is without a doubt the tightest group of folks I’ve ever worked with.”
He paused to cheer on his peers playing a spirited game of volleyball on their makeshift court in the clamshell where they work.
“The sorriest bunch of hooligans,” he corrected himself with a smile.
To date, 41st EECS crews have flown over 39,000 hours during 6,800 combat sorties in these operations. The unit has broken the monthly flying records for three consecutive months since this past October – something that has never been done before.
The unit’s mission capable rate, the maintenance term for number of functioning aircraft, hit a 27-month record high in November – 96.5%. This has led to the 455th EAMXS winning the 2016 Air Combat Command Maintenance Effectiveness Award.