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Teamwork enables successful transfer of Camp Taji

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Camp Taji served as a pivotal site for planning countless counter-Daesh missions in support of Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve. It’s fitting that the last mission planned by the small group of partner forces remaining at the Iraqi base was also one of the most challenging.

The task of turning the base over to Iraqi Security Forces was an intensive effort and one final opportunity to demonstrate the commitment and dedication the Coalition had to the Iraqi base. The turnover culminated in an official transfer ceremony Aug. 23, 2020, marking the eighth transfer of a Coalition base under the partnership between the Iraqi Security Forces and the international counter-Daesh military Coalition. 

“The level of planning and preparation that goes into shutting down a base is astounding,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jordi Saunders, 442nd Air Expeditionary Squadron load planner. “There’s a great deal of coordination that’s required with other base agencies, outstations, customs and immigration, planners at AMD and with our Iraqi partners.” 

Saunders, one of the Aerial Port specialists assigned to Taji prior to the handover, said efforts to prepare the base for the Government of Iraq began earlier this year. As the transfer drew closer, Coalition numbers dwindled while cargo scheduled to be shipped continued to accumulate.        

Determining what equipment should be shipped to other locations and what resources could be used by the ISF in their mission to defeat Daesh was a complex process. It required a constant flow of airlift and oversight on load planning and the distribution of assets.  

“Working with our Swedish, British, Polish, Iraqi and Canadian partners was an amazing experience,” said Saunders. “On one particularly busy day, I remember looking back from the ramp of an aircraft while pushing pallets to see a couple of Canadian and Polish service members whose own flights weren’t for several hours, helping us prepare our loaders, spot vehicles around the cargo yard and tighten chains and nets. It made me proud to be part of a much larger team.”

Equally important was the process of identifying which resources would be left behind, and determining what the base should look like at the handover to the Iraqis. All of this had to be accomplished while maintaining social distance and taking other precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.  

“Although the Aerial Port team avoided COVID, Taji and other bases experienced several outbreaks resulting in travel restrictions making it more difficult to move people and equipment and still meet the closure timeline,” said Maj. Michael Biederman, 442nd AES commander. 

As the base consolidated, amenities normally taken for granted such as the ability to make phone calls and utilize online resources started to dwindle. The pressure to meet timelines combined with the loss of routine support services made life at Taji stressful for the small group tasked to ensure a successful transfer. 

“A few weeks prior to the final departure, the dining facility closed which caused everyone to live off [Meals Ready to Eat] or whatever else they had stockpiled or could scrounge up,” said Biederman. 

Every day leading up to the transfer ceremony presented a new challenge. For some, they were long and filled with planning meetings, while others worked tirelessly to complete tasks on schedule. 

The group persevered, relying on teamwork and a can-do attitude to overcome the myriad of obstacles they faced. Saunders still remembers the feeling he experienced when he departed Taji for the last time. 

“Relief!” Saunders said “When the wheels came up on the C-17 as we departed Taji, it felt like I could breathe finally. Leaving Taji was bittersweet, but I’m grateful for the people I met and the experiences I received.”