By Senior Airman Amber Kelly-Herard, 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing
Airmen from the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing pack one of the last conex boxes at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, just prior to the transition from U.S. forces to the government of Iraq Nov. 5, 2011. Airmen from the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing pack one of the last conex boxes at Joint Base Balad, Iraq, just prior to the transition from U.S. forces to the government of Iraq Nov. 5, 2011.
JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq (November 28, 2011) — Transferring Joint Base Balad to the government of Iraq was part of the largest military transition since World War II.
Col. Brent Bigger, 332nd Expeditionary Mission Support Group commander, arrived at JBB four months prior to the transition in July 2011.
“When I first arrived everything was go, go, go; operations, operations, operations,” said Bigger, who is deployed from the Pentagon. “I thought, ‘It doesn’t seem like we’re closing the base.’ I expected to walk in, clean up and get out.”
As the 332nd EMSG commander, Bigger had to balance transitioning the base while still supporting the critical F-16 top cover mission.
“Our job as the mission support group was to provide base operational support and infrastructure,” said the Keizer, Ore., native. “We still had to have everything going full speed to keep JBB humming smoothly- power, water, sewer systems and bathrooms, services and several thousand contractors.
“JBB had a mission and the population was actually increasing,” continued Bigger. “We were by far the main hub of all ground movement in Iraq, supporting all other base closures in the Iraq Joint Operations Area up until two weeks before our closure - a challenging feat.”
With JBB containing multiple military branches, largely Army and 180 tenant units, Bigger was referred to as the mayor, which is the Army equivalent to a mission support group commander.
“Collaborating with and supporting the Army and especially their leadership on base was always synergistic,” said the colonel. “Our communication lines were wide open. Everyone was on the same JBB team and I repeated that theme constantly.”
“Army logistics, expressed by Sun Tsu thousands of years ago, is the key to successful ground and war operations, and they really got that, while being equally impressed by our airpower logistics,” Bigger continued. “We led mayor’s call daily meetings during the last 20 days and we were told over and over that our 332nd Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron was the best travel booking agent anywhere.”
There were many challenges that the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing faced during the transition period.
“You have to present a script with what everyone has to do so they feel confident executing the plan,” said Bigger. “Without the proverbial checklist and clear timeline expectations on paper you can’t go forward effectively. At JBB the script continued to morph in a positive way because the foundation strategy was solid. Each unit had ownership in creating their own plan after we provided the key logistics basics.”
“If someone brought up a problem, someone else came up with a work around,” he continued. “Every unit communicated through the Mayor Cell, commanders worked with other commanders, everyone helped each other. It really brought out the good in people and the military.”
Prior to his deployment, Bigger had been to JBB briefly while traveling with the former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. His said his first impression was that the base was very large.
“The last days were like a ghost town, it was surreal, when we went down to 3,000 people or less in a small final consolidated area; a dramatic difference from 15,000 personnel to zero in 30 days,” he said. “Everything was cleaned and looked great, the equipment was gone and all the buildings were cleared. It didn’t look or feel like JBB anymore. It was like doing your job at someone else’s place.”
When JBB was officially signed over, it was a proper conclusion to all the efforts of those who were at JBB in the final days.
“The most rewarding part was handing over an operational, warm base to the Iraqi air force in short time, leaving them every opportunity to succeed if they decide to bring their F-16s to Balad,” said Bigger. “The legacy for our Air Force to hand off the largest, busiest airport to the Iraqi air force was monumental, and quite possibly the cornerstone air base for their future.”
“As the mission support group commander, I was honored to be the U.S. government representative for all property, real and foreign excess, so signed all the paper work,” continued Bigger. “It was a really big moment knowing our allies had the buildings and plans for the future. In preparation, we held weekly discussions and trained the Iraqi air force personnel on base sustainment, to take over when we left.”
To make the transition even better, JBB was passed over to the Iraqis sooner than expected.
“When we were so close to the last day, there was a giddy sense that we had really done it, and this is going to happen,” said Bigger. “We found ways through a tight communication loop and efficiencies as a joint team to finish ahead of schedule, closing the base five days early. The JBB team took control of our destiny and we logically presented the conditions required to close the base to U.S. Forces-Iraq leadership versus being held to the non-flexible hard date. We got people and cargo out faster, we got base security set up early with the Iraqi Army and we had the GoI sign the paperwork early.”
In the end we potentially put the entire IJOA retrograde on the fast track because of what JBB was able to do, freeing up logistics resources and manpower several days earlier, making available for the remainder of the base transfers.
“No one doubted us, but they weren’t going to get in front of it until it happened,” said Bigger. “Everyone was extremely proud, taking pictures and hugging each other, which is something you don’t normally see. Asking for the final head count and verifying 100 percent accounted for as we flew away safe and mission complete was the most fulfilling and proud moment of our careers.”
The JBB transition was a grand accomplishment, not only for America, but especially for the 332nd AEW.
“When the operational mission went away in October, so went the other groups, transitioning to the next undisclosed location without missing a sortie,” said Bigger. “The mission support group was left to close the base, that’s when the mission support group really rose to the challenge. How often do get to close a base?
“As our wing commander, Brig. Gen. Kurt Neubauer, always told us, put a bow on it,” Bigger continued. “We put a bow on it and really had the opportunity to show how important a mission support group is and what we can do. We are always proud to support the flying mission, and in this short time period of base closure, this really was our operational moment.”