Service Reflections: Air Force vet recalls humanitarian deployments
Service Reflections: Air Force vet recalls humanitarian deployments
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MSGT Mitchell Thomas
Status: U.S. Air Force Retired
Service Years: 1979-2001
Please describe who or what influenced your decision to join the Air Force.
I graduated from High School in 1979 in the top 10% of my class and had great ASVAB scores. I am from a small town in southern Georgia, and I was not ready for college, although I had several scholarships, academically and scholastically. I really did not have any guidance on what I wanted to do in life. However, although I loved my hometown, and still do (I have a home there) and visit often, I knew at that time that other than working in the local manufacturing plants (now closed and jobs shipped overseas) or farming, chances of advancing in life were slim and none.
One day, I was out watching a local softball tournament, and one of my best friends since I was 5 years old (Terrace White) told me he was joining the USAF, leaving in July. I had never really thought of going in the military, although the Navy recruiter called me constantly and there was no way I was ever going in the Navy! Terrace told me I should join under the Buddy-Buddy plan, and I did not give it any thought. All of my relatives that I knew who were in the military were either in the Army or Navy, so there was no one I could talk to about the USAF.
Time went by over the summer and I realized that although I did not want to leave Quitman, I HAD to get out of Quitman and help my mother financially. By this time, Terrace was already gone, so I went to see the USAF recruiter. I can't remember his name, but I remember he had the reddest color hair I had ever seen. He asked me what I wanted to do in the USAF, and I had no clue. However, I did tell him that whatever I did, I wanted the job to be transferrable over to a civilian job if I decided I wanted to get out after 4 years.
By chance, I ventured over to Moody AFB for a job fair at the BX and met a recently retired USAF MSgt who told me about the Contracting career field. I had no idea what that was, but he told me that if I got in (it was, and still is a very small career field), I could get a great job after 4 years, and with experience, the sky was the limit. I was sold and immediately called the USAF recruiter of my plans.
Whether you were in the service for several years or as a career, please describe the direction or path you took. What was your reason for leaving?
I spent 22 years and nine days in the USAF. I joined September 21, 1979, and retired effective September 30, 2001. The best career decision I made in my life! However, the beginning did not go quite as I wanted it to. My recruiter finally got me into the Contracting career field. Of course, I did all of the research I could do at that time in the local library. I even visited the local contracting Squadron at Moody AFB, in Valdosta, about 15 miles from Quitman to see if this is really what I wanted. There were not very many military there, but the number of civilians led me to believe that that retired MSgt I met at the BX did not lie to me.
When I arrived at basic training, I found out that contracting was overfilled and I could not get into it! Needless to say, I was crushed as the personnel SSgt told me I had three choices: Supply, Security Police, or go back home. No way was the last one an option, so I agreed to go into the supply career field. To appease me, he did send me to Eglin AFB for my first tour, and I was happy with that as I could go home on weekends whenever I wanted as it was about a 3-hour drive.
Eglin was a great base! I was an honor graduate from Basic training and tech school, so I never worked in the Supply Squadron. Instead, I was placed in Material Control working in the Maintenance/Supply Liaison, which was a go-between with Supply and Maintenance. I got to see some great things while I was there and aircraft that some would never see.
CMSgt Mulligan from the Contracting Squadron was great to me. From day one when I told him of my story, he took me under his wing and trained me on how to be a CS. I even completed my career development course in Contracting through him. Although I was not in Contracting, he showed me the ropes and mentored me so that when I did eventually get into contracting, I was head and shoulders above all of the recent trainees. They always said I had an advantage. It's just that I knew what I wanted to do, and I had a great mentor to assist me. I learned a lot of contracting in those odd hours. It was contracting or bust for me!!
My office in Material Control was in Building 100, right on the flight line, so I got to see all of the new test aircraft and some others as well. My fondest memory was working the night shift and seeing an SR 71 come in at night on an emergency. It was the talk of the base and I can vividly remember it taxing to the hangar and it was glowing RED! I was told there was a malfunction causing them to divert to Eglin.
Other aircraft I saw were AC-130's for the SOW at Hulbert Field, F-15's, F-16's, F-5's, F-4's, A-10's, A-7's, T-38's, T-39's, B-52's, C-5's, C-141's, the pregnant guppy (NASA) plane amongst others. Of course, I also enjoyed the live fire demonstrations with the A-10's and AC-130's! To see a tank moving on the screen, see it get lit-up, and the aftermath was amazing! At least for this small town country boy!
If you participated in any military operations, including combat, humanitarian and peacekeeping operations, please describe those which made a lasting impact on you and, if life-changing, in what way?
During my tenure at Eglin (Dec 1979 - Dec 1983), I was initially not happy being in the Supply career field. I went over to the Contracting Squadron and I met CMSgt Joe Mulligan, who was the Squadron Superintendent. I told him of my dilemma and I was adamant to cross-train into contracting the first chance I got. He mentored me and showed me the works of contracting on his own time. When my CJR came around at the 4-year mark, I asked to cross-train into contracting and was accepted! That was a great time for me and I wonder if CMSgt Mulligan had anything to do with it as it would open and close so fast that the job was closed before it opened most times.
At Eglin, I was part of the Cuban Refugee boatlift campaign as hundreds of Cubans arrived at Eglin after Fidel Castro kicked them out of the country. I received my first humanitarian service medal for that effort. I cross-trained into contracting and graduated in December 1983 with orders up the road to Maxwell AFB. I was there for 8 years due to freeze in my records. Neighboring Gunter AFB opened a new Design Center and hired most of the civilian Contract Specialist and they forgot to unfreeze me. However, I was rewarded again as I PCS'd to Hickam AFB!
At Hickam is where my deployment history started! I was part of the Contingency Contracting Team, and we supported numerous joint exercises in the pacific. I was involved in Exercise Cobra Gold, Badge Tram, and Cope Tiger resulting in my going TDY to Thailand on numerous occasions! These were great TDY's, and it was reinforced as you had to be the best and "all-knowing" as you were the sole Contract Specialist deployed. Lots of work, but lots of time to explore the different cities all over Thailand.
I earned my second Humanitarian Service Medal for my deployment to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam in 1994 in support of the demining teams from the USMC and Army. Cambodia was the worst as it was mostly bombed out during the Vietnam war, but there were some great sites to see. I got to see the Angor Wat, one of the 7 Wonders of the World.
However, poverty took a little getting used to, and the Khmer Rouge was always looking for Americans to kidnap for ransom. The thing I hated was there was a 2 man rule, and neither of us had weapons! It was hard to get someone to go with me if I needed to contract for supplies or services making my job there very difficult and frustrating. I was also part of a MEDCAP there. We had 2 doctors and 3 medics. When word got out, there were thousands of Cambodians looking for medical assistance resulting in me wiping out all of the local pharmacies for supplies. There was no way we could treat the horde of people there in the 24 hours allotted.
In 1995, my time in PACAF was up, and I KNEW I was going to get screwed on the EQUAL list as most of the NCO's there were going to upper-tier bases. I left as a TSgt and my choices were McGuire AFB or Offutt AFB. Some choices! I took McGuire as at least it was on the east coast.
However, once I arrived there in December 1995, I was slated to deploy to Kuwait in 2 months after arrival. Also during that time, there was the blizzard of 1996 and we were snowed in! Imagine driving around with Hawaii license plates during a blizzard. It made me rethink why I did not stay at Hickam. This was a bummer as my wife and 3 kids were panicking!
I arrived in Saudi Arabia for indoctrination, and the OIC decided to change my assignment to Seeb, Oman as the person who was supposed to go there did not show up and he was pissed with him and sent him to Kuwait instead! While there, I met SSgt Ron King. he was in the room next to me at Khobar Tower. He was out of Offutt and was nearing the 20-year mark and wanted to come back over to the AOR for one last time. A really good person! We often talked about the close proximity of Khobar Towers to the fence line and how easy it would be for some terrorist to get access to the base as the main road led right by it. Premonitions???
Man, I got lucky! Seeb was great!! We stayed at a 5-star hotel with very little to do. The C-130's that I supported hardly had any contracting requirements making this a boring but uneventful time.
However, I was on my final leg on my deployment and getting ready to come back to McGuire when at night on June 25, 1996, my phone rang and my wife was in a panic! She told me that she was watching CNN and they reported that Khobar Tower at Dhahran was just attacked by a terrorist! I immediately went into panic mode and waking up everyone at the hotel as they did not know. We accounted for everybody and went to the base at that time as we did not know if we would be next. I thank my wife all the time for calling me!
During the bombing, Ron King was killed and another contracting college of mine (MSgt George Dwyer) was blown from his room and road his bed all the way down 7 stories to the ground. he survived, but was in bad shape for a while! This hit me really hard to lose Ron King. He was such a great NCO! They later named a library after him at Offut AFB. I guess that is all that he was worth being a junior enlisted person!
Other humanitarian deployments consisted of the aftermath of the hotel collapse in Korat Thailand in August 1993 where MSgt Ray Canda was killed. He was at the flight line but did not have the capability to fax, so he went back to the hotel to fax when the entire hotel collapsed. The irony is that I was supposed to go on that deployment, but they sent Ray instead. He and I were stationed together at Maxwell.
I also was deployed to Windhoek Namibia in 1997 for a mishap. A German Air Force Tupolev Tu-154M observation aircraft and a United States Air Force C-141B Starlifter transport aircraft were destroyed in a mid-air collision while cruising at 35,000 feet (11,000 m) off the coast of Namibia. All 33 people on board both aircraft were killed. I was part of the search and rescue unit there and part of the Safety Board.
Did you encounter a situation during your military service when you believed there was a possibility you might not survive? Please describe what happened and what was the outcome.
Normally, most sister services "friendly tease" the USAF about our perceived lack of combat experience. Albeit not on the front lines, I can recall some of the previous supervisors that were in Vietnam tell me of horror stories they went through. For instance, being stationed at Da Nang, or elsewhere in Vietnam, and having to experience rockets raining on their positions almost every night! And, having gone TDY with some of the USAF Special Forces groups, I got to meet a lot of great Airmen that were in perilous positions, e.g., pararescue, MC-130's, AC-130's (my favorite weapon platform), Delta Force, etc.
As I explained, there were several instances that I can only sum up to it was just not my time! I could have easily been at that hotel where MSgt Canda died. It was supposed to be my TDY. I could have easily been the one in Khobar Tower when it was hit by a terrorist bombing.
Additionally, I narrowly avoided injury when a hand grenade was thrown over the US Embassy wall while I was in Cambodia. Laos and Vietnam were not very friendly to us as well, although we had teams of service members from all branches involved in the Vietnam MIA effort.
Prostitution was banned in Vietnam, but we had an incident where one of our team members got caught in a sting of sorts. He allegedly picked up a prostitute and brought her back to his room only to be arrested for his actions. We had to pay $1000 to get him out of the local jail there. No SOFA agreement made it terrible for us, me especially in dealing with different actions such as this.
Laos was really, really quiet. I never experienced any nation like this. Most hotel employees were friendly, but the locals not so. I just kept to myself and I was glad we were there for a short time.
I don't consider myself lucky, I consider myself BLESSED!!
Of all your duty stations or assignments, which one do you have fondest memories of and why? Which was your least favorite?
Hands down, my fondest memory and duty station was Hickam AFB! It was really my first taste of being overseas, although it is not considered overseas. The people at the Squadron were great, the military people were super, and the location was fantastic! I have so many fond memories there.
Kadena AB Japan would be a close second! The people there were really friendly, and I met some of the greatest military friends of all time! Since we were away from the US, the camaraderie was out of this world! We had BBQ's like every weekend, and we partied hard! My children list Kadena AB Okinawa as their home town on their Facebook profiles!! LOL!!
I think the greatest achievement while at Kadena was getting some of my NCO's into Bootstrap and they later became officers! TSgt Karen Jack (Now retired Capt. Jack), SSgt Jake Alverson, now retired Major Alverson, TSgt Devin Banks, now Retired Lt Col Banks, Sra Salvati, now retired Major Salvati. I want to think that I had a great impact on them in making that change.
McGuire AFB was what I consider as the worst, and from the moment I arrived there, I made a pact that this was going to be my "short" tour and I was going to get out of there as soon as I could. I made MSgt there and I was on the phone as soon as I found I could get away.
I was stationed there from Dec 1995 - March 1998. I really can't say I hated it that much, but my family did as I was TDY to various locations, Oman, Saudi Arabia (twice), Qatar (twice) and the UAE resulting in me being away over 1.5 years of the 2.3 years there!
From your entire military service, describe any memories you still reflect back on to this day.
One memory that I will NEVER forget started when I was an SSgt stationed at Maxwell AFB in the early '80s. I was the NCOIC of Small Purchases and Contract Repair. I had several airmen on my team as well as a couple of civilians. One particular airman on my team was Vietnamese. His family was very well off and fled Vietnam after the war ended. His mom called me constantly regarding her son. She stated that he was spoiled and she wanted me to make a man out of him.
Now, I was only a couple of years older than this airman (name withheld) and I told her I would do my best to guide and mentor him. Man, was that a challenge! This particular airman was not your everyday run of the mill airman. He drove around in a brand new Corvette, and he had a brand new house located off base. He was a quiet person, and worked diligently on getting out of work!
He was studying his CDC's and I was assisting him as much as possible so that he could get his 5 levels. I even quizzed him on some questions as he was about to take his end of course exam. He failed miserably. After some retraining by me, we went through this again and he failed his end of course again resulting in both of us being summoned to see the Commander!
This was a life learning moment from me as well as I had never experienced someone failing their CDC's. And we did not have a Superintendent back in the day that I could ping for guidance. We had a TSgt that was a retrainee and he was of little or no help. I knew that we had to see the 1St Sergeant first before entering the Commander's office, so we went there ahead of schedule. During that dead time, I told my airman that he needed to brace himself for a butt chewing, but I would be with him.
When I got into the 1st Sergeant's office, he asked me if I was ready for this. I was perplexed and arrogant, mostly ignorant, as I stated yes. Man, was I in for a treat!
As we reported in and saluted the Commander, his entire focus was on ME and not my troop! I got the butt chewing of a lifetime! Not one word was spoken to my troop! All were aimed at me! In my mind, I was thinking "I did not fail the test, he did!", but I listened to the Commander lay into me about not guiding and mentoring the troop properly. In a nutshell, I told him I had a plan to get him back on track, saluted sharply, and left the office.
The 1st Sergeant greeted me when I got out of the office. He could see that I was shaken by the event as he could hear the yelling from the Commander. He told my airman to go back to work and he chatted with me for a while. He told me that my job as a supervisor was more than just teaching this airman contracting. My job and every supervisor's job in the USAF was to make the person under me the best that he could be. I told him that I did not think the meeting was going to be like that, but it taught me a valuable lesson that my job is more than an everyday job! I had to get better.
I worked many long hours after work preparing my airman for his last chance in the USAF. I believe he could see the strain on me after the meeting with the Commander, and he bought into my program. He took his test and passed with a 92%! He later told me that he was trying to fail so that he could be kicked out of the military and did not realize that HIS failure was not HIS failure, but would be MY failure!
My troop became the model airman after that. He studied hard in college at lunchtime and after work obtaining his degree and was accepted in OTS to become an officer! I did not keep up with him much after that as he was retrained into one of the maintenance fields when he became an officer. However, I was thrilled that he kept up with me without me knowing it! Somehow, he found out about my retirement in 2001 and wanted to come to Kadena, but other priorities would not let him. I received a call from a Lt Col and I immediately recognized his voice. We talked for about an hour and he was thankful for the sacrifice that I made to mentor him when he really needed it! This lesson was one of the most fulfilling ones in my career! You never know how your team members really feel about you, and for this particular one, he caused me to grey early dealing with him! Now I can see that it was worth it!
My time at Hickam and my last assignment at Kadena AB in Okinawa Japan were the best of times for me My children got to experience different cultures and they list Okinawa Japan as their home town on Facebook! LOL!
Just the many friendships and comrades that I met over the years are memories that I will always cherish. I still keep in touch with many friends over the years, and my wife and children feel the same way. The Luas in Hawaii and the food in both Hawaii and Okinawa are treasures for our souls.
What professional achievements are you most proud of from your military career?
I was happy to have won many medals and achievements. I was the Contracting NCO/SNCO of the Year at every base that I was stationed. I also won PACAF NCO and SNCO of the year awards, as well as the AMC and Air University NCO of the Year for the command.
The proudest medals were the humanitarian service awards as I know they meant that I actually made a change to someone's life. I remember in Cambodia after seeing the horrible conditions that most of the people lived through, and how blessed I was to be from the USA! The bombed-out structures that would be condemned in America were home to them. I remember buying hundreds of soccer balls and just throwing them out of my vehicle to the local children to play with.
Mrs. Sophal Phoung was my administrative assistant/interpreter in Cambodia, and Mr. Song was my driver. I gave them $500.00 each of my TDY money when I departed as a gift for me. The per diem was great! At that time, it was $75.00 per day, and I could eat like a king for about $3.00, so this was a no-brainer tome to help the people that looked after me while I was there.
Mrs. Phoung invited me and several team members over to her house for a meal while I was there. Their house, shared with her husband and 2 small children, told us of some horrible stories and atrocities of the Vietnamese when he a little boy after the war was over and Vietnam took over their country. It is an experience that I will never forget!
I think every American should visit a third world country and see some the REAL hardships! There is no government assistance there! And the many victims of land mines, some ex-military, with one or no legs or arms as the result. It would make them more thankful for being an American!
Of all the medals, awards, formal presentations and qualification badges you received, or other memorabilia, which one is the most meaningful to you and why?
One that really stands out for me was my first deployment to Thailand in 1992. I was the sole contracting officer at Exercise Badge Tram and I worked a lot of long hours to make sure everything was in place and kept the entire deployed squadron stocked and supplied during my tenure.
When I arrived back, I was presented with a Joint Service Achievement Medal from the PACAF Contracting Commander and the Navy Seal Commander. It was a huge event; one that I will always cherish.
Which individual(s) from your time in the military stand out as having the most positive impact on you and why?
CMSgt Mulligan will always be my hero.
My first supervisors at Eglin were great! SSgt Michael Bailey, SSgt Charles Pierson, TSgt Henderson, and MSgt Bush were instrumental in shaping me to be the Airman that I was.
At Maxwell AFB, I did not have a military supervisor, but I had one of the greatest teachers in the world! Mr. Charlie Foster was an icon at Maxwell AFB, and he taught me how to be in contracting! He assured I got my Contracting Officer warrant in record time and always mentored me throughout my career.
MSgt Chris Stiller was my first military supervisor in contracting. We were at Hickam AFB and he was the greatest!! He took care of me while he was there. Also, Capt Materna and Lt Col Krusemark were outstanding officers that realized my potential and pushed me to be the greatest.
SMSgt David Medina, TSgt Greg Foster, TSgt Frank Parker, MSgt James Waggoner, Lt Col Devin Banks, Capt Andre Prude, SMSgt Jeremiah Lewis, TSgt Ron Music, MSgt Quentin Blanchard, Capt Karen Jack, Maj Jake Alverson, MSgt Richard Byrd, SSgt Diane Williams, SSgt Tanya Edwards to name a few. Lt (at that time) Sewake, Lt Col Mark Turcotte and Col Jay Carlson were instrumental in trying to get me over the hump to SMSgt. I missed SMSgt by less than 20 twice!! I was supposed to go to the SNCo Academy but decided I had enough and retired.
List the names of old friends you served with, at which locations, and recount what you remember most about them. Indicate those you are already in touch with and those you would like to make contact with.
Sgt Michael Character and I were neighbors at Maxwell AFB in the '80s and we stay in touch all the time. He was a fellow University of Georgia fan in the land of Roll Tide! He was also from Atlanta.
CMSgt Fadil Keranovic, MSgt Keith George, MSgt Derrick Williams, and MSgt Stiller are real close to this day. We keep in touch with each other constantly. We were all stationed at Hickam during the time.
My old supervisors from my first enlistment at Eglin I have not been able to get in touch with. TSgt Henderson, SSgt Bailey, SSgt Pierson, MSgt Bush to name a few. It would be nice to chat just for old time!
Mr. Charlie Foster is retired now from civil service and I visit him whenever I can in Montgomery AL.
Can you recount a particular incident from your service, which may or may not have been funny at the time, but still makes you laugh?
One of the funniest memories now was when I first got into contracting. I was given a requisition with several vendors to contact, to buy 20 sets of fallopian tubes! Of course, I should have paid more attention to my Anatomy class, but they got a big laugh at me asking these vendors for prices for fallopian tubes! It's a prank that the play on any new contracting type.
Another time was when MSgt Keith George (SSgt at that time) purchased some jerseys for the Youth Center Softball team. First, the buy was from Mexico, which we were strictly forbidden to purchase from at that time, AND, the shirts were adult sizes!!! We still kid him for that!!
What profession did you follow after your military service and what are you doing now? If you are currently serving, what is your present occupational specialty?
I have been a Contract Specialist/Contracting Officer for over 40 years now. As I stated, I wanted to make sure that I got a career that would cross over to civilian life. It did as when I retired, I had over 20 job offers!! My only dilemma was which job was I to take!!
I eventually made it to a GS-15 Director of Contracting for the largest contracting team in the Department of the VA while I served in Tampa Florida. My time is short and plans are to retire as soon as I am eligible in March 2022,
I love this career field and I don't think I would have done any better by going into any other one!! Although I did not make CMSgt, I did get my degree and my Masters.
What military associations are you a member of, if any? What specific benefits do you derive from your memberships?
Air Force Sergeants Association, No real benefits, but it keeps me abreast of changes
National Contract Management Association. Keeps me abreast of new changes in contracting
In what ways has serving in the military influenced the way you have approached your life and your career? What do you miss most about your time in the service?
The best thing that I ever did, other than marrying my wife of 40 years, was to join the USAF. It has taken me to places that I only dreamed about and read about. The training, camaraderie, friendships, hardships enabled me to be the person that I am now.
I learned that although you may not have the best, your worst is better than most countries that I visited! COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS!
Of course, I miss the camaraderie from my friends. Especially when overseas, everyone is your family member. Those BBQs were outstanding!!
Based on your own experiences, what advice would you give to those who have recently joined the Air Force?
Use the same advice that I was given. The USAF may not be for you. However, take advantage of the training, schools, college tuition assistance and make something of yourself! The main thing is doing what you love, but please make sure you are in a career field that crosses over to the civilian sector.
In what ways has TogetherWeServed.com helped you remember your military service and the friends you served with.
I have met some of my colleagues here. and I wish I could meet others!! BEST TIME OF MY LIFE!!
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