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Many young leaders emerging in the Persian Gulf

by Col. Brian Kelly
6th Operations Group commander

As one of many people who have recently returned from deployed duty, I'll share some of the things I saw and learned overseas.

First of all, our young men and women are making us proud. Many saw much more danger than I did, like Maj. Mike Hamill, 6th Operations Support Squadron, who was key to opening up airlift operations around Iraq. He spent four months in Baghdad, and was key to ballot delivery operations in late January.

Airman Natasha Allison, 6th OSS controlled air traffic into Kirkuk, and took time to help Iraqi children, despite the dangers.

A large contingent from our 6th Medical Group deployed to Balad and took care of our troops despite frequent mortar and rocket attacks.

And Staff Sgt. Jeremy Fox, along with Staff Sgt. Charles Cash, 6th Logistics Readiness Squadron, were presented Purple Hearts for injuries incurred as convoy drivers.

I had the privilege of flying from a base on the Persian Gulf where we supported both Iraq and Afghanistan. Wherever I went, and whenever I flew, I saw the next generation stepping up as leaders in this critical war for our tomorrows.

Some had been to the AOR repeatedly, and were tired, but they understood the importance of what they were doing, and were doing it well. They were making a difference, and we are all winning as a result.

A week at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan was particularly telling. It was obvious we had turned the corner there. Due to coalition efforts, and the sacrifices of the Afghani people and their emerging authorities, elections were successful, law and order was winning and a new president was inaugurated.

The great weight of effort in Afghanistan has been borne by special operators, but the key to the future is in local authorities stepping up and they are doing that. A local warlord showed us rockets aimed at Bagram -- the day before our vice president and secretary of defense came through. This wasn't the first time they had prevented an attack. In fact, attacks on the base have become extremely rare as local authorities assert themselves.

In Iraq, the Air Force was particularly effective in the operation to take back Fallujah. Though the troops on the ground were doing the hardest part, it may not have been obvious to those back home how much air power, including sister service and coalition aircraft, played in the campaign.

Fighters and gun ships were very effective in the days prior to the ground assault, taking out known meeting places, defenses and combatants. As the forces went in, air power was called in repeatedly when troops came in contact with the enemy. The synergy of ground and air forces turned the tide in this battle.

Another thing I learned was the disparity between the reality we experienced overseas and the image portrayed in the media back home.

Every USO tour I talked to over there was impressed by this. Before they came over, they had the impression things were quite gloomy, but after visiting a number of bases, they realized they had seen all the bad news and not much of the good.

This was a significant realization for most of them. They were probably much less surprised than the common stateside citizen when the Iraqi elections were successful.

The most noteworthy thing I saw was the great responsibility some of our youngest troops were taking on.

The most striking example of this was our boom operators. Unlike many other, often less difficult enlisted aircrew duties, these booms routinely come straight out of high school.

I flew with a number of 18-year-old booms who were in charge of getting fuel to fighters and gun ships, among other receivers, in combat airspace and difficult weather, with ground troops looking for immediate support.

The skills required to command a refueling, keep aircraft from running into each other at several hundred knots, make contacts with receptacles bouncing in turbulence(often at night) and understand the complex systems involved are simply remarkable.

Add the pressure of doing it quickly so the ground troops were supported when they needed it, and it becomes obvious that we can be confident in the next generation.

I saw this pattern repeated on numerous occasions by young troops in many different specialties.

At a pivotal point in history, many young leaders are stepping up.

Our future is in good hands.




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