Two stories of nondescript red brick stand behind four oak trees and one sapling. The lawn is immaculate. An empty playground stands at the southeast corner. If you walked by the corner of Patrick Avenue and Louisiana Avenue, you’d take it for a public school. But you’d be mistaken. Military bases are far less violent.
Four dozen reservists from the 459th Air Refueling Wing are about to deploy from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland to an "undisclosed location in southwest Asia and will provide aerial refueling in support of Operation Enduring Freedom," according to an Air Force press release. There will be 68,000 other American troops waiting for them when they board the plane at an undisclosed time this week.
As President Barack Obama pulls out American forces from Afghanistan, the dominant media narrative over the past year has focused on the drawdown. But troop deployments, including those of reserve units sent to relieve active duty forces, are still happening across the country.
Pilot John Mortenson said the American public has "been very supportive." But he’s also noticed that troop withdrawal may create the false impression that our men and women in uniform are no longer in harm’s way.
"It’s a double-edged sword," he said. "It’s great to bring folks home, but there’s still work to be done and our day-to-day accomplishments don’t get much notice. It’s going to be a while before we can relax."
Mortenson and the rest of the personnel seemed to be handling it pretty well. Each airman donned yellow or purple Mardi Gras beads. A select few sported flashing green beads that alternated between earth tones. They laughed and cracked jokes as I paced the rows of the auditorium.
"We use colored tape to identify where everyone is supposed to go, but the tape can rip," the public affairs sergeant said. "The beads help us figure out where they’re supposed to go."
Mortenson, a 31-year-old Arlington native, is better prepared for the disruptions of military life than most. His father spent his career in the U.S. Navy, and he works on the base full time as a civilian aircrew trainer when he’s not wearing his jungle green flight suit. He concedes that there will always be trouble balancing "your duty to your family and your country." He’s taking his sixth deployment as seriously as his five previous tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, not least of all because of the summer temperatures.
"Weather impacts the entire mission from morale to operations," he said. "It degrades flight performance, so you have to plan on lots of hydration, on weight limits, lighter fuel loads."
And sweat. Temperatures in Afghanistan can reach up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit outside the aircraft, so you can only imagine what it’s like "when you’re in a metal can that was built for the Cold War, not comfort," as 10-year veteran Tech Sgt. Dana Fernkas said.
Heat takes a toll on all aircraft pilots, but 459th pilots are especially susceptible. The KC-135 Stratotanker they fly takes off weighing up to 322,500 pounds and carries about 180,000 pounds of fuel—enough to power the average economy car for the next 32 years—according to Mortenson.
Fernkas, a boom operator, will spend her tour on her belly, looking through a large window and guiding the KC-135’s hose into fighter planes and troop carriers travelling hundreds of miles an hour thousands of feet above the ground. Ten yards is all that separates the mammoth tanker from its targets.
Her troubles don’t end when the two aircraft are connected. The planes often disconnect as the tanker’s subject becomes heavier.
"Then you have to start all over again," she said. "For a cargo plane, it takes about 10 to 20 minutes depending on if you have thunderstorms."
Fernkas, 31, enlisted in the Air Force when she was a teenager and served on the ground crew while on active duty. She entered the reserves with the express goal of becoming a boomer.
"I watched so many planes take off and the ground crews are really important—they keep us in the air—but I wanted to be a part of it, to get closer to the mission," she said.
Only three other news outlets arrived on the scene to cover the deployment: one base newspaper, one local ABC station, and a photographer from the Washington Times, who I will call Drew.
Drew arrived in Washington after serving 10 years in U.S. Navy, including five on an aircraft carrier. He did a great job explaining the nature of deployment from the weight of the roller bags the airmen packed—"ours were heavier, 120 pounds"—to the ultimate destinations of troops headed overseas—"the Navy, you go one direction [to your ship], the rest go to places like Bahrain and live in palaces for a month before they hit the warzone"—to Afghanistan itself—"most beautiful country you’ve ever seen if it wasn’t so war torn; amazing mountains, clear sky."
But he was wrong about one thing.
We were told to arrive at the base’s Visitors Center by 7:15 or be left behind. I parked at 6:30 and saw the lot filled with a few run-down cars and industrial white vans carrying construction workers, rather than the family members I’d hoped to interview.
"Family usually only comes for pre-deployment stuff," Drew explained. "They’re not going to be here for this."
Ninety minutes later, the buses drew away from the red brick unit headquarters to take the airmen to the processing center. I saw her out of the corner of my eye: a petite young woman standing at the far corner of the building. Her right hand shielded her eyes from the sun, while her left balanced an infant’s car seat, as she scanned the two blue buses.
Somewhere inside the bus one man looked out the tinted windows, reminded of all that he will miss during his tour.