Saturday, July 19, 2008

Operation Hydra: Air Force disaster relief training, flying all over California, GWB & me....

With all of us internet buffs getting such a wide selection of interesting articles in our inboxes each day, why should you bother to read this story -- which is, after all, rather long? Because it is a detailed account of the state of our armed forces' readiness capabilities in case of a natural disaster or terrorist attack here in America -- and also anywhere else on the globe. This is important information to know. Plus I took some fabulous photographs. And also you will learn what a wus I am when it comes to flying and what secret ingredients the Air Force puts into their box lunches.

Several months ago I received a phone message from a public affairs officer stationed at Travis Air Force Base in northern California, asking me if I wanted to go on a six-day trip to Iraq in order to report on one of their med-evac teams deploying there. "You would be leaving from Travis on June 16." Well, yeah, count me in -- except at that point I was already IN Iraq and thus missed the phone call and didn't get to go. But a week later the PAO called me back and asked if I wanted to participate in a one-day training exercise to be staged at Travis on July 17 instead. "It's called Operation Hydra." Yawn. But I signed up anyway -- and it turned out to be really interesting too.

On July 17, 2008, I was supposed to wake up at 5:00 am and trundle off to Travis but the night before that I had gone to my housing co-op's board meeting wherein our current "Six Million Dollar Board" somehow managed to postpone our co-op's annual elections yet again -- elections that would probably have deposed them. So it looks like now we are going to have to either wait until the villagers throw this board out with torches and pitchforks -- or else let the board stay in power, costing our co-op yet another six million dollars, shutting us down permanently and forcing me to start looking for another cheap place to live ASAP.

But after all this excitement at the board meeting, would I still manage to wake up at 5:00 am the next morning? I did.

I'd never been to Travis AFB before but after spending some time at Al Assad airbase in Iraq with its blast wall-and-gravel decorating theme, Travis was the ultimate "Camp Cupcake". It even has its own "Passenger Terminal" -- which isn't just a pre-fab Quonset hut either.

So. I arrived at the front gate, it was cold and windy, and I had no idea what to expect. Would they be giving us name tags? Coffee? Breakfast? And how long would it take before I managed to get lost?

Then me and three other journalists were met at the visitors center by the base PAO and caravaned off to a parking lot where we got on a bus for a tour of the flightline. Impressive. Suddenly we were on a vast runway, covered with whole bunches of massive C-17s, KC-10s and C-130s. "The KC-10 is a great little aircraft," I was told. It didn't look so little to me. "It is used for troop transport." And for transporting us. "Your plane is located at the other end of the flightline, which will give you an idea of how large it is. Travis is one of our larger facilities. We can park almost 90 wide-bodies here. Any questions so far?"

"Er, where's the ladies' room?"

Then we went off to a briefing room and the colonel in charge of the whole mission arrived tell us all about "Operation Hydra" in depth. What exactly IS this mission about, you might ask. Not a clue. I should have googled it before I came. "Search. Hydra. Travis. I'm feeling lucky." But now we were about to get totally briefed -- as soon as they could get the projector to work.

"We are an air mobility command, aka a Contingency Response Wing," said the colonel, "and you are going to see us in action today. For instance you will be in a jumbo aircraft as it lands on a dirt landing strip." Yikes!

"Why are you going to do that?" asked a journalist. "In order to be able to land anywhere in an emergency?"

"Yes. For instance, in Afghanistan this is the routine form of landing facility available." Then the projector started to work, the PowerPoints came on and the briefing began in earnest.

"We are the Contingency Response Wing -- the CRW. We are a small operation, a boutique wing. Very small, very organized, very responsive. In an emergency such as Katrina, we can get there within hours. Our operations include global reach laydown, airbase opening and theater-wide air mobility command and control. We also control in-transit visibility." And this all means what? We were about to spend the day finding out.

"The CRW is expert in packing and delivering cargo to relief areas and also to airbases that have been captured during wartime. Our specialty is 'Rapid Port Opening.'" Apparently they can also tag all their cargo and track it like FedEx. "What is unique about this wing is that it is so mobile." They can do everything that the big Air Force commands and bases can do except the CRW does it all on the fly. They also carry troops into air operations and then come back in and pick them up, "Preparing the joint teams for airlift." And they also track all this stuff too. Their motto is, "Lean, light, first to the fight."

"Here is a photo of our mobile command and control system, which can fit on a small trailer." Apparently they can set up a whole airbase control tower and airfield out in the middle of Timbuktu within minutes. And they can repair aircraft, police the area, set up shelters and defend the base while they are doing it. "There are only 700 people in our wing." That IS boutique. "We are very operation-oriented. We have no supply-side and no back-up. We go to the airfields and open them up in hot spots and during national disasters."

Then they gave us a copy of their PowerPoint presentation. Here it is:

•What we do well: Rapidly deploy small tailored teams

•What we do best: Provide highly effective units cross trained in many specialties, successfully operate as teams many times our size

•How we work best: Call us with your Air Mobility requirements, and we will send the right team to accomplish the mission

Then the colonel ran off to go supervise some other aspect of Hydra and another colonel took over. "We have 1,000 people and 22 aircraft taking part in the emergency deployment exercise this week. There is also air-drop training, night-vision training, in-air refueling exercises, etc -- all taking place in a real-life environment. We will be performing over 300 missions this week."

Apparently the scenario for this exercise is an imaginary 8.0 earthquake and tsunami. "We are emphasizing humanitarian relief in this operation. We are a 911 force and can 'get out of town' in 12 hours." Or less.

Then the presenter talked about Rapid Port Opening again. Oh. That's like starting an airfield from scratch. And the PowerPoint presentation listed what we were going to do today. "8:45 am: Continental breakfast". I'm there.

"We are trained to defend ourselves while we set up a base if necessary but usually it is the Army or Marines that seize a base first and we only go in after it is semi-permissive. We remain there for a maximum of 45 days and then we turn the airbase over to either the regular military or to a humanitarian relief organization such as FEMA. When the Pakistan earthquake hit, we helped the Pakistanis get online in the areas that were devastated."

Then we got back on the bus and drove around the flightline a lot. Where's the continental breakfast!

Then we got on a plane. "We're going to Schoonover next." Apparently Schoonover is a dirt landing strip out in the middle of nowhere. "This will be a low-level flight. It's going to be bumpy. Let us know if you need a motion-sickness bag." Good grief. Did I pack my homeopathic remedy for stress prevention? No? Oh crap.

But we went up. And we came down. And it WAS bumpy. And I survived.

There originally had been 20 or 30 of us reporters signed up for this junket but somehow only four of us showed up. Chickened out, did they? Ha!

Once on the ground, it became obvious that we were on the GROUND. This here was the dirt landing strip they had told us about. "Where the freak are we?" I asked.

"Schoonover is part of Fort Hunter-Leggett, located between King City and San Luis Obispo." It looked like a Boy Scout camp, lots of tents. "With a 12-hour's notice, we can deploy any place in the world. Our mission here is to bring cargo in -- this is a humanitarian operation. This whole base was constructed right now. Everything you see came in by air." Even those earth-movers and that 18-wheeler? "Yes." Maybe they flew in the continental breakfast too? It's 10:15 am already -- but I still have hope.

So. Out here in the middle of nowhere, they already got a FedEx-type operation set up for cargo transfer. We stepped into a tent. It was air-conditioned! Cargo-tracking computers were already set up. "This is our Rapid Port Opening Element." Where were these guys when I had to pack up and move all by myself with only a Berkeley Bowl Marketplace shopping cart to help me last week!

"As soon as we hit the ground, everyone knows what their priorities are." Er, lunch? "We can do lunch for 1,000 earthquake survivors." Oh.

"We set up the supply lines here and then we just keep pumping the supplies through this point for as long as needed."

"So you could feed 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 earthquake victims?"

"Yes. From here, the goods are shipped to the NGOs for distribution, down the road." Blankets and food and medicine. "The technology allows us to track it all so that there are no losses or duplications," said another colonel. There seems to be a lot of colonels involved in Operation Hydra. Good. I like colonels. Most of them really seem to know what they're doing -- go-to guys.

"But in America, in case of emergency, reliance on active-duty military is the last resort."

"You mean because of Posse Comitatus?"

"Yes. Katrina was rather the exception. And the CRW is also very scale-able. We can supply only ten people or 115 or up to the entire CRW."

Then we talked to some med-evac personnel. "If you were an earthquake victim," they said, "we would triage you, find you an airlift, stabilize you and get you on the plane and out ASAP."

Then everyone in our tour group got back on the plane. And I got to sit up front with the pilots! "Over there is the drop zone," the co-pilot pointed out Good grief. Am I also gonna have to jump out of the plane? "Do you want to?" Only if it doesn't involve knees -- or if I get free knee-replacement surgery thrown in.

Then we started to taxi down the dirt airfield in our jumbo jet -- it was just one runway, hay bales on each side, dirt, really short. OMG Becky!

As a general rule, I tell everyone that I talk with in the military that I am a Progressive who is writing to inform other Progressives that, yes, there is incompetence and avarice in the White House, but that the US military is well-trained and staffed by intelligent, efficient and caring people despite the jugheads who pretend to be their commanders-in-chief. Or words to that effect (maybe I soften the message up just a bit). And most military types that I talk with get my point. But one officer I talked with at Schoonover, when I told her about my POV, just turned her back on me and walked off. Humph. But seriously. Conservatives and Progressives need to learn how to communicate with each other -- and to understand that the military is doing a good job at whatever they are told to do. And if we want them to do a good job at working in America's best interests instead of just making oil companies rich and promoting corporatism, all of us -- Left and Right -- have to be organized and brave and to fight to change the military's mission if we want to have a bright future for our country. We must do this together. For America. Hey, I can be as patriotic as the next person. Just wind me up and stand back!

Meanwhile back on the plane....

We were off the ground in less than the length of one football field.

Our pilot was a woman.

Why oh why had I asked to sit up front!

California's entire coastal mountain range and its wide coastal valley stretched out below us -- part of America's breadbasket. And lots of housing tracts. But the view from this place was just too much panoramic vista for me. Then some buzzers went off in the cockpit. That's it. That's enough. Get me DOWN. But not straight down, if you please.

Then another siren went off and an automatic-pilot mechanical voice started screaming, "Altitude! Altitude! Altitude!" I'm gonna sit in the back of the plane on the way back.

Holy cow! There's the runway. And then the pilot floated this thousand-ton sucker down and in like a leaf. And my out-of-body experience was over. For now.

We landed right next to a cabbage patch. And a golf course.

Back at the Boy Scout camp at Schoonover, I had asked one colonel about the training required to be in this wing. "Most of the people here come already trained in their specialty. We just hone their skills."

"Do people volunteer to serve in this wing?"

"Actually, yes. They like the adventure and the variety. We go all over the world at the drop of a hat. It beats working at a desk job or staying in one place for a whole tour of duty." I know what he means. Back home I get bored. But I'm certainly not bored now. Terrified, but not bored.

Then we got out of the plane and we were in Salinas. Oh. Salinas is famous for its lettuce. Hence the cabbage patch.

"Here at the Salinas municipal airport, it is a more urban environment," minus the cabbage, "giving us a chance to train while trying to fit our operation to already-existing infrastructure," said another colonel. Then they showed us more air-evac training, using manikins on stretchers to practice loading disaster victims onto the plane.

Another CRW colonel joined our briefing. "We haven't played one round of golf since we've been here, honest!" he joked. "With only 120 people in our wing, we still have the tasking capabilities to work 24 hours a day for 60 days. Our mission here is to accept cargo and keep the planes running in and out. But we do not distribute relief supplies as a general rule -- the NGOs do that. Also, in an emergency disaster situation, victims will try to get to airports because they know that's where relief supplies will be coming in, so we have to work with that factor as well. And we do all that with just 120 people.

"Salinas is an example of a permissive, improved area. Here we have the CRW and we also have the Kentucky National Guard helping out too. Salinas airport has offered us complete support for this operation and the Kentucky Guard is learning how to coordinate with our planes coming in and out." This particular Guard unit works out of Louisville, where UPS has its main office. "So, many of these Guardsmen work for UPS and know the tracking technology already."

Then the Kentucky Guard colonel spoke up. "We already understand very well the actual airlift operation itself. We were in Somalia, Bosnia and Zaire." So apparently being here today in order to learn how to coordinate with the Air Force CRW is important -- but they already showed up knowing how to move their bottoms FAST when the spit hits the fan.

"Any questions?"

"Yes. Where is the ladies' room?" And they lead me to the most fancy port-a-potty I've ever seen. Unbelievable. A sink, a flush toilet, a mirror, the works. I was so impressed I took a picture of it.

Then I had a nice conversation with one Kentucky Guardsman. "We are a very active unit. We were first responders for Katrina and 9-11 as well as for overseas. We also work with the drug demand reduction program." When not on active duty, he is employed by Toyota and apparently Toyota is very liberal in its commitment to letting its employees serve.

"I myself only serve three or four weeks a year but many of our guys serve three or four months a year. But we work alongside regular full-time Army personnel and our skill sets are up to their standards."

"Does your unit have a nickname? Like the Marines' Devil Dogs or something?"

"Er, no. But we have a motto. 'Unbridled Spirit'. It's also Kentucky's state motto." Works for me. I wanna be an Unbridled Spirit.

Then we went off to the A-E tent. "Areomedical Evacuation".

"90% of the med-evac in Iraq is done by the National Guard," I was told. "It used to take us ten days to get the wounded out. Now we get them out in three days -- giving us a 98% survival rate. We are the first medical group to arrive at CRW locations." Then we went into another air-conditioned tent. Maybe I could live in a tent like this -- after my housing co-op's "Six Million dollar Board" gets done running our property into the ground.

Then the reporter next to me dropped a bombshell. "Mr. Bush will be at Travis today."

Say what!

"Yep. He's coming here to raise money for the Republicans." Good grief!

"Can we actually get to go see him?"

"Maybe, if you wait around long enough. But frankly if you've seen one Bush, you've seen them all."

"But I've been trying to get that man thrown into jail for eight long dreary unsuccessful years now -- so I'd at least like to know what the guy looks like." Seeing as how I practically the president of the anti-Bush fan club and all that.

"I don't think that you would be allowed into the event," said another reporter. "The guest list is pretty strict. Plus only the White House press corps is credentialed for this." Ah, the usual Bush tap-dance with freedom of speech. "Also, I hear that they are charging $850,000 a plate at his fund-raiser." $850,000 a plate! I could live for the rest of my freaking LIFE on $850,000. And not only that, but Bush is flying here at us taxpayers' expense? Just to go to a partisan fund-raiser? Isn't that illegal? Hey, I pay my taxes. Shouldn't I be allowed to go to the fund-raiser too? Apparently not.

Meanwhile, back in Salinas, we got back on the plane, they handed us some box lunches and the plane backed up. "That's something that most planes can't do." The chicken patty in my sandwich looked and tasted like Spam. Plus Rice Krispie Treats, a fruit cup, some BBQ potato chips and an apple. Then there was a huge jolt and we were back in the air. I'm such a wus. I hate to fly.

Then an EMT told me that they were having a resuscitation demonstration right in the middle of the cargo space, so I rushed over to see that. There was a whole EMT crew resuscitating and operating on a medical dummy right there in the bowels of the freaking plane while in flight. It was better than an inflight movie. It was surreal. They did everything to that poor dummy except take out his tonsils! And we were only in the air for 20 minutes between when we went up and when we came down.

And speaking of coming down, we didn't need no stinkin' stewardess to tell us when to get back to our seats. Our plane started to go down really fast and we knew. Ah, the fine points of flying mil-air!

"We're at Castle AFB now. It's near Merced." Castle is serving as the hub of the Hydra operation. "Planes fly in from Fort Bragg as well as from Travis. This is a closed base so most of us are down here from Travis -- and about 200 are out from Fort Bragg. We run the operation's nerve center from here." We got out of the plane and it was hot. Rats! I left my truckers cap back in the plane.

We met another colonel here and he had a coolness cap....

There were more medical tents here on the flightline and more crash-test dummies. But they weren't wearing caps.

Then we went to the mobile command site, in a tiny pre-fab that had been flown in here -- or could be flown in to any location anywhere on the globe. In case of a huge emergency, this equipment/personnel combination had the capability to supply total air traffic control for the entire state of California.

"Where'd you get your training?" I asked one of the officers.

"At the Hurburt AOC -- Air and Space Operations Center -- in Florida. Also, we set up this entire facility less than two weeks ago." And they run most of their communications off of Dell laptops.

"Many countries throughout the world have air forces. But what sets us apart from the others is our vast air and space operations capabilities."

Then we went to the heart of the center, a room about the size of my bedroom, filled with computers. How to describe them? Mini-mainframes in plastic transit cases, light enough to be carried by one man -- or by three of me and a dolly. "They are totally transportable." I am so jealous! At home, I gots a 1995 computer hooked up to Windows 98. I can't even get re-runs of "America's Greatest Dog" on it and can play half a game of Free Cell solitaire while waiting around for each screen change. You bet I'm jealous.

"Can you deliver one of those to my house? Here's the address. Say, on Friday between 1:00 pm and 5?" The colonel just laughed. Cool stuff!

"We have to get you back to Travis right now because they are going to shut down the airspace for Air Force One pretty soon." Then we'd be stuck at Castle for the next eight or ten hours, waiting for Bush to finish his fund-raiser. So we went back to the plane. Oh, look! There's my cap. Yea!

"Why are there so many colonels here?" I asked a colonel.

"They have all come here for the exercise. They come from as far away as Kentucky and Hawaii."

"So then the Air Force doesn't just promote people to colonel at the drop of a hat?"

The colonel laughed again. "No."

Okay. It's been a very interesting and informative day. I've been very impressed with the CRW's abilities to handle things in the event of an emergency and can now sleep sounder knowing that we're safe. But now we gotta go fly back to Travis so, as GWB is fond of saying, "Bring it on!" And when I get back, should I try to party-crash the Bush fund-raiser? No. If Bush wants me there, he's going to have to beg.