SOUTHWEST ASIA — Airmen remain a vital part of the joint mission, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley observed during his recent visit to installations in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.
The secretary used the opportunity to speak with Airmen and receive mission updates in Iraq and Afghanistan. Secretary Donley also met with regional senior leaders in both countries.
"This is my second trip out here since becoming the 22nd secretary of the Air Force, and the purpose of the visit was to compare and contrast the changes and progress being made," he said. "What I found is that Airmen are in good spirits, they believe in their mission and morale is high. We still have a lot of work to ensure the Iraqi and Afghan forces can defend themselves and their people, but our Airmen are an essential part of making that happen."
During the first leg of his trip, Secretary Donley traveled to Iraq and visited Sather and Taji Air Bases as well as Joint Base Balad. Airmen gave the secretary an overview of efforts to train the Iraqi air force as their military becomes increasingly responsible for its own defense.
While visiting Balad, Airmen briefed the secretary about intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance efforts. Combatant commanders depend on Airmen to provide intellience, surveillance and reconnaissance for the troops on the ground, Secretary Donley said.
In addition, the wing commander at Balad, Brig. Gen. Craig Franklin, outlined the potential future of the installation.
"The plan to draw down our forces in Iraq begins now," the general said. "When the Iraqis take this base back, they will have several options on what they can do with it."
The joint theater hospital at Balad is known throughout the country. In fact, the staff there has more Iraqi patients than they do anyone else, and Airmen are mentoring the Iraqi medical staff. The hospital at Balad is one of the many success stories of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Franklin told Secretary Donley.
The general also outlined the role Airmen filling joint expeditionary taskings have in Iraq. JET Airmen deploy to fill positions working alongside sister service personnel.
"JET Airmen are all over Iraq working to help our joint teammates," Franklin said. They're helping the Iraqis learn to do everything from aircraft maintenance to contracting to force protection, he added.
Once in Afghanistan, Secretary Donley found Airmen in similar roles during his visits to Kabul as well as Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar Airfields.
In Kabul, he met with several senior leaders including the Afghan minister of defense to discuss the overall mission in Afghanistan . He also visited the headquarters for the International Security Assistance Force and discussed the role of the Air Force with Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the ISAF commander.
Donley met with Airmen to see for himself how they're helping train members of the Afghan National Army Air Corps.
While at Bagram, he hosted an Airmen's Call in the Air Force compound at Camp Cunningham. There, he outlined the near future for Air Force operations in the country and thanked Airmen for their contributions.
"The scope of the mission you are undertaking in the joint fight is truly breathtaking," Donley told the hundreds of gathered Airmen. "Without our Air Force, the joint fight would simply grind to a halt. We're doing it with the Total Force of active duty, Guard and Reserve Airmen, civilians and contractors."
Jalalabad Airmen provided insight into the specific mission requirements in Eastern Afghanistan, where they "bring the fight directly to the enemy." Air liaison officers briefed the secretary on the challenges of bringing airpower to support ground troops in the rough terrain there. Donley asked the liaisons, "What do you need from us?" and took notes on several requests to improve the mission in that region.
The secretary also watched unmanned aircraft systems operations, met with firefighters and heard from the facilities engineering team on how their efforts will improve the base.
He then headed to Regional Command-South, where Airmen at Kandahar outlined the burgeoning mission sets there, including C-130 Hercules airlift, MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper patrols, A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support, establishing communication networks across the country, training the Afghan Army Air Corps, and numerous other tasks as multinational and joint partners help turn Kandahar into a more viable military installation.
During a dinner there, he met with Airmen to hear directly from them about their mission and their needs to be more effective at it. He also discussed the importance of having "the right people at the right time" at Kandahar, according to Tech. Sgt. Sarah Blackburn, a member of the 451st Force Support Flight and deployed from Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash.
"He explained to us that every commander at Kandahar was hand selected based on their experience and skill," Blackburn said. "It certainly makes me feel better knowing that senior Air Force leadership specifically put certain people here to lead us. It gives us more confidence in our job knowing we have that much attention from them."
Overall, the trip throughout the Area of Responsibility gave the secretary direct contact with the people who are "making the mission happen." He deemed the visit a great success as he was updated on the important role Airmen play in supporting combatant commanders and shaping the futures of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We're taking a much closer look at the way the Air Force supports operations as we transition forces from Iraq to Afghanistan," Secretary Donley said. "We're focused on supporting the joint fight. Whether it's in Kandahar or a provincial reconstruction team or a forward operating base, Airmen are everywhere increasing the quality of service and making operations more effective. We still have a lot of work to do, but I have the utmost confidence in our Airmen."