Returning SFS deployers reflect on time spent abroad

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- "Pearl Harbor," "Saving Private Ryan," "Black Hawk Down," and even movies like "Iron Man" depict the way that Hollywood perceives deployed life. And while some events described in these movies are based on true events and circumstances, Hollywood is never 100 percent accurate. One might be left asking, "What is it really like to be deployed?"

Recently, two groups of Airmen from the 42nd Security Forces Squadron returned from deployments to Camp Bucca, Iraq, and Baghdad, Iraq. The deployments lasted six to nine months, with the Airmen returning between October and December 2008. While the mission of each deployment was different, the deployed lifestyle was very similar in both locations.

The Airmen deployed to Camp Bucca enjoyed time spent meeting with 600 to 700 Iraqi locals daily.

"A lot of Iraqi people have a certain perception," said Airman 1st Class Bradley Wells. "They got to see a different part of the military other than in a combat situation."

According to Tech. Sgt. Marcus Jackson, the Camp Bucca mission was to facilitate detainees and to supervise visits from family members, who had to make appointments six months in advance.

"Facilitating the visit was a good thing because [the detainees] would be so happy," Airman Wells said. "As soon as the visitation [ended], they wouldn't listen or care anymore."

That's when the job had the potential to turn dangerous.

"Those were the times we worried about escapes," Sergeant Jackson said.

Even though a lot of time involved supervising visits, there was still time to interact with the local children, who always seemed to be hanging around, Airman Wells said.

"The area turned into play land," he said. "The kids always asked for chocolate."

It was the children that left the fondest memories for Airman Wells. He was impressed that the children knew English and would always ask questions. As for Sergeant Jackson, his fondest memory is "the magnitude of people we interacted with. Most people don't get to do that."

While the mission at Camp Bucca dealt with detaining insurgents, the mission at Baghdad involved finding the insurgents.

According to Master Sgt. Scott King, the "mission was a patrol squad that supported counter insurgency operations." The Airmen were often outside the wire on specific patrol missions that changed from day to day. They occasionally joined forces with the Army to conduct raids, locate weapons or to carry out presence patrols.

On these patrols, danger was always present and worry was a natural emotion.

"You think about your brothers," said Senior Airman Brock O'Hara. "Safety was our number one concern."

For those on patrol in Baghdad, adrenaline was up initially, but after several routine patrols, nerves settled down a bit. There was always a certain level of anxiety. Although there were many dangers, these Airmen also enjoyed interacting with the locals. Any time they were outside of the base, the security forces Airmen said it was evident the Iraqi people felt safe.

"Anytime we were in one of their neighborhoods, insurgents weren't going to do anything," Sergeant King said.

The feeling of safety made the children even friendlier.

"Kids would acknowledge you," said Senior Airman Anthony Dotta. "Sometimes they would come right up to you. They were always smiling and waving. They learned and picked up so much from us."

There were also times these Airmen reached out to help local families.

"One time, we helped out a little girl that was burned really badly from a grease fire," said Senior Airman John Davis.

The little girl was around 3 years old, and her parents contacted them for medical help, Sergeant King said. He said it was amazing to be able to patch her up and care for her.

For the Airmen, being in the Iraqi neighborhoods and helping out families made them miss their own families and homes.

"We have a much better life here [in the USA]. They don't have anything," Airman Davis said.

Besides missing family and friends, the Airmen also missed unnoticed comforts of home: Sergeant Jackson missed cable, and Sergeant King missed open spaces.

"I felt like I was in a maze," Sergeant King said.

Although these men sacrificed their time and risked their lives while deployed, they were glad to do the job.

"The majority of the people were excited, grateful and thankful we were there," Sergeant Jackson said.