Northwest Military Blogs: McChord Flightline Chatter

January 11, 2012 at 3:36am

Ending an era: Reflections on leaving Iraq

The supply warehouse, which once teamed with forklifts, supply clerks and customers sits empty as the remaining U.S. military members left Kirkuk Regional Air Base, Iraq in November 2011. (courtesy photo)

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When Maj. Tony Edwards took his last look around the supply warehouse, which was once a bustling place of activity and full of supplies, he marveled at its emptiness.
 
"It was completely vacated, as it should be," said Edwards, who was the 321st Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron commander at Kirkuk Regional Air Base, Iraq, from April to November 2011. "That was a sign of us leaving."

By December 2011, only echoes and memories were left from more than one million service members who have deployed to Iraq since 2003.

"We knew the draw down was going to happen since the end of combat in 2008," he said as he put his deployment into perspective. "But a withdrawal like this hasn't taken place since Vietnam. There was no guidebook to attempt something like this. We pretty much wrote the manual."

Edwards, a Reservist who owns a State Farm insurance agency in Everett, Wash., was in charge of a 60-member squadron with two missions: training and advising Iraqis and keeping the Air Force operations running.

"It was a big task for a Reservist because I was in charge of the most difficult mission at the time--we had to move all the people and equipment and train the Iraqis, all while achieving the daily mission," he said. "All eyes were on me and my Airmen."

"I thought it was going to be daunting when I first arrived," the 446th Logistics Readiness Flight commander at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. said. The reality he said was that no one convoy or plane would get all the vehicles, people and supplies out of Kirkuk in one load or in one day. The challenge then was how to move everything piece by piece efficiently, while still maintaining the ability to run the base and complete the daily mission.

Being a Reservist gave him an advantage he said because his civilian job helped him hone deliberate planning techniques.

"I have to find ways to market my business and figure out ways to encourage people to invest in our products," the Citizen Airman said. "My approach to planning helped me find ways to coordinate which assets we could let go while still conducting daily operations."

After prioritizing the assets he then had to make it all fit on a combination of flights, using space wisely so everything would be out of the country by the target date.

"It was also really tough to come up with a plan to move all the equipment out when the finish line kept moving," Edwards said. Each time their return date changed, his carefully laid out plan had to change as well, ensuring no assets were lost in the process.

"We had to account for everything, which had to be shipped somewhere or change ownership whether it went to the Iraqis or to another agency within the Defense Department." Edwards said and explained he worked closely with the Army to ensure success. "Very few items came up missing."

"We had to get it right and we had to get it done on time and still carry on the mission--that was the biggest challenge."

As the base supply dwindled to a mere fraction of its former self and service members slowly departed, the remaining few continued to train Iraqis and prepared to hand the base over to them.

They took a crawl, walk, run approach to training them until eventually they did it on their own completely. "After all," he said, "they ran their own military bases before we got there."

"To see their progress was really rewarding. Many of them were fighting for the Iraqi army or air force when the war began," Edwards said. "Now they see us as the example of who they want to be like."

It was a big accomplishment he said to turn over fuel operations, which is the largest in Iraq with more than 500,000 gallons of JP8, and teaching them how to sustain that mission themselves. While a small footprint of DOD members remain, Kirkuk is now an Iraqi air force base for training pilots.

As the people and supplies left in a safe and logical manner and his deployment came to an end, Edwards said he felt relieved and particularly proud of the mission they accomplished.

"We did it smoothly and it worked," said Edwards, who attributed his success to his Airmen and his ability to lead them to the confidence he's gained from his military and civilian careers.

As the last Army convoy left, Edwards sat on the plane hauling the final 12 people from his deployment out of Kirkuk and reflected on what they had just done.

"It was me, a couple of aerial porters and air traffic controllers and the guy marshalling the plane," he recanted. "It was an historical time--it was the start of us closing down the bases in Iraq. It was a great effort from everyone involved. We did things the correct way."

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