Though the military provides tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic development to the Emerald Coast, many people drive by the local bases daily and never see what happens behind the gates.
Wednesday, Sept. 11, this reporter got a tour of the some of the daily happenings at Hurlburt Field, home of the 1st Special Operations Wing.
After being escorted onto the base, the day began with a somber ceremony at the base fire station, commemorating the heroic acts of first responders on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Col. William P. West, Commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing, and Fire Chief Michael Blakely spoke to the servicemen and women about the sacrifices made on that day and every day since.
"On 9/11, it was the first responders who provided police and medical services. They were the first ones to fight the war on terror," West told the crowd.
Blakely tolled the bell for the first responders who have lost their lives, and said a few words to end the ceremony. Our tour guides: Airman Desiree Moye, Airman Michelle Vickers and Sergeant Sarah Hanson, then escorted us to a small auditorium, where Col. West was waiting to brief us on the history and duties of Hurlburt Field and the 1st SOW, one of three Air Force active duty special operations wings and the first servicemen to fire shots in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The fact Col. West seemed most proud of was that the 1st SOW is the most deployed unit in the Air Force.
"We're getting ready to go back into Afghanistan. We're on a set rotation basis; six months on, six months off," Col. West said.
Next on our tour was an AC-130 gunship, the Air Force's go-to plane for air support, air interdiction and force protection. The plane, built in 1992, is one of the newest in the AC-130 line, which were first deployed in 1972. Mostly an air support plane, the AC-130 is equipped with a 40 mm cannon, first used during World War II as an Army anti-aircraft gun. It also has a 105 mm cannon, a repurposed Army howitzer from the Vietnam era.
A massive war machine, the AC-130 has a wingspan of 132 feet, seven inches. It is 97-feet long and 38-feet high and can reach speeds of up to 300 mph. It takes a crew of 13 airmen to control such an aircraft in battle, but the pilot has the final say on everything that happens, even firing the guns on the side of the aircraft.
From the AC-130, we headed to the firing range, where Air Force Security Forces train every serviceman and woman based at Hurlburt to use their fire arms. A small team of Security Forces weapons instructors demonstrated firing a series of weapons, including a M9 Beretta, the standard-issue sidearm, a M4 carbine rifle, a M870 combat shotgun, a M249 light machine gun and a M240 machine gun.
After the weapons demonstration, we had lunch in the dining hall, The Riptide, which I quickly learned is for military personnel only.
"Excuse me, Sir, are you military?" a man in a chef's coat asked the moment I entered the cafeteria-style mess hall. "We don't serve civilians here anymore." I wasn't sure what to say, but Airman Vickers quickly came to my rescue, explaining they were taking me on a command-approved tour.
"That's good enough for me," the man said before walking away.
The Riptide is one of the first Air Force dining halls with a fitness center attached to it. The reason for that was soon apparent. My home-style lunch of fried fish, green beans, macaroni and cheese and a roll was surprisingly good and less expensive than the value meals on drive-thru menus. One could easily consume more calories than needed there if not on a strict exercise routine.
After lunch, 1st Lieutenant Nelson Banser gave us a tour of the Deployment Control Center, every Airman's last stop before heading overseas, and the first stop when they return. After a short briefing, airmen have to pass through a series of booths set up on one side of a long hallway. Officers at each booth check and handle a different aspect of the deployment process: finances and payroll, airman eligibility to deploy, airman and family readiness counseling, religious counseling, disbursement of cash in local currency, legal issues, such as writing wills, and medical checks and immunizations.
Then the airmen pick up their equipment: helmet, bullet-proof vest, gas mask, chemical suit, sleeping bag and cold-weather gear. In all, they must carry more than 70 pounds of gear, not counting their firearms. Once fully equipped, the airmen get a full, classified briefing on the mission that lies ahead, before heading to the air strip to board the plane.
Our day concluded with a guided tour of the Hurlburt Field Air Park with Air Force historian William Landau. The park contains more than 15 decommissioned aircraft. From the small, quick T28 Trojan first built in the 1950s, to the large, slow c-123 that sprayed Agent Orange on the jungle of Vietnam, the Air Park displays a varied collection of the Air Force's history.
ďA colonel once told me that Hurlburt has the second-best Air Park in the Air Force. He didnít say what the best was, though, so I like to think we have the best,Ē Landau said.