A few good Marines visit the AF DTC

by Capt. John Ross
86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Though Marines are legendary for coming by land and by sea, more than 100 of them arrived at Ramstein April 27 by air for a brief stay at the Air Force Deployment Transition Center.

On their way home from Helmand Province in Afghanistan, the Marines of the 1st Explosives Ordnance Disposal Company from Camp Pendleton, Calif., are the first members from another branch of service to go through the Air Force DTC since its doors opened in July 2010.

For the Marines, the DTC was not just a random spot on the map.

“The commandant of the Marine Corps himself is interested in assisting EOD with developing a resiliency program,” said Marine Lt. Col. Marc Tarter, EOD occupational field sponsor at Headquarters Marine Corps. “He sent a few of us out to look around at all of the other services to see what they are doing regarding resiliency. We contacted the DTC and asked if we could do a site visit. As it turns out, we were extremely impressed with it.”

Designed to help Airmen returning from combat zones prepare to return to the civilized world, the DTC uses some unconventional techniques to help service members decompress before being reintroduced to their families and co-workers at home station.

“The best analogy I can give is the difference now between when you climb on an aircraft out of theater and land home right away, versus in World War II when you left combat behind and were on a troop ship for weeks before getting home,” said Air Froce Capt. Christopher Conklin DTC chaplain. “You were likely to talk and share stories with each other, and kind of process things as you were steaming across the Atlantic. This is to give them that space.”

Many EOD technicians from all branches of service know what it’s like to abruptly find themselves back at home after growing accustomed to a combat environment.


“We didn’t have this training, and when I got home (from my last deployment) I knew I would be what we call ‘pinging.’ You get those adrenaline spikes and whatnot,” said Marine Staff Sgt. Matthew Jackson, a team leader from the 1st EOD Company, who returned from previous deployments without the benefit of a DTC-type program. Even little things can cause a physical reaction in a new redeployer, he said.

“I can self-diagnose it. The movie theater was a big one for me. People chewing with their mouths open or crinkling bags ― that would cause me to ping a little bit,” he said.

Using a mix of down time, guided group discussions and some sightseeing in nearby German towns, the DTC gives redeployers an opportunity to relax and talk over their experiences after long months in a combat environment.

“The first day they had a lot of anticipation for what they were dealing with,” said Marine Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jason Perry, a career field facilitator for the group. “On the second day we went and did an outing, and physically you could see guys sit down and eat, and almost a weight lifted off their shoulders. You could tell once they hit that point, the guys started to open up with what they’ve experienced. It was absolutely phenomenal to see those guys transform from completely wired coming right out of theater, to finally relaxing and having that expectation management for when they go home.”

After prolonged time in a combat zone, redeployers often feel alienated from their family and friends when they get home and are only comfortable discussing their experiences with colleagues who’ve walked in the same shoes. One of the mainstays of the DTC program is to provide that opportunity to redeployers in the form of career field facilitators ― members of their own career field who’ve recently returned from combat deployments themselves. CFFs are trained to lead group discussions and help fresh redeployers speak more freely about what they’ve been through.

Experienced Air Force facilitators from the DTC trained a cadre of Marines CFFs specifically for the 1st EOD Company.

“In my opinion, (group discussion) allows them to open up to you as a facilitator and allows me to learn from them and help them get through their experiences,” said Officer Perry, who returned from a deployment with the 1st EOD Company last November. “Obviously, it is just our company that is coming back from this tour, but in the future if this continues to go on, I think it is going to have extremely good effects on other Marines later on. It may not be right here, right now, but if I can have that (good) effect on one guy in three months when he is thinking of something bad, then we have been successful.”

DTC staff know what to expect from a new group going through the program.

“It’s really evident the first time we bring a group through. The Air Force EOD guys, they know what this is all about. They’ve e-mailed back and forth to each other, they’ve called each other and shared stories about it. So when they come into the PAX terminal they’re looking forward to it,” Chaplain Conklin said. “For the Marine group that came through, it was all, ‘You are a stop that’s preventing me from getting home.’ You could see the stress in their shoulders and their eyes and the way they carried themselves. So the first impression the fellow career field facilitator gives them is absolutely huge.”

Though uncertain at first, as the new class went through the program, their demeanor began to change, Chaplain Conklin said.

“You generally see it on their faces. Their jaws aren’t clenched anymore, the smiles are coming out, and they’re much more easygoing and talkative with each other.”

This was a transformation that took place, in large part, due to the Marine facilitators’ dedication to the close-knit EOD community.

“You could really tell, from what they were doing and from the preparations they were making, that (the Marine facilitators) really wanted to do everything they possibly could to make this the best experience for their EOD Marines coming back from theater,” Chaplain Conklin said.

Though the long-term question of future interaction with other services and the DTC has yet to be answered, the door is certainly open to the Marine EOD community.

“I could see Headquarters Marine Corps requesting to be able to do this again for the next EOD personnel coming out, which will be approximately six to seven months from now,” Colonel Tarter said. “As far as decompression, there is nothing along these lines that has been set up for the Marines. There are many other programs out there, but nothing that parallels this.”

Meanwhile, Marines from the 1st EOD Company head home a little better prepared for what comes next.

“My personal hope is that everyone gets the most out of (the Air Force DTC program),” said Marine Capt. Jim Shelstad, 1st EOD Company commander. “When they leave here, they can breathe a little bit deeper, relax a little bit quicker. When they step off the bus at Camp Pendleton, they’re that much closer to being decompressed and reintegrated back into the mainstream of society.”