After six months of a combat deployment, followed by two straight days of travel, a weary 31-member explosive ordnance disposal team waited at the Ramstein baggage claim July 2, unsure of what the next three days would bring.
Some members of Delta Flight were skeptical, some apprehensive, others just tired, but they all became curious when 12 Airmen they’d never met stepped forward and began pulling their bags from the carousel.
Without realizing it, Delta EOD Flight, from the 755th Air Expeditionary Squadron in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, had already begun their course as the first unit to attend Ramstein’s Air Force Deployment Transition Center.
Afghanistan was already starting to feel a little farther away.
“They got our bags. They made sure that the weapons we had to bring back were accounted for and taken care of. They had the room keys for us. Basically, it was a full-service reception,” said Capt. Lee Turcotte, 755th Delta EOD Flight commander. “They had all the little things thought out, so we could just get our baggage and go straight to our rooms. I really appreciated that.”
After a brief introduction from the DTC staff, the drained Airmen were soon in their rooms in Ramstein’s Kaiserslautern Military Community Center lodging, digging through their bags in search of items they hadn’t seen in six months — civilian clothes.
“That very first day, when they get to their room and take off their uniform, it’s like taking off that skin. You’re taking off your combat skin,” said Staff Sgt. Leonard Livas, EOD career field facilitator for the DTC. “Take a shower, get some rest, have a good meal, and start out fresh the next day. Just the simple fact that you can dress like a normal human being really helps to put them at ease.”
That evening, the civvie-clad Delta Flight dined together in a KMCC restaurant, and the DTC staff joined them.
“The first night they were here, we all sat around and we just talked about their families, about their deployment. They asked questions about the program,” said Capt. Heather DeShone, DTC program manager. “This is not therapy, this is not a mental health program. This is reintegration. This is us just being there to support them, and being there if they need us.”
Designed to be a centralized transition point for Airmen from the security forces, convoy operations and EOD career fields on their way home from combat deployments, the DTC was first proposed by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz in February. U.S. Air Forces in Europe Commander Gen. Roger Brady offered Ramstein as the ideal place for the program.
“Ramstein is uniquely situated as the primary en route stop for troops transiting out of the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility,” General Brady said.
There are still several pieces to put in place before the DTC is fully operational in January 2011, but the facility was ready in time for Delta Flight and a long list of other units soon to follow.
“It’s kind of a natural stopping point on the way home for almost everybody. Some guys had never been to Europe, and it’s a chance to see something a little bit different,” Captain Turcotte said. “It’s like everybody can stop and relax, and all the amenities that you need for a couple days are here.”
After a good night’s rest, Delta Flight began the course in earnest the next day, beginning with guided, small-group discussions. Trained DTC facilitators are required to be from the career fields of the Airmen they are working with, and to have recently completed a combat deployment themselves.
“One of the things that’s really hard, especially for the EOD career field in the Air Force, nobody knows what we do. After doing deployments back to back to back, it really takes a toll on morale,” Sergeant Livas said. “I think this program is being done correctly, being tailored to the career fields it’s supposed to help. It shows that the Air Force is really looking to make sure we know that they understand. They want to make sure that we’re getting what we need.”
To the DTC staff, meeting the requirements of Airmen downrange is not just a matter of seeing to their personal needs. The facilitators also view their group discussions as a place to learn more about what equipment, training and provisions Airmen in combat need. That information is then passed directly to officials at Air Staff — who are listening closely.
“We go over lessons learned. Not just personally, but that the Air Force can use,” Captain DeShone said. “We change things.”
Airmen going through the program are usually eager to pass on recommendations that can help the Airmen who replace them in harm’s way.
“It’s a good feeling to know that (our feedback to Air Staff) is not going to be filtered in a way that takes meaning from it,” said Senior Master Sgt. George Price Jr., Delta Flight superintendent. “Sometimes, information needs to arrive with a punch to get the various entities’ attention. I feel like some of the things we went through need higher echelon attention. I like the fact that it’s going straight to the top.”
Later that day, Delta Flight boarded a bus and headed to nearby Heidelberg, a city featuring a baroque-age castle and popular modern shopping area.
“Instead of talking about how you’re going to ease into a social situation, well we’re going on a trip. We’re going to actually ease ourselves into that social situation,” Sergeant Livas said. Instead of checking rooftops and carefully watching the facial expression of every passerby, Delta Flight’s focus could now be on seeing the sights, attempting to speak German and making each other laugh.
“It’s definitely atypical of what we’ve seen downrange in Afghanistan,” Sergeant Price said. “And you’re still doing it in the group setting, with the people you’ve gone through some things with. So I like that. It gives us a chance to enjoy
each other, and then transition back home.”
By the end of the course the following Monday, Delta Flight had a noticeably different attitude about themselves, and about the DTC.
“At first some pushed back because it was unknown. Fear of the unknown always sets in with a few people,” Sergeant Price said. “I feel like it was a big help, not only for me but for our entire flight. It gives us pause, between leaving the area of responsibility and going home and facing your families and your normal life — if there is such a thing as a ‘normal life’ in our career field. This is an ideal spot to do that. It’s on the way home.”
And Captain Turcotte agreed.
“For being the first class to go through, I think it went a lot better than I expected,” he said. “The facilitated discussions and everything were really smooth and fluid. I enjoyed it. I think there’s a lot of value to it. I don’t want to sound too melodramatic about it, but it’s nice to have something at the end where it’s almost like a little bit of closure, where you can just relax as a unit again and everybody understands what they all went through while we were deployed. It’s a good way to finish.”