Monday 7 April 2014 by Alison Wishart. No comments
Opinion, views and commentary, Personal Stories, AMAB, Dubai, airfields, mothering

Day 27: Under her wings

Our one hour flight from Bahrain to Dubai turned into an 11 hour endurance test. After spending most of the night in the air waiting for a freak cyclone to ease and in the Bahrain transit lounge, we finally made it back to AMAB (Al Minhad Air Base) safely.

Rain is rare in the Middle East, but it has rained in every place we have visited. We seem to be taking it with us. I wonder if it will be raining in Canberra when we finally get home.

After doing a 'brown bear' (see Day 8), I interviewed the Wing Commander who is in charge of the Combat Support Unit (CSU) at AMAB. She has about 115 airforce personnel under her wings. This is a group drawn from across Australia who have not worked together before. They do a diverse range of tasks from providing firefighters at the airfield and security guards at the gates to the base, to organising visas for people coming in and out of AMAB. If someone needs to be evacuated from Afghanistan for urgent medical treatment, someone from her medical team will be there. They also provide chaplaincy and health services, and organise social events for the base. CSU run the popular gym, including providing a Personnel Training Instructor (PTI) to make sure that the blokes do not injury themselves in their desire to look like Rambo. This is the sort of behind the scenes work that makes a military base more comfortable.

Tigger and a purple monkey cling to the medical flagpole at AMAB
Tigger and a purple monkey cling to the medical flagpole at AMAB

One of her most important tasks is host nation liaison. Australia is allowed to have a base at AMAB because it has a good relationship with the UAE (United Arab Emirates). If anyone on the base does anything that offends the host nation, they could easily kick us out. AMAB is Australia's gateway to Afghanistan.

Not all small, soft, furry creatures are benign - warning sign provided by CSU
Not all small, soft, furry creatures are benign - warning sign provided by CSU

The airfield is the link "into country" and CSU provide 24/7 support to the aircrew to make sure the airfield is always operational. They load and unload all ADF aircraft at AMAB and at two airfields in Afghanistan - and believe me, soldiers do not travel light! An airfield is much more than a runway and a wind sock. CSU do logistics and keep a supply of spare parts for generators, forklifts, powercarts and vehicles.

As well as having 115 staff to look after, the Wing Commander also has two young boys at home. She was away for her son's third birthday and will miss her 15 month old learning to talk. This is her first deployment since having kids. It's hard to explain to young children why Mummy has to go away for six and a half months. She has decided not to talk to them while she is away and to hear about them through her husband. Perhaps she doesn't want her children growing up thinking that she "lives inside a computer", which is what one young child said after interacting with her deployed father via skype. Nevertheless, I got the feeling that she was carrying a lot of pain.

Twelve months ago I went to the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO) with the Australian War Memorial. I was working on an oral history-photographic project. The core part of the project was interviewing and photographing 19 currently serving members of the ADF - from the army, navy and airforce - before, during and after their deployment in 2013 to the MEAO.  In another 12 months time, you should be able to see the results of this work in an exhibition which will travel around Australia.

These blog posts were written while I was in the MEAO but were not uploaded to the AWM website at that time.

I am planning to upload one blog post each day, exactly 12 months on from the actual day I was on deployment. We left Canberra on 12 March 2013.