Half a world away sits an airman on alert duty. He’s waiting for the call so that within an hour, he’s airborne to refuel the fight over Afghanistan. Elsewhere there sits a Marine listening to his music knowing that in a few hours he will finally be heading back home to the United States. The Transit Center at Manas is a small city situated on an airport near the town of Bishkek in northern Kyrgyzstan. 14 hours ahead of San Francisco, this former Soviet country serves as the transit hub to the war in Afghanistan. Established in December of 2001 and located at Manas International Airport, TCM has on average, 4,000+ personnel on base.
The Transit Center at Manas has four missions that they expertly handle. Air Refueling, Onward Movement, Airlift, and Building Partnerships. In the short time I was at TC Manas, I got a chance to see each and every aspect of these four missions. I never fully understood the intricacies of the “How” it happened. In my mind, half way around the world, people and stuff just got there, did it’s thing, and came back. Planes flew, did their thing, and flew back. If you needed something, you had Amazon Prime, right? Not quite. All over the globe, members of our Armed Forces are in an intricate dance, playing chess, and juggling balls at the same time. People, assets, and cargo are being moved as needed, and as efficiently as possible. Chances are if it’s going in and out of Afghanistan, it will come through Manas.
0800 came to early. Felt like just the night before I was hoisting a pint in a British pub. But that memory was quickly erased with the bite in the air and seeing nothing but concrete and military uniforms everywhere. I spent the night in my DV accommodations in one of the base’s CLU’s (Container Living Units). Mobile housing constructed out of cargo shipping containers. Very reminiscent of my college dorm room, minus the alcohol and Top Gun poster.
The amazing Public Affairs staff at TC Manas had a wonderful itinerary for us in the short time that we were in Kyrgyzstan. With the loss of one full day due to the snafu in the UK, the PA staff rearranged our itinerary so that we didn’t miss a thing. Every moment of our day was planned down to the minute. Below is just the first half of the first day of our trip!
And at 0800 I was already late to breakfast at the DFAC (Dining Facility). In case you haven’t noticed, the Military loves their acronyms. 🙂
Once you enter the DFAC, you are immediately greeted by a row of sinks to wash your hands. While offputting at first, it makes total sense. With 1,400 permenent military folks at TC Manas, 700 local contractors, 300 DOD contrctors, and 1,000-2,500 transient military folks, germs can wreck havoc on a base. So scrub extra good!
Some low fat milk 🙂
And who says the Air Force doesn’t have a sense of humor? A nice reminder of San Francisco.
Our first stop of the morning was to visit the 304th Military Police Battalion. All members of the 304th are are trained U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Agents. One of the major missions at TC Manas is getting the troops in and out of Afghanistan. “Welcome to Customs” is the one phase that each and every military member hears as they begin their journey home. The mission of the CBPA is to make sure that the troops all meet the proper guidelines when entering the United States.
From the yard, checked and cleared bags are moved to a secure storage facility where they await being loaded onto the aircraft.
Service members get a 15 minute “amnesty” period where they can throw out any restricted items.
Occasionally someone just doesn’t want to throw out their stuff. Use or loose it I guess.
After clearing Customs, service men and women then proceed to the PAX Terminal where they finish their final paperwork and standby to board a government chartered aircraft back to the United States. For many, this is the first time they truly can let their guard down.
Then once the moment arrives, it’s time to head out to the airplane and head home.
For those processing “downrange” or heading into Afghanistan, their first stop is the Transit Center’s Expeditionary Theater Distribution Center (ETDC) where they will get outfitted with the necessary safety and survival gear.
I had an opportunity to walk a mile in the shoes of an Airman deploying to Bagram AFB and collect all the gear that I would need.
I was escorted down each aisle to collect my personnel protective equipment and chemical protective gear. Body armor, chemical suits, filters, cold weather shoes, gloves, helmets, basically anything I wasn’t given at my home station is available for me to be safe downrange.
As I walked those aisles, it reminded me of being in a giant costco. But rather then the glee of buying cart loads of fun stuff, I had a sense of trepidation and nervousness. I was going to go back to the comfort of my CLU that night and in a few days back to my own bed in SF. But to the serviceman who was just processed out a few minutes before me, there was no chance of that happening. He was off to a much more dangerous environment where his own life will be at risk, albeit a bit safer thanks to those at ETDC.
In the afternoon we got a chance to see the base a bit in the sunlight.
And yes, they do have a taste of home. I tried the Pizza, and it was well, not quite there. But in my head, it was amazing!
After lunch, we had a chance to meet the Vice Commander and the Command Chief Master Sergeant and learned even more about Transit Center Manas.
One of the fun facts was that Kyrgyzstan is the only country that has both a USAF base and a Russian base. The Russian base, Kant Air Base, is just 23 miles from Manas. Unfortunately the Russians have not expressed interest in any relations with the USAF. But TC Manas has gone as far as creating a Russian version of their page to help answer any questions.
I didn’t realize that in addition to the four missions that they support, that the Base has infused over $700 million USD into the local economy over the past 6 years. This is even harder to comprehend given that the Kyrgyz parliament voted 91-5 in June to end the lease with the U.S. government after 12 years of partnerships. The replacement site is still undetermined, but the effect TC Manas has is undeniable. The fleet of 12-17 KC-135s from offloaded over 20 million gallons of fuel, or about 30% of all aerial refuelings over Afghanistan.
The Center averages moving 1,250 troops per day in and out of Afghanistan. And the Airlift group moves on average of 10 million lbs/month of cargo. On top of all that, the loss of the local relationships and economic impact will be devastating.
One thing that keep me feeling proud was the little notes of support from back home. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to be away from your loved ones for so long, but these small moments brought a tear to my eye.
The Staff at TC Manas sure goes the extra distance to make being there as comfortable as possible. For those that are on base, evening entertainment is a bit of a challenge. You could go to the Gym. You could go to a small movie theater. There is the MWR Rec center. Or you go to Pete’s Place, named in honor of Peter Ganci, the New York City Fire Department chief who died in the Sept. 11 World Trade Center attack. 24×7 Corn hole, pool tables, 2 dart boards (one of which is always played by the CBPA guys and gals! Awesome folks!), music, entertainment, and beer!
Wait, what? Beer?!? This is the last place where troops heading downrange can get a cold beer. But no more then 2 in 20 hours. Or if they are heading back home, this is the first beer they will be able to taste after serving their tour of duty. The drink of choice? Baltika 9 (Krepkoe), an 8% Russian lager or a mean wine called Isabella, with a gut punching 18% alcohol. Yikes!
But it’s not all about the beer here. It’s about having a place to go. Something to break up the monotony if you’re based here or something different to do if you’re just passing through. Bingo, dance offs, local entertainment, anything to let you have a moment of respite.
And when the day is all done, it’s time to go back home.