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Greetings from Southwest Asia

By Lt. Col. Mitchell Lyons | 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Plans and Programs | Dec. 28, 2011

SOUTHWEST ASIA — Editor's Note: Lt. Col. Mitchell Lyons is currently deployed to the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing in Southwest Asia from the 559th Flying Training Squadron. While deployed he has overseen a part of the transition of forces out of Iraq.

Greetings from the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing in Southwest Asia, Merry Christmas to you all!

We are finished with the Operation New Dawn air tasking orders; looks like we will have a slower pace as we prepare for a shift in mission objectives. The mission has changed by we still have a high degree of readiness to maintain.

Overall it has been an amazing deployment and the people here as well as our team in Iraq are incredible. Most of our teammates are young folks, dedicated to our Air Force mission with a strong sense of commitment and team work attitude. Navy, Army, and Air Force members from all over the world, Guard, Reserve and active duty; all working together as if we grew up in the same neighborhood. Our core values are truly in motion here and this is what keeps trust, effort and focus on the mission. Everyone has a role in the leadership.

Early in the deployment, our mission at Joint Base Balad, Iraq was a challenge. During the day conditions were good but at night we took multiple indirect fire attacks. You just had to follow the instructions and be ready. Most of the attacks came from across the Tigris River and left new battle damage visible each morning. You could hear it at night, sounded like a fourth of July fireworks launch from a 57mm can; a muffled thump. About 15-20 seconds later it would hit somewhere inside the fence. There were some injuries, but no one died from it. I figured if my time was up, there was nothing I could do about it so I never lost any sleep. The damage was cleaned up almost immediately the next day; everyone knew we took a hit but we didn't let it get us down. We kept each other in good humor, and just kept moving on with work. I always knew somebody had my back.

The transition was a massive effort due to the requirement to keep the ATO missions flying and draw down at the same time - a split force with the other half in transition - we were spread thin for a few weeks but the risks were known and we did our best to slow the pace and still keep moving south. We had the best planners work this process out - an amazing team effort.

Before I left Balad, I had the opportunity to go to the west side of Balad Air Base and inspect the battle damage from the missions I flew during Desert Storm in February 1991. I remembered the target sets, the Mig-23 shelters, and the anti-aircraft fire from 37mm guns and the surface to air missiles that looked like roman candles as they shot past my EF-111. Walking through the rubble more than 20 years later, viewing the twisted metal of what once was a Iraqi Air Force Mig-23, it all seemed like yesterday - the feelings and sounds still in my mind, how the jet felt in my hands as I turned to avoid the bursting AAA, the sounds of metal chunks bouncing off the windscreen and my crewmate telling me "get back on course, pull it outta burner." As I walked, I could not stop thinking if there will ever come a day when war will be no more. I hate war. The best we can do is to maintain strength and readiness; the perception of weakness invites aggression.

A lot of long days went into standing up a first class F-16CJ operation as we transitioned out of Iraq. It was a real clean up and move in effort. The massive redeployment had started and our mission was to put armed top cover over the thousands of vehicles leaving Iraq. More than 47,000 people, 32,000 vehicles, 11,000 pieces of towed equipment and 1,000 top cover missions in three months: on target, on time, only 12 minor injuries, and no fatalities. Combat operations, 24/7; you ate when you could and you slept when you could. Our services people were great - never had to be concerned about food, water or air conditioning in this heat. The communication squadron connected thousands of systems; an incredible effort, most of our communications teammates are 19-21 years old and really know their business. The Chaplain is on his fourth combat deployment - he reminds me of John Wayne with a sense of humor and prays for good weather - the convoy plan went well with good weather. I didn't think about it at first, but it was good to get away from the shelling at night.

If there was ever a place to test our Air Force core values it was here. At 28 years of commissioned aviation service, I can tell you these work, both on and off duty, military and corporate, from junior to senior levels:

1. Credible and trustworthy leaders who first establish and demonstrate core values for all to live and operate by: Integrity First, Service Above Self, Excellence in All We Do. Be thankful to live this. Senior leadership must set the mission objectives, define the timeline, provide the resources and training, establish accountability, select the right operators, and then let them do their job.

2. Create an environment where the operators can throw a flag, abort a mission based on proper risk assessment, or come forward with a better method. We learn from mistakes, retrain and move on, but we will not tolerate a crime.

3. Create a team environment where people help people; in the company and in the community. Respect, appreciation and trust are the elements of our professional relationships. We help each other get better with each effort, and, it's OK to have some fun too!

Job satisfaction and job security are more important than the paycheck. We have so much to be thankful for. Even when things don't turn out like we think they should, we do the best we can anyway and have hope the best is yet to come. Every day is a gift and we all have a light to shine.

I am thankful to return to Active Duty, fly the mighty T-6A again, to help finish a mission we started 21 years ago, and have the privilege to serve with the best. Laurie and I wish you all a Happy Christmas and a joyful New Year! God Speed.