DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. --
Looking through the haze of barely open eyes, I slipped my day’s rations into my bag: two slim jims, a ham and cheese sub, a protein bar, some beef jerky, bubble gum and a gallon of water. While not the most nutritious of edibles, I figured these would provide the sustenance for the long day ahead of me.
Throwing my bag into my car, I headed out for Dover AFB at 4:15 a.m. Sunday, May 13, 2018, to spend the day with members of the 436th Security Forces Squadron in the hopes of gaining a better appreciation for what they do each day to safeguard the installation.
As I drove along the empty streets in the dark, predawn hours, I really wondered why I volunteered to join the Airmen for their 13-hour shift. I wasn’t even really sure what I’d be doing, but I just had a feeling it’d be a lazy Sunday.
I’ve augmented security forces in some capacity for four of my five years of military service. Luckily, I’ve only been called in for one week out of all that time. I mean, you can only stay alert for so long when the person sitting next to you isn’t very talkative. For six days, I did just that. I armed up and sat in a truck for about eight hours guarding a perimeter gate. Those eight hours seemed like an eternity, especially being spoiled by an entertainment-rich society.
I tried to keep an open mind as I walked into the 436th SFS Headquarters. Who knew what my day would hold.
Right off the bat, I was invited into the Base Defense Operations Center, a room hidden behind a large mirrored window. I’ve spoken to people behind the window several times, but I’d never had the chance to see the person behind the mirror, in this case, Staff Sgt. Allison Fishel, 436th SFS BDOC controller.
I got to see a small piece of what they do, and how they coordinate with SF members and other emergency responders to ensure the installation stays secure. During the hour or so I spent with Fishel, I saw what it means for them to do more with less, like working with insufficient manning.
The squadron is currently transitioning from 12-hour shifts to 8-hour shifts to align with Air Force standards. Needless to say, there are some growing pains, especially when stretched thin by deployments, leave and training requirements.
Fishel explained to me that her job as a BDOC controller is basically like a never-ending game of chess; she constantly moves the pieces around in response to the dynamic requirements of the job.
“When it rains, it pours, and it sometimes feels like we’re going down on a sinking ship, but we’re all going down together, so we buckle down and back each other up,” Fishel said. “That’s all we can do. It’s really the people that keep us motivated. I’m glad to be part of a team where everyone looks out for each other and makes sure everyone’s taken care of.”
This theme kept coming up throughout the day.
About an hour later, I was in a patrol car with Ryan Metcalfe, Department of the Air Force police officer, who was relieving a flightline security patrol so they could get breakfast. While the Airmen discussed their daily ops tempo, it was obvious that they were strengthening an already strong camaraderie which had grown from mutual respect and working together for so long.
Metcalfe pretty much mirrored Fishel’s sentiment that SF is all about taking care of the people.
“Sometimes we all just basically have to embrace the suck,” Metcalfe said. “It isn’t a bad job, but there’s a lot of standing around. It can get pretty mind-numbing, but I know there are other people feeling the same way I am, and I can inspire them by keeping a good attitude. That’s how most of us feel. Even when we’re bored, or we’re in a bad mood, we do our best to stay positive.”
After relieving the Airmen for their meals, I was dropped off at one of the installation’s gates to learn more about entry control procedures.
Ernesto Rivera, DAF police officer, and Senior Airman James Barker, 436th SFS response force leader, showed me how to authenticate a few types of the identification cards issued to allow base access. Under their supervision I greeted dozens of people as they entered base housing. I was shocked by how many people asked if we needed anything. I later found out many of these were off-duty SF members, but I was still amazed at how supportive the law enforcement community is.
I stayed at that gate for about seven hours. During that time, I saw several drivers nearly hit the curb. Others stopped several feet away. I heard how loud aftermarket exhausts can be when drivers speed out of the gate. I couldn’t even hear Barker yelling from two feet away.
I personally experienced the physical demands of bending low to accept an ID card from the window of sporty cars and having to stand on my tip toes to reach the ID cards of those in jacked trucks.
By no means is it easy standing for hours, trying to scarf down a meal as quickly as possible because you don’t know when an emergency will occur and you will have to respond to action.
That’s the thing I never realized about security forces. Yes, they’re armed. Yes, they’re ready to respond at a moment’s notice. They deal with the worst of situations, and they keep us safe. Even with all these responsibilities, they’re expected to always do it with a smile on their face. After all, they are the first faces you see when entering the installation.
Now, I did learn a few lessons from the SF members during my day. The Airmen I worked with taught me what it takes to take action, the importance of communication and a secret to unit morale.
“There’s a time to think and a time to act. And this, gentlemen, is no time to think.”
-John Candy, “Canadian Bacon.”
I played a role in an individual training exercise for a new SF member. While he was being debriefed, I assisted with scanning IDs. After about ten hours without incident, two individuals got out of their cars and nearly got into a fist fight over a minor traffic incident.
I honestly thought the situation was fake at first, but quickly realized it was escalating and said, “um, something’s happening.”
Staff Sgt. Gabriele Matthews, 436th SFS response force leader, jumped right in between the two and started issuing commands. Noncompliance was not an option.
In my mind, I was there to scan IDs and welcome people to the installation. I wasn’t prepared for anything else. I was prepared for an uneventful day, and because of that, I wasn’t ready when something did happen.
“You know, everyone responds differently in situations like this,” Matthews said. “I just jump right in and deescalate the situation. Not on my base. This is not going to happen on my base, not if I can help it.”
When we get caught up in preconceived notions, we can’t adequately respond to events that actually happen. We can’t always take the time to think things through, carefully weighing all the options. Sometimes you just have to react. That’s the value of training, and it’s an important lesson we can all benefit from.
“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
-Strother Martin, “Cool Hand Luke.”
While at the housing gate, Rivera gave directions to a young lady looking for the visitor center. The instructions were clear and the patron, appearing to understand, headed off in pursuit of the parking lot that housed her car. A short while later, her father came looking for her. The instructions that seemed so clear to us already in the know were not so clear to this young lady. Instead of finding her destination, she found herself walking down Delaware Route 1. Luckily she met a kind passerby who returned her to her vehicle, but clearly this could have gone another way.
As a photojournalist, communication is a huge part of my job. Often the consequences of miscommunication aren’t that great, but it was a great visual of how important it is to confirm your messages is received the way you intend.
“One person struggles, we all struggle. One person triumphs, we all triumph.”
-Samuel L. Jackson, “Coach Carter”
Wing Staff Agency is an odd organization comprised of a bunch of small units that don’t really fit into any other organization. We aren’t part of a group, and each individual unit has its own purpose in support of the wing. We’ve chanted mottos like, “one team, one fight,” at awards ceremonies, but honestly, in our day-to-day job execution, I’ve mainly observed independence. It’s likely the nature of the jobs the Airmen of WSA accomplish. Writing a story, for example, is largely a solo act.
We could learn a lot from the SF mentality though. These Airmen exemplify the brotherhood many immediately visualize when thinking of the military, and there’s no reason we can’t do the same. It comes down to mindfulness and a desire to look out for each other the way SF members do.
At the end of the day, I’m glad I spent this time with our SF Airmen. I learned a much deeper appreciation for what they do each and every day.
Next time you see an Airman at the gate, smile, turn off your wipers, dim your lights and wish them a good day, because they’re the ones keeping us safe, and they’re doing it with a smile.