From here to Afghanistan

Moving 150 people from Oak Harbor to Afghanistan requires planning, training, equipment and more than two miles of bubble wrap.

When VAQ-133, an EA-6B Prowler squadron, leaves in coming days, petty officers in the logistics department estimate they will have shipped 125,000 pounds of gear. Besides tools to maintain the aging aircraft in a harsh environment, computers and much, much more must be wrapped, packed and crated. Because they are heading to an overseas war zone, people have been issued body armor and helmets as well as specially fitted gear to protect from chemical attack.

Sailors have new uniforms and boots for desert conditions. Flight crews have desert flight suits. Everyone has at least one Camelbak, a water-carrying backpack. Staying hydrated in hot, muggy weather and cold, dry weather will be crucial for everyone.

In addition to all the command gear, each person will have a footlocker shipped as well as carry-on bags.

“I’m telling people, ‘This is the time to pack light’,” Petty Officer 1st Class Jim Praefke said last week in VAQ-133’s hangar at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. Praefke said he’s hoping to carry no more than 60 pounds of personal gear.

“But 50 pounds would be better,” he said.

His gear includes a DVD player and at least 20 DVD movies — action and comedies, but no tear-jerkers. Petty Officer 1st Class Brett Campbell said people will carry professional ratings manuals to study for advancement tests plus PDAs, laptop computers, books and other light hobbies.

Once in Afghanistan, everyone is restricted to the base. There won’t be any liberty opportunities so no one needs civilian clothes. Everyone will have cold weather gear as well.

While temperatures when the squadron arrives in Afghanistan are expected to be in the 100s, when they leave in December, temperatures will be below freezing — possibly far below. Plus, the extra equipment each person must carry means hauling everything to B-Huts, air conditioned plywood shacks which hold eight people, which could be rigorous.

During the deployment, every person will carry a 9-mm pistol when not in their hut. Some sailors will stand watches armed with M-16 assault rifles. Praefke recently returned from Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., where he received extra weapons training. He’s proficient with crew-handled weapons including the M240 medium machine gun, M-2 .50-caliber machine gun and Mark 19 grenade launcher. And he’s ready to train other squadron members to handle the heavier weapons.

Praefke also trained for emergencies including chemical attack and natural disasters — earthquakes frequently rumble through Afghanistan.

“We prepare for the worst case scenario,” Praefke said.

Maintenance people are preparing for their own worst case problems: Extreme temperatures and sand. Sand in Southwest Asia isn’t gritty, it’s soft.

“It’s like talcum powder,” Petty Officer Frank Baker said. Powder that gets in electronics can cause many frustrating problems, he said. Shorts are frequent as are “ghost shorts” which occur when the dew point drops and the sand gets damp. When the sun comes up, Baker said, the ghosts disappear. But someone still must determine if the short is real or a ghost.

Afghanistan is at the end of a long supply line. Maintenance people won’t be able to borrow tools or equipment from other squadrons. And they will be working on aging planes that have already spent eight months flying in harsh conditions.

In spite of long working hours far from home in a dangerous location, most people in the squadron are ready to go. They’ve made or updated wills and left family or friends with powers of attorney.

“It’s what we train for. It’s our job. It’s the reason we are here,” Praefke said.

And although most news headlines focus on Iraq with scant mention of Afghanistan, the lack of coverage doesn’t bother people.

“We’re vital to national security and Operation Enduring Freedom,” Lt. Tre Costello said. “News happens every day all over the world that Americans never hear.”

No one seems concerned about heading to what could be considered a “forgotten zone.” In fact, even before leaving Whidbey Island, VAQ-133 is planning on the return trip.

The two miles of bubble wrap won’t be wasted. Some will be used to ship equipment and parts during deployment. Most will be saved for packing for the return trip in December. What bubble wrap makes it back to Whidbey intact will be used for homecoming. Sheets of bubble wrap will lie on hangar floors for kids to play on and pop while they wait for the planes carrying their parents to land.

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