Sunday, December 25, 2011

SunSetting a Career – A Reflection of an Army National Guard Air Traffic Controller

The start of my air traffic control career began back in 1989 when I enlisted in the Massachusetts’s Army National Guard at the age of 20.  I did this for one main reason: money for school.  What I did not know is that the decision to join the National Guard was going to lead me into a career that can be compared to the setting sun at Camp Taji.

On December X, I boarded a Chinook helicopter and lifted off over the base I just closed for the last time.  The setting sun shrouded by a layer of dust as we flew towards it and it hit me that this was a symbol for my ATC career.  I looked out the back door of the Chinook at an empty aircraft parking lot that once was overflowing with what seemed like every helicopter in the Army fleet.  The old control tower lights were turned off --something that had not happened in the 10 years since the Army took over the base after the fall of Saddam.  The tower operated on a mandatory 24/7, 365 day-a-year schedule since that day.  It was a surreal feeling knowing that I was the final Army Air Traffic Controller to make the final transmission releasing the C-17 Globemaster to Departure as it roared past the tower on its way to bring that last of our equipment to Baghdad and onto Kuwait.  I had just closed a tower that had an operating tempo that most National Guard Air Traffic Controllers were lucky to experience once in their career.  I was able to have that experience twice.  It hit me hard as I begin to realize that my days as an active controller in the National Guard were beginning to close much the same way Taji Tower was closing.  No longer would the sunrise to signal the midnight shift was almost over.  Nor will the sunset indicate that it was time to get ready for a steady barrage of air traffic that would last into the early hours.  No.  This final sunset was the last one I would see in Iraq and as an active controller in the National Guard and I intended to enjoy every minute.  My ATC career has always been a sharp contrast of boredom and excitement.  I have had the opportunity to travel to lands that most will never have the chance to visit.  Being an Army Air Traffic Controller has been a series of every emotion imaginable: extreme pain, anger, happiness, pride and disgust.  All of it leading up to this last image of a sun setting.  This is a moment that I will most likely never forget. 

I had a camera with me, but I didn’t want to disturb the peace with even the smallest ripple of movement.  Even with 20 soldiers in the aircraft, there was no sound except for the sound of the twin rotors and the wind.  I took the opportunity to just sit back in my seat and watch the base get smaller and smaller as we flew away.  No fanfare, no bands, no pomp and circumstance, just the cool air from outside rushing in with the smell of the JP-8 from the exhaust.  It was blissful.  The flight was uneventful, thankfully, and we touched down in Kuwait after our three-hour flight.  My legs sore from not moving, but I did not care.  My mission was over and my ATC career was in its final phase.  Unlike my brethren that crossed the Iraq/Kuwait border to the fanfare of CNN and other news agencies hailing the final troops have left Iraq, we set down on the airfield collected our gear boarded the bus and went to out tent. – alone with our thoughts.

My career has allowed me to achieve successes that I did not think possible when I enlisted.  Obtaining a Control Tower Operators (CTO) license was a “pipe dream.”  I would be lucky to get a few tactical ratings during my career.  During my first seven years, this looked to be true as the state and federal government were not spending any money nor were they engaged in any warfare.  So at the age of 27, I left the National Guard and decided to focus solely on my civilian career.  That all changed on September 11th.  Nine days later, I re-enlisted back in the National Guard as an Air Traffic Controller with my Massachusetts National Guard unit.  A year later, I had to transfer to the Maryland National Guard but was only there for a few months when I went on my first deployment, Kosovo and my first CTO rating.  Since then I have achieved 2 more CTO’s as well as tactical ratings on all of the Army ATC equipment.

Because of my skills and abilities, I have also had the chance to serve in several management roles within ATC, culminating as Facility Chief in Taji, Iraq, one of if not the last, Army Airfield in Iraq to close.  Overall, I have had a good career in the National Guard but it has come time for my own personal Army sunset.  It is time to  turn the unit over to the next batch of 20 something’s and see what kind of career they are willing to make for themselves.  Will it be filled with all the ups and downs that I experienced or will it be something completely different?  One thing is certain – their sunset will happen too.  Just not today.

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