Packing for home no small task for JBLM officer

MILITARY: Reservist directing withdrawal from Kirkuk air base

May 23, 2011 

For eight years, the Army sent all the trappings of modern war to Kirkuk Regional Air Base in northern Iraq. Air Force Maj. Tony Edwards gets to spend the next six months sending it back home.

He’ll be in Kirkuk as the American presence in Iraq winds down to a planned complete withdrawal by the end of this year. It’s a “once in a lifetime” vantage point for the reserve officer from Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 446th Airlift Wing, based south of Tacoma.

Success means not being needed at all.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the Iraqis take over the base completely, just watching them get the skills and the confidence to the tasks we do,” Edwards, 42, said in a phone interview.

At home, Edwards owns a State Farm Insurance agency in Everett. In Iraq, his job centers on preparing the Kirkuk base to ship its remaining materials south to Kuwait en route to America while training Iraqis to maintain their own air defense resources.

His location and his assignment give him a sense that Iraqis could use some assistance from American forces after the planned Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline.

Kirkuk remains one of the most volatile cities in Iraq with a mix of Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen. Bombings in the city Thursday killed at least 29 people.

“Combat operations stopped for us, and apparently some people didn’t get the memo,” said Edwards, who lives in Mill Creek with his wife and three children.

He’s aware of the violence and unsure if it’ll lead the Iraqi government to ask the American military to stay past the withdrawal date in some fashion. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki recently said he’d meet with the country’s political blocs to gauge whether Americans should have a role there next year.

For now, building up Iraq’s Air Force is one of the more complex tasks left for American military trainers. The 2008 withdrawal agreement left an exception indicating that U.S. officials could be asked to stay to help Iraqis manage their air space.

Iraq once had a vaunted Air Force that went toe to toe in dogfights with Iranian jets in the 1980s. U.S. forces devastated Iraqi planes in the first Gulf War, and Iraqi jets did not leave the ground when American forces seized Baghdad in 2003. Saddam Hussein reportedly hid them in neighboring countries, and the jets have not been returned.

Since the dictator’s downfall, the U.S. Air Force has coached Iraq on restoring its airpower, largely starting with helicopters and cargo planes.

Edwards gets to have a hand in that training by working with Iraqis on exercises focusing on managing an airfield, loading cargo and maintaining planes.

“You have a new plane; it only works until something breaks down on it,” he said.

Edwards said he was surprised to find how closely Americans and Iraqis work together toward those goals.

“The thing that’s unique about Kirkuk is there’s no separation between them and us,” he said. “They can come into our (dining facility), they can come into our buildings and meet with us, and we go into their buildings.

“It’s exciting and really allows us to get some work done,” he said.

Lewis-McChord service members left a deep impact on the Iraq war. Last year, its 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division were the last American combat forces to leave the country.

About 450 Lewis-McChord Army soldiers are stationed there today.

Edwards is watching a fully-stocked American base in the midst of a transition to more Spartan quarters. One by one, he expects to see the base’s gym, contractor-run food vendors and dining facility leave Kirkuk before him.

He will make plans for the removal of weapons, vehicles, generators, satellite equipment and computers.

He’s hoping some of those comforts last through the peak heat of an Iraqi summer.

“Last year at one time in August, they hit 141 degrees,” he said. “I just know it’s not going to be fun.”

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646

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