News: McConnell reservists get involved while deployed
Story by 1st Lt. Zachary Anderson
INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey -- When members of the Air Force Reserve 931st Air Refueling Group deployed to serve as part of the 90th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron at Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, the mission before them was simple: To support ongoing U.S. Operations overseas by flying air refueling missions of cargo aircraft coming in and out of the area of operations.
However, once arriving in country, it soon became clear to the airmen that an entirely different mission awaited them -- one that was less about what was going on 30,000 feet in the air and more about what was happening right outside the gates of the base.
"Our flight schedule has been light enough that we have had some down time," said Lt. Col. Michael Moeding, a reservist assigned to the 931st Air Refueling Group and commander of the 90th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron. "That downtime left us with a choice. We could either get in trouble or we could get involved. And our airmen chose to use that time positively to reach out and truly connect with the local community."
With a slower than expected operational tempo, the airmen of the 90 EARS have gone far beyond the typical experience of simply going outside the gates of the base to shop for souvenirs in Incirlik Village. Instead, they have used their off-duty time to actively seek out opportunities to get involved and help the local population.
"Some of our airmen have been volunteering at a school for the deaf and blind," said Senior Master Sgt. Willie Tucker, 1st Sgt. for the 90 EARS. "They have gone there several times to help out with the kids. They help clean up the school, do gardening work, and play with the kids."
"As soon as you go through the gates of the school, the kids just swarm you," said Senior Airman Michelle Horter, administrative specialist for the 90 EARS. "They are so happy to have people there. We brought them soccer balls, sidewalk chalk, candy, just whatever we could think of to give them some enjoyment. We do arts and crafts with them and go outside and play with them."
In addition to volunteering, the airmen of the 90 EARS held a fundraiser to help purchase a much-needed hot water heater for the school as well.
"They don't have any hot water," said Horter. "It wasn't a concern during the summer months, but it's getting colder here now. Many of the students there live on campus, and it was a concern for them to not have hot water during the winter."
To help out, the members of the 90 EARS held a movie night fundraiser, and members donated funds toward the cost of the water heater. By the end of the evening, the group had collected enough money to purchase a new water heater for the school.
Members of the squadron also used their off-duty time to volunteer at a local children's hospital.
"We do what we called 'Joy Therapy'," said Horter. "We go to the hospital and put on these silly outfits and dress up like pirates or clowns and make balloon animals, play guitars and sing songs and play with the kids. We can't speak their language, but just the interaction with them is amazing."
Tucker said the squadron has reached out to the community in other ways as well. Recently, the 90 EARS gave a tour of their operational headquarters to a group of local teachers, and then gave the teachers a tour of one of the squadron's KC-135 Stratotankers.
"They loved it," said Tucker. "It was a great way for us to connect with the people here."
A few weeks ago, members of the squadron participated in one of the customs of the Muslim "Feast of Sacrifice" holiday, known as "Kurban Bayrami" in Turkey. The holiday celebration includes the sacrifice of animals, with the meat being given to the poor. Airmen from the 90 EARS donated funds to purchase a sheep and then distributed the meat from the animal to the needy in the community.
"It was a way for us to show goodwill through Turkish culture," said Moeding. "We weren't pushing the religious part of the holiday, but rather focusing on the charitable part. We wanted to do something nice for the community by participating in one of their customs."
"To see our airmen get involved and reach out like this, it's been awesome," said Tucker. It shows that the members of the U.S. Air Force truly do care about the people in the places where we serve. It's great for the Turkish people see that in our airmen, and our airmen are having a great experience at the same time."
Moeding said he is very proud of how the airmen of the 90 EARS have made the effort to develop a strong positive relationship with the local population.
"It really leaves a positive impression," he said. "The people of Turkey are tremendously supportive of us, and developing these relationships can only serve to strengthen the incredible partnership we have with them."
Horter said that reaching out makes coping with the pain of missing friends and family during a deployment much easier.
"It's amazing how you can find your family in these people. You find the love and good. You go to the children's hospital and there is one language barrier, and at the school for the deaf there are two. But you discover that despite that, the underlying language is love and compassion and laughter, and it's just the most amazing thing."
And, she said she hopes airmen who deploy to this location in the future will make the effort to find the same language of love.
"It's so important to make that effort to reach outside the gates of the base, through the barbed wire and get involved with these people here," she said. "If you never reach out, you'll never get to see the beauty of it."