By Master Sgt. Brian Davidson
447th Air Expeditionary Group
BAGHDAD - What do President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, country music star Toby Keith, actor Gary Sinise, the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders, pop musician Kid Rock, wrestler John Cena, the service chiefs of staff, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and actress Angelina Jolie all have in common?
They're just a small number of the world leaders, musicians, athletes and Hollywood stars who have traveled to Iraq. Another thing they all have in common is that their travels always lead to Sather Air Base, just west of Baghdad International Airport—and it's the 447th Air Expeditionary Group protocol team that ensures all distinguished visitors have a smooth and stress-free transition as they arrive and depart the Operation Iraqi Freedom theater of operations.
Soldiers from the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division captured Saddam International Airport on the morning of April 4, 2003, and it was immediately renamed Baghdad International Airport.
On April 16, Gen. Tommy Franks, who was the commander of U.S. Central Command, was the first VIP to enter Baghdad. Since that day, and every day since, an Air Force protocol team has served as the first and last impression for distinguished visitors flying in to, and out of, what had been called the most dangerous airport in the world.
There has been a sharp decline in violence in recent months and attacks on the airfield have also become fewer and farther between. That decrease in violence is an indicator of the growing stability within Iraq and has led to an ever increasing number of visits by military leaders, political teams, economic advisors and coalition forerunners from around the world—all focused on building Iraq's economic and political independence. Meanwhile, musicians, professional athletes and "A-list" celebrities alike come to Iraq to entertain and offer their support to the American troops serving in harm's way.
The protocol team works out of a building known as the "Glass House." Under Saddam's reign, the green domed building with intricate mirrored ceilings was the passenger terminal for Baath Party leaders and the brutal Elite Guard. It's a landmark on the west side of the airport flightline and was the scene of a bloody battle when the airport fell to American forces. Since then, it has served as the 447th AEG headquarters and Air Force protocol base of operations.
Air Force protocol is a code of tradition, courtesy and etiquette in military, diplomatic and official matters. It encompasses the knowledge and application of established service customs.
"Sather Air Base serves as the primary gateway to Iraq, not only for thousands of American and coalition military members, but also for the leaders who are making history," said 1st Lt. Bethany Mettes, 447th AEG chief of protocol. "Our role is to assist these world leaders along their way as they travel in their nation-building mission."
Even though this is her first deployment, Lieutenant Mettes already has the background and experience to deal with the nuances, diversity and religious differences of people from other cultures. In addition to her undergraduate degree in International Relations from Boston University, Lieutenant Mettes is already an accomplished world traveler, having spent time in locations including Morocco, Norway, Sweden, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, France, Belgium, Portugal, Tunisia, Italy, the Czech Republic and Australia.
She is deployed from her position as the chief of protocol for the 100th Air Refueling Wing at RAF Mildenhall, England, and brings that experience to her protocol mission in Iraq.
The success of the protocol mission also relies on accurately tracking the movement of numerous DVs simultaneously, and that responsibility falls to Master Sgt. Christina Taylor, 447th AEG protocol team non-commissioned officer in charge.
"We track the flight schedules for many different types of fixed wing aircraft and helicopters from both Army and Air Force units throughout this region of the world," Sergeant Taylor said. "That flight information can change frequently, and we have to keep-up with those changes as well as who will be arriving and departing on which flights so we can quickly assist each of them in getting to their final destination."
Taylor is deployed from the 19th Air Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., where she is the Combat Support Flight Readiness section NCO in charge. While this is her first assignment with protocol, she is experienced at working in a deployed environment, having served on five other deployments to locations including Guantanamo Bay, Oman, Manas and Kuwait.
Every morning at 6 a.m., Taylor compiles the day's flight and DV information into one comprehensive report, and then the protocol team tracks those flights and is on the flightline to meet every visitor at the aircraft when they arrive.
In addition to tracking the flights, Taylor coordinates all DV movement with airfield operations, transient alert, the passenger terminal and even Security Forces to ensure extra protection is in place when required.
For each distinguished visitor, the protocol team has countless other people to assist with ensuring transitions in and out of Iraq go smoothly. Personal security details and aide-de-camps, multi-national embassy and State Department staff members are just a few of the people involved in DV travel. "For many political and military leaders, there's an entourage of support personnel that we assist with logistical and transportation needs specific to each DV," Taylor said.
One thing unique to protocol operations in a deployed location is that DVs come and go at all hours of the day and night, and Tech. Sgt. Michael Francis, protocol swing shift NCO in charge, is responsible for keeping night missions on track.
"Many of our visitors arrive late at night after traveling for many days and they are often very tired and even disoriented," Francis explained. "We're here to help relieve the stress of international travel by ensuring transportation arrangements are made, that resources such as internet and telephone access are available, and even offer simple comforts like fresh coffee, water and snacks to help visitors remain focused on their mission."
Francis is deployed from the 23rd Fighter Wing, Moody Air Force Base, Ga., where serves as the base sports director. While this is also his first assignment to protocol, like Taylor, he is no stranger to deployed operations. He has served on seven other deployments to locations including Oman, Kuwait, Iraq and other classified locations.
Sergeant Francis also brings a tradition of excellence with him to the Baghdad protocol team, as evidenced by his recent selection as the 23rd Services Squadron NCO of the year. In addition to his protocol mission, he frequently uses his off-duty time to participate in soccer games with local Iraqi children and soldiers.
"We have a protocol team here with backgrounds and experience as diverse as the distinguished visitors we serve," Lieutenant Mettes said. "All of those elements come together to give us the tools we need to accomplish the mission of ensuring the military tradition of customs and courtesies are provided to international leaders, senior officers and world-famous entertainers with dignity and respect for their station."