CAMP BUCCA, Iraq, May 28, 2009 - Air Force Airman 1st Class Alberto Lopez knew the guy was hiding something.
He could feel it. The detainee was giving off "the vibe" that three months of working the visitation center at the theater internment facility here had taught the airman to detect. The Altus, Okla., native continued to search in the efficient, humane and dignified way he was taught, waiting for the "tell" that would give away what the man was hiding and where.
The detainee glanced down at just the wrong moment, and Lopez had him. The find: a rolled up piece of paper with contact information. Contacts for whom, Lopez didn't know, but they weren't getting outside the gate that day.
The find was one of nearly 40 instances when Lopez discovered contraband in the course of a standard search of detainees going to see their families.
"It makes me feel like I'm really doing something," Lopez said. "Finding information, numbers, names, addresses, ... you name it."
Finding contraband, an almost daily occurrence, is one goal Airmen with the 887th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron strive for as they process more than 750 detainees a week during visitation hours. The Airmen on visitation duty must walk a fine line, conducting their searches as efficiently as possible while respecting the dignity of those they search and protecting other detainees, visiting families, and their fellow Airmen, Soldiers and Iraqi correctional officials.
"I think everyone on our team has an efficient way of searching," said Airman Randal Landers, an 887th ESFS guard. "So they're not going to try slipping anything by anyone here. If they do, it gets found."
Contraband -- anything not issued to the detainees -- can encompass a wide variety of items from the seemingly benign, such as letters, to the downright frightening, such as improvised weapons. The security forces Airmen must constantly be on their toes and remain alert.
Despite the danger to the Airmen or the risk of information getting into enemy hands, the visitation program is an important piece of the ongoing counterinsurgency operation as well as a right under the Geneva Convention.
"We give [the detainees] the opportunity to meet their families," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Tobin, 887th ESFS Visitation Flight chief. "It puts them at ease, shows them we hold true to what we said by treating them with dignity and respect."
Originally from Norristown, Pa., but deployed from Schriever Air Force Base, Colo., Tobin said the security forces Airmen are held to strict standards that allow them to search efficiently without risk of violating a detainee's dignity and respect.
"The rules and guidelines are already set forth," he said. "It's not open to interpretation. As long as the guard force understands that, understands their role in it, there should be no issue in conducting the fair treatment that's expected of us. It's not a limiting factor to finding contraband. The contraband is there. We're doing what we're told, and the contraband is presenting itself rather easily."
For the security teams, whether or not there should be visitation is obvious; it is a basic human right and legal obligation. And, the Airmen note, it is a matter of human decency.
"I know if I were detained, I'd want the right to visit my family and just see them for a couple of hours," Landers said. "It's just basic human treatment."
Air Force Col. Alan Metzler, 586th Air Expeditionary Group commander, under which the 887th falls, highlighted the power of human decency in performing this mission.
"Through these thousands of contacts with detainees and their families, we've learned one powerful, irrefutable fact: that our most important weapon in gaining their support for our strategic objectives in Iraq is our values as Airmen and our values as Americans," Metzler said.
As powerful as the weapon is, it doesn't remove the constant threats the Airmen face or eliminate another dangerous enemy - complacency. It's an enemy they must face themselves.
"It's not a physically demanding job, but it's a mentally demanding job in the sense that it's repetitious," Tobin said. "You have to stay motivated and understand what the goal is and the strategy behind all this."
The best tools against complacency are motivation and teamwork, Tobin said. The Airmen have to look out for one another and keep each other sharp.
"They have to maintain their focus and their teamwork," he said. "Their best critics are their own peers."
Air Force Airman 1st Class Raymond Garcia, an 887th ESFS guard, said the thought of the possible consequences and of harm that could befall their wingmen if they don't remain sharp keeps complacency at bay.
"There's been times when everybody gets the thought that, 'Hey, it's hot outside; I really don't want to complete the whole search,' and be lenient with them,'" Garcia said. "But then you have to remember that, what if that one time this individual happens to have a small, one-by-four inch shank hidden in his pants, and he comes out with it, and one of your friends gets hurt ... because you wanted to hurry and get in the building where the air was?
"Everybody has thoughts of getting complacent," he continued, "but me, personally, I get in there, and I do the mission the way I was taught to do it and make sure I do it right every time. That way, everybody can go home in one piece and get back safe."
Lopez agreed. "I can't get complacent, because I can't let something get by," he said. "We have to remind each other. Some of these detainees, we don't know exactly what they've done, but we know they had to do something pretty bad to be in here. You can't be all friendly or turn your back on them, because they can flip on us any second. I can't get complacent."
The risks don't come without the promise of reward. Already, the efforts of the 887th are paying long-term dividends outside the visitation center and beyond Camp Bucca's gates.
"The long-term aspect is that we're influencing family members from all over Iraq," Metzler said. "They can go back into their family units and say, 'We trust the Americans. We have seen them and how they operate, and they treat us with respect.' Because we treat everyone with dignity and respect, we have earned their respect as a result."
It's an effect every member of the visitation unit is aware of, said Air Force Staff Sgt. Keri Embry of Cross Plains, Tenn. The 887th ESFS member works with the visiting family members, processing them and even coordinating medical attention for those visitors who need it.
"It's a good thing to maintain that humanity to show the people here that we're not bad people, that we're trying to help them as much as possible," she said. "The Iraqis, as a whole, see that we do care what happens to them, that we're not just here to find the bad guys. We're trying to help the whole country get back on its feet."
The impressions the guards make on detainees and family members can be lasting ones. Garcia said he sees signs of that trust every day.
"We have a really important mission here," he said. "Not only are we working with the detainees, but we're working with the kids too. So these kids grow up, and they remember how the Airmen gave them snacks and interacted with them. A lot of the visitors will let them hold their kid when they cry, so it's almost like we're getting in there on a personal level. A lot of visitors will hopefully remember what we're doing here and keep that in mind that a lot of us are really good."
Metzler said each of his Airmen is teaching these families what being an American means.
"They learn from our Airmen," he said. "Through the dignity and respect that we pay them, they learn about Americans. And the immediate effect is that they feel safety, security and trust. They tell us that. We see that."