In 1991, I departed Saudi Arabia post Operation Desert Storm. At the time I couldn’t imagine the day I would return to King Abdul Aziz Airport in Dhahran, also known as the “Kingdom,” but 23 years later I have returned.
From the control tower here, I could look out over the massive equipment yards all around the airfield and see the most incredible compilation of military power assembled in one place. There was military hardware lined up for miles waiting to be shipped home. We, as a military, had come together to protect the Middle East from the Iraqi forces led by Saddam Hussein, and to safeguard our ally and the oil fields of Saudi Arabia.
A lot has changed since then. But as I prepare to leave Saudi Arabia, probably for the last time, I find myself reflecting on those changes and on some of the similarities between then and now.
In 1991, we were a force of 510,000 Airmen. By 1992, we had reduced our active-duty force by 40,000 and within five years we had removed 120,000 from our ranks. Personally, as I saw my friends departing the force, I was worried. There were concerns all around us that drawing down our forces so quickly would limit what we could accomplish in the future. What if we needed to come back to finish the job?
There were also concerns for our friends and how they would survive the transition to the civilian world. There is a stark similarity to what is occurring in our Air Force today. The retrograde yards that were in Saudi Arabia are now in Afghanistan and Kuwait, and once again our Air Force leadership is asking us to downsize our forces.
One thing that has not changed is the need for communication. I was a buck sergeant in 1991 and had tested for staff sergeant prior to deploying to Saudi Arabia. The results came out while I was in Dhahran. After I could not find my name in one of the two giant printed books the selects were listed in, I decided to call back to home station to find out by how many points I had missed promotion. I spoke with a master sergeant in a leadership position who, after saying my name out loud for a few seconds asked me, “When specifically did you get out of the Air Force?” I was mortified that I had been forgotten after only being gone for a few months, and it left a pretty bad taste in my mouth.
Today, things are different. The ability to communicate with our deployed Airmen is better than ever. Nearly all of our Airmen can be reached either at work or via social media. From the offices back home, we can for the most part dial directly to and talk clearly with our deployers. I am fortunate and hear from my leadership regularly, but not all Airmen are so fortunate. Many are still waiting for a reassuring call that they will be taken care of during the execution of the force management programs. Most who did receive a call would certainly appreciate a second one.
A lot has changed since 1991, but much remains the same. I will return home in a few weeks, and my wife will greet me at the airport. After some time off I will return to work and there will be some new faces, some familiar faces and some will be missing. If we handle the force management programs correctly, the fears of the drawdown will be minimized. If we communicate with our Airmen, their trust in us as leaders will be strengthened.