SOUTHWEST ASIA — Fifteen Airmen assigned to U.S. Air Forces Central Command, the Combined Air and Space Operations Center, and the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing are taking advantage of a two-year accompanied tour opportunity — and numbers continue to grow. In the next few years a total of 60 families will be in Southwest Asia.
The Command Sponsorship Program is an accompanied-tour initiative started in 2011 to increase mission effectiveness through extended permanent party presence, greater mission continuity and fewer burdens on families. Permanent party tours are considered “accompanied” only when the overseas installation commander or designated representative approves an individual’s request for their family to reside with them at a particular location.
Families serving an AFCENT-accompanied tour reside off base in the local community, attend local schools and obtain most goods and services from the local economy, enjoying an opportunity to experience what the dynamic Middle Eastern society has to offer. Families shop at local “souqs” or markets, where they can barter for silks, carpets, spices, antiques and gold. They can also shop at one of the many malls for access to items that would be normally found throughout the United States. Some malls even offer indoor ice skating or amusement park rides.
The presence of both permanent party and rotational members at this location make for a very unique experience. While there are various museums, theaters and nearby beaches that provide unique cultural experiences, the main aspect of CSP is keeping families together.
“One of the traditional advantages to serving a command sponsored tour is the ability to keep dependents united with their military sponsors,” said Lt. Col. David Stanfield, previous 379th Air Expeditionary Wing CSP manager. “Our program represents a rare opportunity for Air Force dependents to live in a part of the world normally only experienced by Air Force members on a deployment.”
Captain Jill Heliker, Theater Engineering branch chief, agreed. She and her husband, Jon, were one of the first four Air Force families to be command sponsored in Southwest Asia, and are considered program pioneers.
“When the opportunity was presented for a one-year unaccompanied tour or a two-year accompanied tour, the decision was easy for us,” she said. “We knew there would be hurdles being one of the first families to arrive, but it would be a unique experience that traditional deployers do not get to share with their families. The culture is something you can’t articulate over Skype; you have to experience it and living on the local economy has given us memories and stories we’ll never forget.”
The wing made several changes to the program since its launch in 2011 to improve the level of support offered to families. For example, this location is home to the only Airman and Family Readiness Center in the AFCENT area of responsibility.
“Our Airman and Family Readiness Center provides exceptional resources to assist families from the moment they are assigned to the installation, throughout their tour and when they begin to prepare for a move to their next assignment,” said Lt. Col. Eries Mentzer, 379th Expeditionary Force Support Squadron commander. “The center offers relocation assistance, loan locker items to sustain families while household good are shipping, a Key Spouse Program, employment assistance, volunteer opportunities and school liaison services for military children.”
As more families arrive, there is one goal they all have in common — building a strong partnership with the host nation, and ensuring regional security and stability now and in the future.
“Leslie and I didn’t hesitate at the possibility of applying for an accompanied tour here,” said Brig. Gen. Roger H. Watkins, 379th Air Expeditionary Wing commander. “We feel privileged and honored to be here together as we prepare the base to move from an expeditionary to an enduring mission.”
His wife agreed that being together and strengthening relationships are the most important aspects of this program.
“Being separated from my husband and seeing other families separated from their loved ones due to deployments have been the norm, so I jumped at the chance when Roger asked if I would be willing to join him,” said Leslie Watkins. “I believe in this program because it is all about building bridges and relationships both internal and external. It strengthens our individual family, our military family, and, ideally, the extended community and cultural relationships. This has been an incredible and wonderful opportunity to share this deployment experience together.”
Accompanied Airmen receive short tour credit upon completion of their assignment here. To apply for a command sponsored tour or to get more information, visit the 379th AEW page on the Air Force Portal and look for the folder a Master Sgt. Robby G. Kindernay, 42nd Security Forces Squadron, reunites with his children at Montgomery Regional Airport in March 2011. Kindernay, who was deployed for six months to Afghanistan, was greeted by his wife, Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Kindernay, and their two children, Ashlyn and Dalton. Programs at the Airman and Family Readiness Center help families of deployed military members, who face adjustments throughout the deployment cycle.