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An opportunity to serve

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md -- (editor's note: Col. James A. Gray is currently deployed to Southwest Asia)

Recently I had the opportunity to serve overseas and directly support our efforts in the Central Command Area of Responsibility at one of the largest and most active bases in the world. While I have 27 years of service with the Air Force, this was my first chance to deploy for any significant amount of time. So I prepared in advance (as much as possible) to be sure I had everything in order at home, my civilian job and with the Reserve. Lot of work, but no big deal - although I grossly underestimated the time required for the ADLS (online-learning system) courses!

What I found when I arrived at the AOR was simply overwhelming. Until you see it, you cannot imagine an air base that supports so many people and so many missions that run operations 24/7 without interruption. The amount of cargo hauled, fuel passed and passenger transited through the base sets new records each week, with no end in sight. The theme is changing at this particular base from Expeditionary to Enduring and instead of expedient methods; there are more permanent processes and facilities. And while the Reserve and National Guard play a significant role in the AOR, the brunt of responsibility falls on the incredible active-duty machine rotating personnel on tours at 179 to 365 days. The active duty personnel are highly trained, incredibly motivated and as you can guess - very young. Lieutenants, captains, Airman 1st Class and Senior Airman are the common rank here. Combining this talent with the experienced Reserve and Guard forces - one can only be simply awed at the massive capability our Air Force brings to the fight.

Being halfway through my tour now, I regret that I did not take this opportunity sooner in my career and I wish past supervisors would have pushed me harder to deploy. Being in the Reserve is great, but with our limited exposure to the mission during unit training assemblies (UTAs) and annual tours, most Airmen do not have the opportunity to contribute to the ongoing Air Force mission. Being off active duty for 20 years, I forgot that "sense of mission." Our focus in the Reserve is to train and prepare ourselves if called upon, which consumes almost all our available time. Until you really deploy and work in your career field, you cannot appreciate how important you are to today's mission. On almost every occasion when I identified myself here as a reservist, the active duty members thanked me and all other reservists and guardsmen for volunteering. Active duty is close to "maxed out" in Operations Tempo and for every reservist or guardsman that deploys, one active-duty counterpart gets to spend more time at home with their family- and they definitely appreciate it.

Another important observation here is the clear blending of active, Guard and Reserve; everywhere you go there is a mixture of all three, at all ranks. The question of "where you come from" is irrelevant, but simply that you are a trained and prepared resource bringing support to the fight. In the AOR, you cannot differentiate between the three from the wear of the uniform, the work assignment or responsibility level. Our leadership has gone to great strides over the past years to provide this equality and now it is our responsibility to train and prepare the best we can at home station and step up to the challenge when working with the Total Force.

Most of us made a decision to come off active duty early in our career. For many, like me, it was a difficult decision and everyone had their list of "pros and cons" that they considered when making that critical decision. However, in the end, we all decided to pursue civilian occupation, but held the strong belief in the US Air Force and willing to serve our nation when really needed. That is why the Reserves and Guard were formed and why the program is so successful today. Instead of losing all that experience and knowledge, these programs provide a valuable resource at a relatively low cost when our nation needs the support. In looking at the array of missions and common 1:1 dwell times of the active duty, our Air Force needs us more than ever. Years ago, a deployment was the exception and most people went through their Reserve Career at the same location and not deploy. Now there is simply a new world order. We are seeing an ever increasing operations tempo across the entire military that has a direct impact on the Reserve Program like never before.

So as many reserve personnel are being mobilized, there are still many of us that have not been directly tasked for a deployment. So if you fall into this category I ask you to consider volunteering you valuable time, energy and training to support our nations cause. Just like when we decided to leave active duty, there are a number of factors to consider and maybe this is a good time or maybe not. But I can promise that if you do deploy, either through mobilization or volunteering, you will find an incredibly challenging and rewarding experience in supporting the overall joint force mission. This would be your opportunity to take all those years of training and experience and be part of the total integrated team that is making a difference and helping the world become a better place.