F-22 Raptors fly near Kadena Air Base to support U.S. Pacific Command's security obligations in the western Pacific. Short-term tours are part of the job for tens of thousands of airmen assigned to the three Air Force-operated bases in Japan. (Senior Airman Clay Lancaster / Air Force)
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KADENA AIR BASE, Japan — You move your family halfway around the world to Japan, then you get new orders — a six-month deployment to the desert.
A decade ago, few airmen based in the Land of the Rising Sun deployed outside the Pacific region. Today, short-term tours are a fact of life for the tens of thousands of airmen and their families assigned to the three Air Force-operated bases — Kadena, Yokota and Misawa.
"Folks come out here, mostly from the U.S., and they are living a long way from their family and their friends, and their loved ones get deployed ... That's a big deal," said Brig Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, commander of 18th Wing here. "They can't just jump on a plane, easily and inexpensively, and go see mom, dad, brother, sister."
At any given time, more than 1,000 airmen in Japan are deployed elsewhere in the world.
Kadena's HH-60G Pave Hawk aircrews and maintainers, for example, fly medical and rescue missions in Afghanistan. Yokota's C-130H Hercules crews fly Central Command missions. Misawa's pilots and maintainers for F-16 Fighting Falcons spend four months in South Korea. And Kadena pararescue teams rotate into the Horn of Africa.
When Wilsbach did his first tour on Okinawa in 1993 as an F-15 Eagle pilot, the Air Force didn't have wartime deployments.
"It was basically a mission to be in-garrison force," Wilsbach said.
Six years later, the start of air expeditionary force deployments brought fighter squadrons and maintenance units in Japan into the rotation.
They played key roles in Southern and Northern Watch missions over Iraq.
The growing demand for airmen in every career field gradually pushed the Air Force to make everyone available for deployments — even airmen in Japan.
The airmen's perspective
Kadena's 18th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron keeps busy.
Half of its 60 flight nurses and medical technicians are away every day. Two of its 12 medical teams are in Afghanistan; another three or four are shuttling patients across the Pacific region.
"On any given day, I've got five or six crews out," said Col. John Ewing, squadron commander.
When the surge in southern Afghanistan began, the squadron sent 21 airmen — administrators and logisticians, as well as the nurses and technicians — to establish a medical evacuation center where the wounded could be brought and then airlifted to hospitals. Their four-month stay stretched to five months when a volcano eruption in Iceland delayed their replacements.
When the deployment ended, most of the airmen took the long way back to Kadena, traveling through Europe and the U.S. Some decided to take a little time off back home before flying to Japan.
"It was great for my mom," said Tech. Sgt. Vidal Hill, a medical technician.
Deployments don't exempt airmen from filling squadron missions across the Pacific. Several just back from the desert are leaving soon for two weeks at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, where they will be on-call to fly medical evacuation flights to and from the mainland.
Other deployments are longer but not as far from Japan.
In late May, about 250 airmen from Misawa's 14th Fighter Squadron and associated maintenance units began a four-month deployment to Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. The F-16CJs are part of a rotating presence of fighters backing up the four Air Force fighter squadrons permanently stationed in South Korea.
While the temporary living quarters for the junior enlisted don't match the dorms at Misawa, the solid walls and roof beat where airmen thought they'd be quartered.
"I kind of expected a hut," said Senior Airman Dwayne Evans, an aviation resource manager.
Pilots live in the base hotel, which opened two months before they arrived.
Missed holidays and birthdays, keeping up the family routine and wondering what is going on in the desert — some things that the families of deployed airmen care about are universal.
Others are unique to where the family is living. Spouses and children in Japan, for example, have to cope with isolation. You can't pack up the car and visit Grandma and Grandpa. Flying back home on a commercial airline is expensive — about $1,500 for one round-trip ticket.
And free space-available travel on military flights is tough to come by. Unless an airman is deployed for more than 120 days, his family has a Category 5 priority, the second-lowest classification for getting seats. Dependents of airmen deployed longer than four months fare a little better — they qualify for Category 4 status.
Sara Mattes keeps her loneliness in check by staying busy. Her husband, Tech. Sgt. Matthew Mattes, is deployed for six months to oversee utility operations at a Persian Gulf base.
She focuses on caring for their three children, ages 11, 9 and 4.
"I'm trying to keep their life as structured as possible," Sara Mattes said.
During the summer school break, families play sports and take trips to the beach. Because civilian jobs are hard to come by, most spouses don't have to balance work and their families.
The families have built a network of formal and informal support, where everyone looks out for one another from the top down.
"The senior leadership is attentive," said Senior Airman Kayla Brown, a knowledge operations manager whose husband, Senior Airman Reggie Brown, is deployed as a services specialist in the Persian Gulf region.
Wilsbach invites families to his home to watch movies every so often and the families gather for a dinner hosted by a different squadron every month.
Each squadron has a network of "key spouses" who check in frequently with the deployed families.
Informally, neighbors know who is deployed and understand what the families are going through. Because everyone is far from home and most airmen live on base, there is a heightened sense of community not found back in the states, the spouses said.
When dependants need more than what families provide, the base Airman and Family Readiness Center offers counseling and a clearinghouse for base programs.
Wilsbach and his wife, Cindy, know firsthand what the families go through. As a lieutenant colonel, he spent a year deployed to the Persian Gulf and was away from home before that for Southern and Northern Watch assignments.
While the deployment tempo has changed, the sense of community at Kadena hasn't.
"What isn't different is how close-knit the military environment is here," Wilsbach said. "Your military family becomes your family."