For much of the first year-and-a-half of young Christian Martinez’ life, he only saw his mother, Technical Sgt. Caroline Martinez, on a laptop screen as they Skyped from half a world away.
When she returned in 2010 for a 15-day leave toward the end of her one-year deployment to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar — which began six-and-a-half months after she gave birth to Christian — her son was confused.
“The first time he looked at me, I don’t think he recognized me entirely,” Martinez said. “My husband kept saying, ‘This is mom. Mom.’ And he went to the laptop, and tapped on the laptop, and said, ‘Mom.’ I said, ‘No, I’m Mom.’”
Since then, said Martinez, an intelligence analyst with the 92nd Operations Support Squadron at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington, she and Christian have been “joined at the hip.” That was by far the hardest of her five deployments. These days, when Martinez deploys, it’s only for about four months at a time, giving her plenty of time to take now-7-year-old Christian to soccer games and be involved in his other extracurricular activities.
Martinez isn’t alone. According to deployment statistics provided by the Air Force, tens of thousands of airmen are still deploying these days — but the pace is declining from a few years ago, when the Afghanistan surge was at its peak.
However, as the fight against the Islamic State — a war driven almost entirely by United States air power — ramped up, the shape of the Air Force’s deployed forces has also changed, giving some airmen a break, but taxing others to a concerning degree.
While fewer airmen are deploying, the average number of days that those who do deploy spend overseas has increased. In 2013, enlisted airmen deployed for 110 days on average, and the average officer deployed for 93 days. But in 2015, the average enlisted airman deployed for 132 days and the average officer deployed for 128 days — a little more than six months.
While the pace has somewhat let up, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody is concerned about the effect that a quarter-century of frequent combat operations is having on the force — and the fact that the demand on the shrinking Air Force is likely to continue.
In addition to the air war against ISIS, airmen are checking new Russian assertiveness in Eastern Europe and elsewhere around the globe, helping to counter China's attempt to expand its influence in the Pacific and add to its territory in the South China Sea, conducting show of force operations along the DMZ in Korea that have included B-52s and F-22s, and supporting missions in Central and South America and in Africa.
“Everybody’s working hard,” Cody said in a March 21 interview. “Pick the community, they’re still pressing really hard. I think we’re moving in the right direction. We’re trying to provide some level of predictability and sustainability [in deployments]. But the reality is, the requirements of air power don’t always follow suit with that.”
In fiscal 2015, 51,072 total force airmen — active duty, guardsmen and reservists — deployed for “contingency operations” abroad, and another 13,583 deployed for exercises, a total of 64,655 airmen, 13.3 percent of the roughly 485,000 total force airmen last year.
That’s down 33 percent from the 95,972 total force airmen who deployed in fiscal 2013.
But as the way the United States is fighting war is changing, so are the burdens placed on deployed airmen. In 2013, an Air Force Times analysis of deployment trends showed that airmen such as explosive ordnance disposal techs and tactical air control party airmen — the kind of airmen who are vital for on-the-ground operations — were some of the most heavily deployed.
Today, deployments fall most heavily on enlisted airmen such as airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operators, in-flight refuelers operating the booms that gas up other airplanes, and remotely piloted aircraft maintainers — exactly the kind of airmen you need to prosecute a war relying on air power and the rapid collection and analysis of intelligence to drive precision airstrikes.
And on the officer side, bomber, recon and surveillance and special operations pilots and combat systems officers, as well as RPA pilots and rescue CSOs, are the most heavily deployed per capita.
The list of the top 10 enlisted and officer fields with the highest per capita deployment rates can be found here.
“The demand signal for that capability — information is hugely important to our leadership, to our combatant commanders, to be able to respond back to our … leaders to make informed decisions — is a great, great demand signal on our ISR capability,” Cody said. “Where is there something not going on where we don’t have to be paying attention?”
Finding the balance
Deploy-to-dwell ratios have also declined. In 2013, the Air Force was concerned that about 10 percent of airmen who deployed were facing deploy-dwell rates of about 1:1, meaning they were spending almost as long at war as they were at home.
This set off alarm bells throughout the service. Airmen and leaders alike worried that deployed airmen would not have enough time to rest, recuperate and retrain at home and would burn out. The Air Force that year said it wanted to get deploy-dwell ratios down to 1:2 at most, so airmen deploying for six months would then have a full year at home.
That has largely happened. According to the Air Force Personnel Center’s stats, there are now no career fields with overall deploy-dwell ratios of 1:1, and all but six have deployment rates of 1:3 or lower.
Cody said the Air Force’s 2014 force management restructuring, which cut thousands of airmen from overmanned career fields, helped lessen the pace of deployments. Those cuts, he noted, allowed the service to add airmen to career fields stressed from deployments. The Air Force is also trying to increase the training of airmen in drone-related career fields to bolster their ranks and lessen the deployment burden on existing airmen, he said.
A different kind of combat
Cody and other Air Force officials agree that the decline in deployment rates since 2013 is also due to the reduction in combat operations in Afghanistan, which lessened the need for the Air Force to send support airmen abroad.
For example, said Michael Dery, installation deployment officer for the 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild, mission support airmen such as security forces, contracting, logistics and EOD there were deploying at about a 1:1 rate. But today, those airmen usually have at least a year at home between six-month deployments.
“They’d get a tasking, and before they left, they pretty much had their next tasking assigned to them,” Dery said. “But now, they have a little bit of breathing room they didn’t have.”
Dery also said the Air Force’s new policy of “teaming” — or deploying whole units that have trained and worked together, instead of grabbing assorted airmen from around the country and having them get to know each other in the field — has helped stabilize the pace of deployments considerably. The Air Force enacted that policy as part of the Air Expeditionary Force overhaul that went into effect in 2014.
For pilots and maintainers, Dery said, it’s a different story. They’re still deploying regularly to the Middle East, and when they return to the States, their time is filled with training missions, exercises such as Red Flag, and Coronet missions, where tankers escort and periodically refuel fighters as they travel over long distances.
To ensure airmen aren’t burned out, the Air Force has a “constant dialogue” with combatant commanders about their mission needs, Cody said. That way, the commanders are reminded to limit their requests to airmen and assets they actually need, not what they want.
“It’s a collaborative effort to make sure that we pay attention to the impact that this is having on the service’s men and women who are doing these functions,” Cody said.
The Air Force’s methods of studying deployment rates don’t include one new category of airmen who are conducting overseas missions while serving out of stateside bases such as Creech Air Force Base in Nevada: Non-forward deployed drone pilots and related crew. Cody said the Air Force needs to do a better job studying those airmen and their operations tempos.
“We don’t even have a real model to quantify” what those airmen are dealing with, Cody said. “We’re trying to get to that. What is reasonable and sustainable for these folks that are conducting combat operations, [including] gathering information? What is the toll? They go home at the end of the day, [but] that doesn’t mean it isn’t really important that we understand the [work-life balance and psychological] impact of that kind of ops.”
'Fraying the force'
At Air Force Special Operations Command, the deployment stress is even more acute.
Chief Master Sgt. Matthew Caruso, the command chief for AFSOC, said in a March 17 interview that, a few years ago, key airmen such as combat controllers, U-28 pilots and CSOs, MC-130 crew members and AC-130 gunship maintainers and pilots were deploying at about a 1:1 rate.
Continuing that pace would be unsustainable, Caruso said. The fight against militant groups such as ISIS relies heavily on special operations and is likely to go on for decades.
“It was fraying the force,” Caruso said of the deployment tempo in 2013. “Since this war is a very SOF-led problem set, we wouldn’t be able to do this for the next 20 years if we just kept on deploying our folks 1 to 1.”
That burden has eased slightly and are headed in the right direction, he said, but AFSOC airmen are still at roughly a 1 to 1.3 or 1.5 deployment ratio, meaning that they get about five or six months at home after a four-month deployment. Caruso also said the MC-130 and AC-130 airmen are at about a 1:1.6 deploy-dwell ratio.
But deploy-dwell ratios of 1:2 or less still are “not the case in AFSOC,” Caruso said.
To lessen the burden, Caruso said, AFSOC started upping crew ratios a year and a half ago. Previously, AFSOC was authorized 1.2 crews per plane, meaning a hypothetical five-plane squadron would have six crews.
“That’s not enough to do all the things you have to do with those airplanes to meet all the mission requirements and the training in-garrison,” Caruso said.
Now, AFSOC has a crew ratio of 1.5 crews per plane, meaning that same squadron would have eight crew members. That way, they can rotate more airmen through deployments.
“Before, we would always send the same individuals out on deployments, and they were getting burned out,” Caruso said. “Your instructor pilots, our security forces, our combat controllers, constantly home and gone, home and gone. If they’re talented and sharp individuals, you just crush them over the course of seven or eight years. And you wonder why they get out at 10 years and just walk away from the Air Force.”
When its airmen were back home, AFSOC started paying closer attention to how often they were going on temporary duty for training or other assignments, and making sure they were taking their leave or going to professional military education on time. AFSOC also started watching promotion and retention rates for signs of problems.
“Just because you’re not deployed doesn’t necessarily mean you’re home,” Caruso said. “We have lots of training requirements in garrison, and special tactics airmen are especially prone to that. Two-thirds of the time they’re home, they may be away from their wives and husbands. Being with your family, spending time with loved ones, having a holiday or two off a year means the world to retaining the best and brightest airmen we can.”
About three or four months ago, AFSOC and U.S. Special Operations Command asked combatant commanders to dial down their demand signal and prioritize what they need, so AFSOC can better manage who they send out. That request was well-received by COCOMs, Caruso said, and the pace is letting up.
But Caruso isn’t satisfied. If he could ask for one thing, he said, it would be for about 250 more airmen for combat support positions to help take care of airmen and resources.
AFSOC also needs to find ways to work more closely with guardsmen and reservists to share the workload being placed on special forces.
“Short of another major regional conflict or an incident in another AOR [area of responsibility], we really can’t give you too much more AFSOC right now,” Caruso said.
With stress comes rewards
Seven airmen interviewed by Air Force Times, who had all deployed multiple times to places such as Al Udeid, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, Kuwait and South America, said that while deployments and being separated from their families for months at a time can be stressful, they can also be rewarding.
For KC-135 pilot Capt. Kaylyn Leibrand and boom operator Staff Sgt. Michael Dunn — both of whom are now deployed to the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing at Al Udeid — deploying means more opportunities to do what they love: fly.
“When I’m home, I might fly three times a month,” Leibrand said. “Out here, you typically fly five times a week. It’s the same pilot, copilot and boom operator for about 70 days. There’s a certain sense of camaraderie that gets built up. You get inside jokes, you make fun of each other a bit and tease.”
“Out here, your only job is to fly,” Dunn said. “That’s the most fun aspect of my job. Not sitting behind a desk in an office.”
But the separations can be stressful. Master Sgt. Nicholas Bethune, a crew chief supervisor at the 379th, said he is going to miss his daughter’s first communion next month. And Tech Sgt. Roberto Rodriguez, a jet engine mechanic at the 379th, says he has missed many of his son’s birthdays.
Sometimes, dual-military couples have found themselves deployed together. For example, Leibrand and her husband are now both deployed to Al Udeid, giving them opportunities for “dates” at the chow hall or the library if their days off line up.
“It’s not the most romantic date you can go on,” Leibrand joked.
But while Leibrand enjoys seeing her husband every day while overseas, having time together at their Tampa home, where they can pursue hobbies like paddleboarding on Saturday mornings, is what she really treasures.
Sometimes, airmen need to remind family members that deploying to help defend their country is why they put on their uniform. Martinez said her year-long deployment so soon after giving birth was a surprise and tough on her. Her mother wanted to know why she had to leave her new son.
She tried to help her mom understand that she signed a contract and agreed to serve the Air Force. This, she said, also reminded herself why she was doing this and helped her get on the plane to the Middle East. It ended up being one of her best and most interesting deployments, she said.
And sSince then, her son has become increasingly comfortable when she or her husband, an Air Force crew chief, must deploy.
“This is normal,” Martinez said. “This is our job. And we take pride in that.”