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Los Angeles AFB welcomes home deployed Airmen

SSgt Alicia Watkins, 61st Communications Squadron, spoke about how being at Ground Zero on 9/11 motivated her to join the Air Force and kept her going during her recent deployment.

SSgt Alicia Watkins, 61st Communications Squadron, spoke about how being at Ground Zero on 9/11 motivated her to join the Air Force and kept her going during her recent deployment.

LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE -- Los Angeles Air Force Base held a homecoming celebration for 17 Airmen in the Schriever Space Complex, April 6. The men and women returned recently from deployments for 120 to 180 days, and the celebration was in honor of all Airmen who served in places such as Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Djibouti Horn of Africa, Germany and Kuwait. 

Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel, Space and Missile Systems Center commander, led the celebration. Lt. Col. Ivan Thompson, Directorate of Staff, sang the National Anthem as the Honor Guard posted the colors. Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Donald Wilson, 61st Air Base Wing Chaplain's Office commander, gave the invocation. In the audience along with families, friends and coworkers were Honorary Commanders to two base organizations, Honorable Kelly McDowell, Mayor of El Segundo, and Honorable Mike Gin, Mayor of Redondo Beach. 

Four medals were presented as a symbolic representation of all the medals that were awarded to the men and women who served from SMC. The returning Airmen were showered with applause from the audience as the MC, Capt. Gabrielle Dupree, Directorate of Staff, read their names. 

Capt. Alex Cusack, Space Based Infrared Systems Wing, spent 201 days in Baghdad and shared his deployment experiences. He spoke of the harrowing, life-threatening moment of his "day 35" in Iraq. On a road trip back to Baghdad from a mission in Taji, his convoy was met under enemy attack. During the course of the fire exchange, a roadside bomb was spotted up ahead as they were driving past at 60 mph. 

"Right in front of us, 15 feet up, we saw something that looked like ... a 'hockey puck,' an IED (improvised explosive device)," he said. "There was no way out. All we could do was ride over it. As we did, everyone in the vehicle held their breath." 

Whether the IED malfunctioned or it was jammed by one of the vehicles by using an electronic jamming device, the bomb did not go off. When they finally reached Baghdad, the engine of his ATV (all-terrain vehicle) died. The vehicle had taken 15 rounds including one in the engine block. 

"That was the 35th day for me in Iraq. 

"That was just one day," said Captain Cusack. "There were so many other days; there were 200 other days where positive things happened. There's so much more that you don't see on C-Span or CNN." 

He worked with the Iraqis everyday, with interpreters, Iraqi leadership and military members in their central headquarters, and observed their strategic minds and activities at work. He spoke of the progress being made to the Iraqi families and made things safer for the people there. 

"Some people ask me if I think the Iraqis want us there," said Captain Cusack. "Yes. They do. We see it." 

Captain Cusack praised the tight camaraderie among the coalition members from the United States, Great Britain, Australia and other countries. He spoke of the faith and the dependence upon each other. He mentioned how on "Day 35," their lives were trusted to each other. 

"It's real work," said Captain Cusack. "They kick your butt. But you get over it. You really get wrapped up in it. The people were passionate with what they were doing. You could see it. You could feel it." 

The post cards, e-mail and packages sent from home made a great impact on the soldiers, he said. 

"We knew people were behind us. It made us want to do a good job," he said. "I was honored to wear this uniform, to represent the United States. 

"Day 35 changed my character," said Captain Cusack. "It made me value my life. Made me value my time. It made me a better person, a better Airman, a better leader. It was worth it." 

The experience showed him the importance of each day and he counted his days during his deployment. 

"For us, we couldn't wait to come home. Each day had a purpose, a meaning," said Captain Cusack. "I don't count my days any more, now that I'm back in LA. But maybe I should." 

General Hamel introduced an impromptu speaker, Staff Sgt. Alicia Watkins, 61st Communications Squadron, to briefly talk about her deployment and what motivated her while she was deployed. She had joined the Air Force after the 9/11 attack. Sergeant Watkins was outside her office building in New York when the terrorists attacked and her best friend lost her life. 

"When I think about the global war on terrorism, it meant more to me I think than anything else in my life," said Sergeant Watkins. "'Lest I forget,'" she quoted while holding back her tears of the inscription at the bottom of her best friend's photo. "I'll never forget the reason why we go overseas, the reason why we spend time away from our families, the reason why we dedicate our lives to a service that's greater than ourselves." 

"I will never forget the reason I was there. What an awesome honor it is to serve," said Sergeant Watkins. "We were the fortunate ones. We got to experience something you can't write about, you can't read about, you can't look at on CNN. It has to come from here," she said, pointing to her heart. "I will never forget the things that I experienced there." 

"It is humbling to follow these extraordinary gifted young Airmen who have spoken and shared their experiences," said General Hamel. "Each and every one of the individuals who has deployed has a defining experience. ... Their actions given hope to people who have never really had hope before, and for that, they are real heroes. 

"We are very much in this business of fighting the Global War on terror," said General Hamel. "What we are doing day-to-day (at SMC) is ensuring that the men and women, examples of whom are sitting out here today, may indeed have the ability to accomplish their missions and return home safely." 

General Hamel also reminded everyone of the importance of readiness. 

"Each and every one of us in uniform will find ourselves at some point in time asked to sacrifice ... sacrifice of deployment, of longer hours, of time way from family," he said. "In addition to doing your work (here at SMC) 40, 50, 60 hours a week, you may also find yourself being deployed to Djibouti, in Kabul, in Kandahar literally with very short notice. We all need to be prepared at all times. 

"As we celebrate the return of these individuals, we know there will be more generations of people who are going to be asked to make sacrifices," said General Hamel. "And at home at SMC, we are ensuring the equipment, the space capabilities, the tools, and all the essential elements for the success of our military are the absolute best ... to perform their missions and come home safely."