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Three days on a military tour

By By Buddy Bynum / editor
May 30, 2004
SAN ANTONIO Out here in the vast flat lands of southwest Texas, the horizon stretches almost endlessly and the sun seems reluctant to disappear behind the curvature of the earth.
It is still early evening, about 1800 hours military time, and 45 visitors from Mississippi guests of the Mississippi Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve are on a bus ride across town, headed for a dinner of barbecued beef and baked beans at the Randolph Air Force Base NCO Club. Only the misadvised would dare serve barbecued pork here in this cattle-crazy part of the country.
We are nearing the end of the first day of a three-day tour of Air Force and Texas National Guard facilities in this city of a million-plus residents, where the U.S. military has a huge presence on bases with names like Lackland, Randolph, Kelly, Fort Sam Houston with its Brooke Army Medical Center, and the Texas National Guard.
It has been a full day since we left Jackson, Miss., aboard one of eight new C-17 Globemasters stationed at the 172nd Airlift Wing, a key component of the Air Mobility Command. Our aircraft was commanded by Maj. Michael Sparrow and co-piloted by 1st Lt. Mark Rodgers. Making us comfortable were two loadmasters, Sr. Master Sgt. Walter C. Chapman and Master Sgt. Mike Hall, and a crew chief, Sr. Master Sgt. Johnny Willis.
If you've never flown on a military aircraft, particularly a giant cargo plane like the C-17, be advised: The C-17s are designed for fast, efficient delivery of equipment like tanks, Humvees and helicopters, and personnel and supplies in support of specific missions, not creature comforts.
Cloth seats are positioned along the walls of the cargo bay and are different from the comparably plush and cushioned seating on commercial aircraft. The pipes and ductwork are exposed to view and there is little insulation to buffer engine noise. Ear plugs, handed out by the crew, are advisable. Cargo in our case, luggage is rolled in and strapped down in the middle of the cargo bay; there are no overhead storage bins because that space is filled with other, more necessary equipment.
Still, flying at a ground speed of more than 500 miles hour in this powerful aircraft gives you a feeling of safety and a sense of the high degree of training, dedication and professionalism of the people who fly and maintain them. You get the feeling that this plane and its crew could, if necessary, handle just about anything.
Out on the flightline at Lackland Air Force Base sits another giant of a plane, the largest in the Air Force inventory.
The oldest planes in the C-5 Galaxy lineup went into service during the Vietnam War and, nearly 40 years later, are about halfway through their careers. The manufacturer, Boeing, says the planes can go for about 75,000 hours and the Air Force expects they will still be in service in the year 2040. That's astounding; maybe not when you consider the C-5 requires about 80 hours of maintenance for every hour of flight time.
Imagine a plane that can carry upwards of a quarter-million pounds of personnel and equipment, not to mention its own weight, halfway around the world without stopping.
The wake-up call came at 4:58 a.m. Tom Bowen was on the line. Tom is chairman of the Mississippi Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, the sponsor of this trip, and was rounding up his charges for a 6:15 a.m. departure to Randolph Air Force Base and Fort Sam Houston, headquarters of the Fifth U.S. Army.
Historic Fort Sam Houston has been around since about 1870 and Apache Chief Geronimo was held captive in the Quadrangle for six weeks in 1886; German, Japanese and Italian prisoners were held during World War II. Within the state of Texas, the Quadrangle is surpassed in historical significance only by the Alamo.
Today, Fort Sam Houston is home for the Fifth U.S. Army headquarters, U.S. Army Medical Command and thousands of Army Reserve and National Guard soldiers who train here year round.
Graduation from Basic Military Training is a milestone for military recruits and back at Lackland's parade grounds on Friday, 801 of them went through a program of precision marching and sharp salutes. It is a rite of passage; all U.S. Air Force recruits now undergo basic training at Lackland and over the years more than four million have passed through its gates.
There is a graduation ceremony on 50 Friday mornings every year at Lackland and on this morning in May 2004, one of them was significant to Airman Hailey Lewis, of Meridian. She was completing the required six weeks of basic training before going on to another month or so of technical training.
Her dad, Sgt. Buddy Lewis of Meridian, and mom, Tanya Burroughs of Decatur, beamed with pride as Hailey took her oath of enlistment.
After watching the precision movements in the parade of graduating Airmen, seeing a variety of aircraft and learning more about the history and modern day roles of bases here, I came back to Mississippi with a renewed sense of pride and appreciation all defenders of freedom. Buddy Bynum is editor of The Meridian Star. Call him at 693-1551, ext. 3213, or e-mail