Civilian Conference Participant Connects with Troops

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam, Nov. 7, 2007 - Wearing a protective vest and Kevlar helmet and carrying an M-16 rifle, Fassil Gabremariam struggled to climb into the turret of an armored Humvee.

It was hot, and he was sweaty and tired. But as he poked his head through the gunner's access hole in the top of the military vehicle, Gabremariam was taken from a training exercise in the jungles of Guam to the streets of Baghdad and, in an instant, he saw with fresh perspective some of the realities of those serving in the war.

"It ... brought me in touch with those Humvees that I see on television in Iraq and these young kids ... out there sacrificing themselves in the line of fire. And I was sort of visualizing. My mind was focusing on that Humvee on the streets of Baghdad," he said.

"When I was ... standing there, I was really connected. I was connected with the military. I was not a soldier. I was not in the military, but I was connected psychologically," Gabremariam said.

The retired telecommunications senior executive is part of the nearly 40 civilians who traveled to this remote U.S. territory island as part of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference on the first stop of a week-long expedition to U.S. Pacific Command. The JCOC is a defense secretary sponsored program for U.S. civic and business leaders who want to broaden their knowledge of the military and national defense.

Yesterday the group toured the island's Air Force efforts, headed by the 36th Wing. The wing provides day-to-day mission support to more than 8,500 military, civilian and retired personnel and their families and 15 associate units on the base.

During the day, the group helped evacuate "casualties" in a mock airplane crash exercise, assembled bombs at a munitions depot and got behind the controls of a back-hoe at the construction site for a new home for a unit of Air Force combat engineers.

They also were able to crawl into the boom operator's bubble on a KC-135 Stratotanker air refueler, and the finale was an up-close and personal look at the high-tech, stealthy B-2 bomber. The bomber was the only thing during the day that the participants were not allowed to touch.

At the start, participants were faced with "victims" screaming and frantic with mock burns, gashes and other injuries. They were taken through the triage process, helped evacuate the injured from the site, and provided convoy security to the medical-evacuation site and even loaded victims onto the helicopter.

At the construction site, conference participants tried their hands at using heavy equipment to lift a softball off of an orange-colored cone marker and dropping it into a bucket. At the munitions depot, they toured bunkers and then donned gloves and steel-toed boots to attach tail fins to bombs.

Organizers of the conference ensured that each stage was as hands-on as possible and kept briefings to a minimum. The goal was to give the group as much face-to-face time as possible with airmen and to let them experience the training first-hand.

For Gabremariam, this approach helped him connect with what servicemembers go through to perform their missions. "I was struggling; just putting the helmet on and having that vest on, it was demanding," he said. "I could not feel everything they feel, because I was not in a live-fire situation, but I can relate to how difficult it is, how tough it is, to operate in that type of environment, and these young men and women are doing a formidable job doing it."

Gabremariam is a naturalized citizen from Ethiopia. His father was a life-long public servant there and taught him to respect service, he said. At 24 Gabremariam came to America to go to college and went on to make a career here. He never served in the military, nor did any of his immediate family, but he said he has always had admiration for those serving, Gabremariam said.

"The American military, I think, is probably one of the most respected institutions in the world. It gives opportunities to young people to shape their lives, to grow, to change, to aspire and achieve their dreams," he said.

"It lifts them up to a challenge that's bigger than themselves," he said. "That's service."

Gabremariam said he admires U.S. military servicemembers for their discipline and integrity. While conference participants are briefed on impressive military operations and strategic plans and see high-tech military equipment, getting to talk to, and work and train with troops is the true value of the conference, he said.

"That is one of the most important elements, because the military is not made up of concrete and metal and bombs and airplanes. It takes people -- human beings -- to operate and run it. They are the ones who make it happen," Gabremariam said. "So for me, this trip is about connecting and knowing more about the military -- not only what they have, what type of equipment they have, but the morale and the attitudes and the aspirations of the young people."

The retired executive from Florida said so far this trip has reaffirmed his confidence in the young fighting men and women of the U.S. military, and he said he is impressed at their willingness to sacrifice for their service. "They love their job; they are very loyal, and they are very committed, and these young people elevate my spirit," he said.

He said the visit has helped him connect with servicemembers like he never could have otherwise. "I have never thought that I had that strong of a feeling about (military service) until today, and I never felt that connection until I was inside that Humvee, and someone said, 'Go up the turret.' And when I went there, I felt like I was one of them."

Gabremariam was nominated for the conference by senior military officials. He said he feels that the program should be expanded so others can gain the same insights into military service.

"What it does is take out the fluff. It takes out the noise, and puts you right there in front of the troops with the troops, doing the things they do with them," he said. "It takes all of the political garbage out of it, and you say, 'That's why we need to support these guys.'"

Civilian Conference Participant Connects with Troops [ ]