by Master Sgt. Louis A. Arana-Barradas
Air Force Combat Information Team
TUZLA AIR BASE, Bosnia -- Air operations here are "about on track" despite weather that has often shut off the airflow of supplies and troops, said the commander of Air Force troops.
But Col. Neal Patton, the 4100th Air Base Group (Provisional) commander, is optimistic that will change soon.
"We are behind. There have been a couple of days of discomfort, primarily due to the airflow problems caused by the weather. Our plan got disrupted," he said. "We should have more soldiers. We should have more artillery.
"But we will catch up in the next few days," said Patton, who is from San Antonio. However, he said everything still depends on the weather holding up so the airflow can continue.
It's the disruptions in the airflow plan that have caused most of the problems, he said. When one piece of the puzzle doesn't arrive as scheduled, it throws the whole operation off.
"We are working every day to trace where the pieces of the puzzle are. Because if an airplane diverts, it may go back to Ramstein (Air Base, Germany), or may not. It may be loaded with something else, it may not.
"So chasing those little bits of the puzzle to make sure they still come in -- in the right order -- has become a full-time job for all of us," Patton said. "Every day is a new challenge," he said.
But things are shaping up better than he expected at first, Patton said. "I think the Air Force team has come through again. We've done very well in some really appalling weather conditions. The men and women flying the airplanes have done a great job and the men and women out here getting the stuff off the airplanes have done a great job."
But the early success wouldn't have been possible without close cooperation between the departing and arriving peacekeepers, Patton said.
"Quite frankly, I didn't know how we'd be received here. But the people on this base -- the U.N. protection force -- have bent over backwards for us," Patton said. "With the few people we brought in initially -- without that really above-and-beyond cooperation, we would not have been successful," he said.
By Dec. 20, Patton said most of the communications gear essential to the operation had been delivered and the initial 73 airmen needed for air field operation were also in place.
As more aircraft land and offload their cargoes of supplies and troops, the base population continues to increase and by Dec. 21 there were about 800 American troops at the base, including the airmen.
Housing them has become a problem and soldiers and airmen are staying wherever room is available. Right now, that means any place in barracks being vacated by United Nations peacekeepers. Some are sleeping in rooms or hallways, and others in a few tents.
But Staff Sgt. Samuel Williams, an intelligence operations journeyman from Newark, N.J., said things could have been worse. "Believe it or not, things are not as bad as I initially thought. I expected to be living outside in tents, in the mud."
"At least we have a roof over our heads and it's warm and dry," said Staff Sgt. Marco A. Casco, an air transportation journeyman from Los Angeles.
But as more troops continue to arrive, the housing problem will increase, Patton said. And since troops are restricted to the base and United Nations soldiers are not leaving all at once, tent cities have to be erected.
Originally, the Army was going to build the tent cities, but Army officials asked the Air Force to build them instead. That changed the number of airmen that would have to deploy to the base. "Since we've now picked up the responsibility for engineering on the base, we're going to bring in a Red Horse team," Patton said.
The team will build from two to three tent cities. To ensure the tents will withstand the Bosnian winter, they will be "hardback" tents, built over a plywood-floor-and-walls frame. A Red Horse team from Hurlburt Field, Fla., was making an initial assessment Dec. 20 and 21.
Another problem will be finding the right places place to build the tents, since there are so many marshy areas and others that have not been cleared of mines.
Though Patton had said he wanted to limit the Air Force population at the base to about 300, the Red Horse team will increase the number by another 250 -- so about 550 airmen will be there during construction of the tent cities.
However, once the team finishes, its people will go home. "That's good, because this place is getting very, very crowded. It's a small base," Patton said.
Pfc. Brian A. Sullivan, a member of one of the U.S. Army combat teams patrolling the base, said he doesn't care how many airmen come to Tuzla -- as long as they build a tent city. The soldier from West Covina, Calif., said he has been sleeping in what was once "some kind of basketball tent."
"Though we have cots to sleep on , it's really cold in there," Sullivan said. "I can't wait until the Air Force puts up their really nice tents."