SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Beyond the coiled rows of concertina wire and concrete barriers lie endless miles of sand, gravel and uncertainty.
Dust lifted by the winds colors the distant horizon a dull sepia tone as the thermometer hovers in the low three digits by mid-morning.
For a team of Airmen from Guam, the monotony of the landscape surrounding them lies in stark contrast with the lush green hills of the Pacific island they left behind.
These security forces members deployed from the 254th Security Forces Squadron of the Guam Air National Guard to secure access points to the installation and patrol perimeter fencelines and facilities of the 407th Air Expeditionary Group.
Daily mission focus for much of the team is the access control at the gates and vehicles search areas. After cars and trucks pass through various fortified security layers, Airmen here thoroughly check for explosive devices, contraband, drugs and weapons via direct searches, while their wingmen provide additional overwatch via towers, cameras and electronic sensors covering the area. Per shift, the guards process an average of more than 200 base workers and service members supporting missions in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.
“The gates are the first line of defense,” said Staff Sgt. Ricky Meno, a security forces team lead with the 407th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron. “We ensure they are 100 percent verified, cleared and good to go, so everything is safe. It takes great attention to detail and resiliency because the base depends on us.”
Meno's Air Force journey began as he observed gate guards securing installations near his home at Andersen Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam. Since he joined the Air National Guard, he has deployed to Afghanistan and other bases in Air Force Central Command.
“I used to see them out there at the gate,” Meno said. “I wanted to be part of that. I joined the military to defend my country as well as my island. And I kind of fell in love with it. And here I am now.”
Whether in the morning or at night, the teams’ duty shifts start with guardmount, where the Airmen receive their weapons, ammunition and updates on new developments, tasks and any incidents that happened before their shift.
“We come in every day, arm up and get our information, then we head out in a small team of two or three,” said Staff Sgt. Melquiadez Racho, a night patrol lead. “In the dark, there is seemingly nothing out there. But anything can happen at any time. While everyone is sound asleep, my crew and I are out there at the perimeter watching, making sure everything is quiet and safe for everybody.”
The defenders work hand-in-hand with the U.S. Marines, U.S. Navy corpsmen as well as with Polish and Italian airmen in helping the coalition forces achieve their joint objectives in the fight against ISIS.
“The strategic location of the installation they protect supports personnel who are ready to bring the fight to ISIS and the air platforms that build and execute strike packages against our enemies,” said Capt. Jeffrey Robertson, operations officer with the 407th ESFS. “The squadron and group operations here are nothing short of historic and the Guam Defenders continue to ruthlessly execute the squadron's mission in support of the (air tasking order).”
At home, the guardsmen defend Andersen Air Force Base, which houses the long-standing continuous bomber presence of B-1B Lancers. Much of their time, however, is spent on training and preparing for their deployed missions as drill weekends and recurring exercises keep their skills fresh.
“We are training for the real world all the time,” Racho said. “You always have to keep that mindset: something is bound to happen. We train how we fight. Keeping that mindset will always get you ready for any type of mission. Back home we train, when we deploy we execute what we trained for.”
Before the deployment, the team completed the Commando Warrior training at Andersen AFB and traveled to Fort Bliss, Texas, for additional readiness training driving mine-resistant ambush protected all-terrain vehicles and other skillsets needed for their mission.
“Deploying with the people in my unit, some whom I've known for many years, some a decade or more, you get a sense of trust,” he said. “You train with them and you build that confidence that there is always somebody behind you, watching your back. This goes for everybody in this career. You have to trust the people you deploy with.”
Despite Guam’s small population of about 200,000 residents, the island tops the list of U.S. enlistments per capita and nearly one in eight of its adults serve or have served in the armed forces. Throughout the year Airmen from Guam can be found in deployed locations – from bustling hubs of airpower to remote outposts.
“A lot of people are surprised we have such a large military presence, although we are a place that is so small,” Meno said. “But when when people ask about the island we love to tell them more. The way we are on Guam, we love meeting new people, inviting them in and sharing our culture with people.”
Guam is known for this "Hafa Adai" spirit (akin to Hawaii's "Aloha”). It’s the traditional Chamorro greeting and represents a welcoming attitude and island lifestyle. No matter where they serve on foreign shores, the units show this philosophy and share their culture with all they come in contact with.
“Attitude and motivation – paired with a smile is how I will remember my time spent with the island defenders,” Robertson said. “I have had the pleasure of being present during the promotion of some of their members, being invited to their island cook outs, and working side by side with them. It is their genuineness that gets me every time. A hand shake, a fist bump, or a simple pleasantry to everyone they encounter is refreshing in a combat environment -- they simply have a knack for spreading pride.”
It is that pride all team members display by wearing a small, subtly subdued sage-green patch of the island’s flag, with the Guam seal at its center, on their their gear -- identifying themselves a part of a brotherhood with deep roots.
“We bring our pride out because a lot of people don’t know where Guam is,” Racho said. “It's a small island right in the middle of the Pacific. People look at it on a map and there is nothing there but a speck. But that is home.
“I believe people from Guam have a very strong sense of honor,” Racho continued. “Especially being from a small island, we always want to try to be with the best and represent that pride. That's the driving force we have.”
A family business
Life as a Guam guardsman is rewarding, Racho said, and allows the Airmen to serve in their home community, where they can stay rooted in both service and their island home. But it also takes them around the world in support of exercises with partner nations and deployments in remote locations for months at a time – something that is tough on the Airmen who place priority on family life. On Guam, however, service to the country is family business, nearly everyone on the team has relatives in one of the uniformed services or veterans with a history of past service.
“I grew up with a military background and my dad was in the military for 20 years,” said Tech. Sgt. Casey Morrison, a patrol team lead with the 407th ESFS. “What we do is important and we protect personnel and resources we have to ensure experts in other fields can do what they have to do safely. But in the end I'm doing it for my children. It takes a lot of sacrifice and is a bit of a challenge at times. Luckily, being from Guam I have a lot of family support.”
While many Airmen from other bases often deploy individually in support of expeditionary missions, deploying together allows the Guam Airmen a special bond that is more like family than co-workers. This team spirit is especially supportive to new Airmen like Airman 1st Class Randall Diego, who is serving on his first deployment right after technical training.
“We are far away, but do stuff that kind of reminds you of home,” Diego said. “It's such a tight knit community and everybody treats you like family. It doesn’t feel like a deployment when you're with the right people. What is hard is being away from family, but when you have family in the deployed environment it makes everything so much easier.”
Guard service allows the Airmen to serve while pursuing civilian careers. This creates a dynamic team of new and experienced Airmen from a variety of civilian backgrounds. The team comprises civilian peace officers, customs agents, postal service employees and store clerks among others -- all bringing their experience to the fight. No matter their background, however, they all share a sense of service to their country and community.
“I always wanted to do something in law enforcement,” Diego said. “I like to help people and enforce the law. I always wanted to protect others. What's rewarding about my job is when the day is kind of quiet. When nothing happens and everyone is safe. That’s when we know we did our job well.”
In July, island residents will commemorate the sacrifices of World War II service members in the defense of Guam during the annual Liberation Day parade. While the Guam defenders will miss this year’s parade, they know their families keep them in their thoughts and have a place at the table ready for their return.
“We want to represent, so when we come home our families can have that pride of saying one of ours represented us and did well,” Racho said. “Our families are our inspiration. We can't fail them. It's the last statement in our creed. We will never fail.”
At the beginning of their next shift, Racho and his wingmen again received their weapons and duty briefing. While many days on deployment are the same, the Guam warriors know not to let down their guard.
“Ready to rock,” Racho said with a smile as he sent forward the bolt of his M4 carbine and set out on a new patrol shift – until it’s time to go home to their island.