When I first arrived in Germany in the Spring of 1999 I took an immediate liking to my new surroundings. I mean THE reason I joined the Air Force was just to have the ability to travel around the world and knowing that Germany would be my new home for at least the next 24 months I couldn't have been more happier.
Although I had no idea upon arriving the base was in a strange state. One fighter squadron (The 53rd FS) was being deactivated and two (The 23rd and 81st FS) of the other three were deployed to Italy bombing Serbia into the stone age. As I was a first term airman and this was my 1st duty station I had a lot of appointments and briefing to attend that kept me away from my duty location for a couple weeks. When it was time for me to show up I was assigned some menial tasks with a mixture of guys who were waiting to leave the base and others who had just shown up and it was clear we were just there to waste time and make it seem like we were doing something.
After a short period of time I was sent over to the remaining fighter squadron on the base (the 22nd) to start doing actual work with F-16's. Normally I would have had to gone to a location to get certified but as we were actively bombing all that was thrown out the window.
I remember we were working 12 hour shifts and that we would send of 6 to 10 aircraft of at once and wait for about 6 hours for them to come back. It was actually pretty cool for maintainers. Depending on when the previous shift had sent off the prior aircraft we may sit around for an hour or 5 waiting for them to return. In that time I learned how to play dominoes and perfect my hacky-sack technique. The best nights were when there was bad weather and the aircraft had to divert to another base somewhere as that meant we could go home early.
And I thought this was how the Air Force really was. Because I had come into a war like state I knew nothing else. But then sometime in the beginning of May I was told that I would be sent to Aviano AB in northeast Italy with the 22nd Fighter Squadron to replace members of the squadron I should be assigned to, the 23rd Fighter Squadron.
I remember having really mixed emotions about going. I really loved the idea of going to Italy but as we had no idea how long we would be there I had reservations because I was still in a phase where I was getting to know my surroundings in Germany.
But Italy ended up being more fun that Germany... By a country mile!
We were still working 12 hour shifts with I think one day off a week but Italy was a dream for an 18 year old boy like I was. We were living in tents with 9 other guys and sleeping on metal framed cots but it made no difference to me. I loved it. I was put on a crew with 2 other men whom I knew from Germany. The leaser of the crew was a Staff Sergeant with probably 14 or 15 years experience who originally came from Puerto Rice. The other guy was a Senior Airman in his mid to late 20's and came from Georgia.
I learned a lot from them about how things worked in the Air Force. I remember fondly sitting at the End of Runway (EOR) in the back of the pick-up truck waiting for jets to come back throughout the warm May and June Italian nights.
Aviano Airbase was quite the unique place. Particularly Tent City. I would estimate it to be 16 tents across by 32 tents deep and although I only had 10 people in my tent for sure there were cases of 20 men to a tent. Tent City consisted of an American Navy Unit there with EA-6B aircraft, an American Marine Unit with F-18's, The 53rd FS from Shaw AFB, the 493rd FS from RAF Lakenheath, as well as the Portuguese AF with F-18's and the Canadians were there with F-18's as well.
While the Air Force officers were put up in local hotels off of the base the poor US Marines officers (pilot even!) were stuck in Tent City with the rest of us. Thank God it was a no salute zone because them Marines officers would have loved nothing more than making us salute them.
Around Tent City there were makeshifts convenience stores and hooches AKA bar rooms where the people went to blow of steam. I remember as well that we got a pre-screen showing of the new Star Wars movie that came out that year in Tent City.
I remember going to the most beautiful discotheque that I have ever seen in my life in some town between the base and Venice. Inside it was like any other European disco but outback was a large Japanese garden with a dance floor over the middle of it and a series of walkways shooting off of it. It was really amazing and no description I give it would do it justice. Wish I remembered its name.
I met a girl while I was there as well and there will be some future tales regarding my visits to go see her back in Italy soon enough! But by the end of June Milosevic had given up and we were all returning back to Germany and I was to find out what the REAL Air Force was...