The Road from Baltimore to Bishkek
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 14, 2002 It's a long way from Baltimore, to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Yet, that's where the military's taken Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Michael Buckley over the last 19 years.
Buckley is the force protection manager for the 822nd Security Forces Squadron at Moody Air Force Base, Ga. The unit is deployed as part of the 376th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron at Ganci Air Base near Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's capital city.
"I consider myself to be about the most lucky person in all of the Air Force," Buckley said. "I've been to a lot of different countries and met a lot of wonderful people. If you were to ask me 19 years ago, would I have had the opportunity to have met a president or worked for a secretary of defense. I would have laughed."
Buckley said he joined the military as a last resort. He said he hadn't prepared himself for college so he went to see a friend who was in the reserves.
"He took me to a recruiter and I joined the Air Force in February 1983. It's been fantastic ever since. I just made chief master sergeant and got married in the same week to the original 'Chief Buckley.' She's a chief petty officer in the Navy."
Over the years, Buckley's had numerous assignments and a wealth of experiences. He served with the Air Force Presidential Honor Guard in Washington, D.C. He also worked with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff military security force at the Pentagon.
He worked at the protocol office for former Defense Secretaries William Perry and William Cohen before doing an 18-month tour in a counterintelligence billet at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Returning to the protocol office to help with the transition from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration, Buckley said he had the "absolute joy" of working for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for about seven months.
In the wake of last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Buckley left the polished halls of the nation's military headquarters to return to security duty. The senior master sergeant arrived in February in Kyrgyzstan, where U.S. forces were setting up operations at Manas International Airport.
Today, about 1,000 American troops and an equal number of coalition forces are stationed at Ganci Air Base supporting fighter, tanker and cargo operations into Afghanistan. U.S. forces named the base in honor of New York City Fire Chief Peter J. Ganci Jr. The fire chief was killed after he managed to get 50 firemen to safety before the second tower of the World Trade Center collapsed.
Countries operating at Ganci are the United States, Australia, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea and Spain. Buckley said he's enjoying the challenges and novelties the coalition assignment in a former Soviet state entails.
"I'm performing security force duties, securing coalition aircraft and assets, in a country that 11 or 12 years ago was our arch enemy," he said. "Back then, we were waiting for their system to fail. They were waiting for our system to fail.
"People here said they felt bad for us," he noted. "The propaganda they heard was that we had to pay for our education, our health care. They just knew that capitalism would fail. All they had to do was wait.
"Now, these people have opened up their country to us," he continued. "They're very helpful. They're very proud people, very respectful. We, in turn, respect them and we appreciate everything they allow us to do in their country. It's just very unique because this used to be part of Russia."
Force protection at Ganci requires being alert to the potential threat of a terrorist attack. "We combat against that daily," he said. "We have a fantastic intelligence system in place and we deal with issues day-by-day."
The security force includes active duty, National Guard and Reserve members. Two troops joined the military in October and November. "When I asked one why he joined, he said, '9/11 made me very angry and it was time to do something.' They joined the U.S. Air Force to come do their part."
Everyone understands that they're deployed until the mission is complete, Buckley said. "With the war on terrorism, there is no concrete finish date. It's an ongoing mission. There's no telling when it will end."
The security specialists "are excited about what they're doing and they're professional about it," Buckley said. Along with force protection duties on base, they patrol nearby villages about three to five kilometers out. Meeting the villagers is part of the job.
"We go out in Humvees and we go out dismounted," he said. "We'll park the Humvees and walk through the villages. We always have an interpreter with us and we interact with the folks so they can see us and touch us. We want them to know about us and not be afraid of us."
The Kyrgyzstanis, who include people of Russian, Tartar and many other ethnic backgrounds, are very inquisitive, he added. Early on, local newspaper articles about the coalition forces questioned why they were there and why they'd brought weapons.
"We explained that we brought our weapons to their country to protect ourselves from the terrorists that brought us here to begin with," Buckley said.
Villagers are also curious about African American troops and about women in uniform. Both are novelties. "Men and women security forces carry the same gear and the same amount of equipment and perform the same function, and that's something different for the local people," Buckley said.
Since the U.S. and coalition forces arrived, he noted, local citizens have grown accustomed to their presence. "People now say they're happy we're here," he said. "They've told us they feel more secure and that their country might be a little more secure now."
Village patrols are the best part of the job, Buckley stressed. Security forces have met with village elders. They've accepted their hospitality to drink hot tea and eat Yak butter and other local Kyrgyzstani specialties.
Village kids, the senior master sergeant said, are just like kids everywhere. "They're fascinated by our vehicles and our gear. We've taken candy and toys sent to us from schools back home to the local villages. It's well received."
One of the most noticeable things visitors see when they first arrive in Kyrgyzstan are the farm animals -- everywhere. Kyrgyzstanis let their cows, goats and donkeys roam.
"It's nothing to see the animals eating the grass on the median strips on the roads," Buckley said. "I wrote a letter to my daughter and said it's natural to see a six- or seven- or eight-year-old tending a little herd of cows next to a highway overpass, because that's where fresh grass is."
A year or two from now, Buckley will be eligible to retire. Will he hang up his stripes? "Probably not.
"As long as the job is fun, I think I'll keep doing it," he said. "And it's still a lot of fun. It's exciting to be here. I can easily name 10 or 15 places I've been with worse conditions, a worse environment and not as friendly a people to work with."
Instead of a "last resort," Buckley said his military career has turned out to be his "best resort."
"The military has provided a home, my base of friends, an opportunity to travel, a tremendous education," he said. "I was born in Baltimore, Md., and I'm in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, right now. It's a very long way from Baltimore."