By Jennifer Thibault
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
During the past 10 years the 50th Space Wing has played multiple roles in current operations in order to ensure the Air Force can “fly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace.”
Throughout this period, combatant commanders have come to recognize the critical capabilities space provides. The wing feeds global communications, navigation, precision timing, weather and ground and space intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance data to commanders throughout the Department of Defense.
The wing delivers more than space capabilities though. With its more than 6,000 people, the wing has consistently supported operations with boots on the ground. These space personnel are instrumental in integrating space capabilities in the area of responsibility and educating leaders about new ways to use space. They also fill non-traditional contingency operations roles.
Take for instance, Capt. Darrel A. DeLeon of the 2nd Space Operations Squadron. Typically charged with overseeing his crew’s Global Positioning System operations here, he did everything but that while he was deployed for one year.
While enroute to his deployment the staff billet he was tasked to fill was deleted. Once he hit the AOR he quickly became an extra resource and was tasked to install satellite communication equipment at the most remote locations in Afghanistan. It was the closest he would get to using his space expertise for the next 365 days.
The system, which consisted of a one meter satellite dish with six laptops and two power over ether net cable phones, is called the Cheetah. After DeLeon delivered and set them up, the Cheetahs linked U.S. forces to social networking, video chat and morale calls.
“I would fly in and set this up and leave; it was like being Santa,” he said. “The troops loved it.”
This duty kept the officer, who goes by the call sign “Ponce,” busy for three months before the program’s implementation was transitioned to the civilian agencies that provided the equipment. He then served as the International Security Assistance Forces Rule of Law liaison officer which he filled for the majority of the remainder of his deployment.
In this capacity, DeLeon was part of a team that worked with the Embassy to advise on how to set up a formal justice system, a far cry from his space roots.
“Many of us were out of our element while working in the Rule of Law. My peers consisted of an F-18 pilot, a P-3 pilot, an aircraft maintenance officer, a Navy engineer and an Army armor officer,” he said.
This was eye-opening for the first-time Air Force deployer whose previous deployments occurred during his 14 years of service with the Army.
“[When I deployed with the Army], we deployed as a unit and not as individual augmentees. You obviously deployed to conduct your primary job as it pertains to supporting your unit and the overall mission,” he said.
It is the captain’s Army experience as a combat medic that contributed to his first Air Force deployment becoming noteworthy.
On the morning of April 2, DeLeon’s walk to work was interrupted by exploding grenades followed by small arms fire. He ran to his office to don his body armor and get additional ammo. A moment later two “really big booms” sounded as two personal-borne improvised explosive devices exploded near the gate.
DeLeon rushed to the gate to help defend the base.
“There was a barrage of gun fire, I knew it was a complex attack,” he said. “The firefight at the gate primarily involved the base defenders as three suicide bombers tried to rush the gate.”
Two of the personal-borne IEDs were detonated; however, the third was neutralized before being able to detonate.
Once on-scene, DeLeon identified defenders who were in need of immediate medical care. He pulled U.S. Army Spc. Stephen Leon, who had been thrown into a barrier by one of the explosions, out of harm’s way. DeLeon helped the Soldier calm down before he attended to others who also needed medical attention.
“I could see that [another defender] was bleeding. I pulled him behind the barrier and provided first aid,” said DeLeon.
The Soldier was in shock and thought the blood on him was from one of the attackers. Unfortunately he was wrong. The Soldier had a broken humerus, shrapnel in his arm and a severe leg wound that was bleeding heavily.
DeLeon commandeered an all-terrain vehicle and drove the injured soldier to the nearby medical clinic. He then returned to the battle site to gather two other Soldiers, including Leon, and took them to the clinic.
The attack and recovery lasted about an hour, excluding the time for the explosive ordnance disposal team to dismantle a failed suicide bomber’s device.
“It was great to be able to help some guys and use my medical training, especially since we didn’t lose any U.S. service members that day,” said DeLeon.
His efforts during this incident earned DeLeon the Joint Service Commendation Medal with Valor, which was presented to him in theater by ISAF Commander, U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen.
Unfortunately this wasn’t the only firefight DeLeon encountered during his deployment. Just one month shy of returning home he was unpacking in his room when he again heard gunfire.
“There were no sirens, no nothing, so I wasn’t sure what was going on,” said DeLeon.
About 10 minutes later, two explosions sounded.
“Not again,” thought DeLeon who donned his armor and grabbed his rifle which made him an ideal candidate to augment the base’s defense.
“It was a long and pretty hair-raising day. At one point we were told the attackers had made it inside the wire. The [intensity] was really high at this point,” the captain said.
The firefight lasted 20 hours before it was neutralized by an Afghan-led team. Again the highlight being that no U.S. forces were lost.
Aside from his base defense and improvised medic role, DeLeon also served as a tactical driver for more than 100 missions outside the wire as well as conducted close personal security for the Secretary of Defense and a U.S. Ambassador during their visits to the region.
Armed with his experiences, DeLeon returned safely to his home station in October ready to help his fellow space professionals prepare for the unexpected.
“I am able to share my experience with other Airmen and provide them with realistic expectations,” he said.
This starts with an understanding of the duties they could perform in the AOR. Some will deploy to jobs outside of their career field so it is important to find one that appeals to them.
He said flexibility and being able to adapt are keys to success during the deployments but there is a silver lining.
“You become a more well-rounded Air Force asset with more worldly experiences,” said DeLeon.