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At any hour: SDDC Operations Center assists military's newest recruits.

Being stranded in a strange airport at night can frustrate even the most seasoned traveler. Fortunately for military recruits who become stranded, a hot meal, a comfortable bed or a sympathetic era is only a phone call away.

The new recruits are easy to spot. They are typically seen in airports: A small group of young people, with a hastily appointed leader, who has all the new recruits' orders and enlistment papers in a single, large brown envelope.

A handful of service members and civilians at SDDC's Operations Center work each night to assist these newest members of the military who experience problems while en route to basic training.

SDDC has years of experience in moving passengers. This mission increased in 1961 when all Department of Defense passenger movements were consolidated within SDDC's Deputy Chief of Passenger and Personal Property.

All after-duty hour calls are routed to the Operations Center at Fort Eustis, Va., which maintains round-the-clock operations.

>From January through April, Operations Center personnel assisted about 4,000 recruits and will probably assist around 11,000 before the year is over.

"We're here to make sure the recruits get from Point A to Point B safely," said John DeMars, a traffic management specialist at the center.

Carlene Castro began one recent shift by assisting 15 recruits in the first two hours of her work.

By the time her 12-hour shift ended, the staff action officer had assisted 67 recruits.

Preparation for the night shift often begins around midday for DeMars when he wakes up and tunes in to The Weather Channel at home.

When severe weather is predicted, DeMars begins making phone calls, dialing most numbers from memory. He begins blocking rooms at hotels in cities where recruits are likely to be stranded.

"You get a feel for how many rooms you're going to need in what cities after doing this for 10 years," he said.

When delays are caused by weather or other "acts of God," SDDC ensures hotel accommodations and meals are available.

During a large weather event, SDDC may hear from 400 recruits in one night, Castro said.

"We will do everything we can to take care of those recruits," Castro said, "and the hotels bend over backwards to accommodate them."

SDDC has agreements with many hotels near major hubs and destination cities, including Chicago, Dallas, St. Louis, Atlanta, Charleston, S.C., and Oklahoma City.

The agreements stipulate that hotels will provide shuttle service, rooms and meals as available and establishes rates for those services.

One hotel in Atlanta has been assisting recruits for the past eight years.

"We have 200 rooms, but we were sold out one night when John called," recalls Tommy Kim, assistant general manager for the Days Inn Airport East.

"Our night manager provided a meeting space at no charge for 15 to 20 Soldiers so they could at least lie down for the night."

In the morning, the hotel provided breakfast and a shuttle back to the airport.

Although most callers to SDDC experience delays due to weather or aircraft mechanical problems, the stories can be as varied as the young recruits themselves.

Occasionally, one becomes sick and requires medical attention. However, many experience problems because they are first time or infrequent air travelers who are unfamiliar with the system, Castro said.

One recruit, for example, missed his flight because he refused to hand over a packet of information to airport security personnel.

"He had been told at the (Military Entrance Processing Station) not to hand the packet to anybody, so he was not going to let anybody take it," Castro said.

Castro eventually persuaded him to allow security personnel to look at the packet.

"You just have to be a morn sometimes and a drill sergeant sometimes," she said.

On occasion, SDDC personnel must get creative to ensure recruits receive the support they need.

Sick Soldiers, DeMars said, may require an ambulance or taxi service to a local emergency room, transportation to a hotel for overnight accommodations, and then a shuttle back to the airport in the morning.

He recalls another case in which a group of recruits were diverted to a remote airfield in the Midwest because of severe weather.

There were no hotels or restaurants nearby, so airport personnel put DeMars in touch with a local National Guard unit.

The Guardsmen picked up the recruits at the airport and set up cots in the armory for the night.

Occasionally, DeMars and Castro receive a phone call from a recruit who is having second thoughts about joining the military.

"Usually, it's because they have some type of personal problem back home," said DeMars.

"But, we just listen to them and explain that we don't have the authority to let them out of their contracts. We advise them that the best thing to do is to continue to their destination and explain their circumstances there."

What's the most often asked question?

"They ask, 'Am I going to get in trouble because of the delay?'" said DeMars. "We calm them down and explain that travel delays are not their fault and they happen all the time."

Both DeMars and Castro say they get a lot of satisfaction from this part of their jobs.

"It's a valuable service if for no other reason than recruits know that they can reach out and touch someone," said Castro. "It's just one of the things we do, and I think we do it pretty good."

Patti Bielling, Public Affairs Specialist SDDC Operations Center
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Title Annotation:Surface Deployment and Distribution Command
Author:Bielling, Patti
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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