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Hello, Old Friend!

Airmen are serving in Curacao for the first time since World War II. Nobody's complaining.

Now this is "living la vida loca!" Your usual candlelit table awaits in an old stone fort on a 502-year-old harbor. Dark seawater below exudes peacefulness. The soft reflection of a historic Dutch boulevard massages its surface. Why, you can even hear yourself think. What a feeling!

Welcome to Curacao, host nation for an international counterdrug aviation mission. It started here quickly in 1999 when U.S. forces pulled out of Panama and scattered their mission throughout Latin America.

A bit of the mission went to this island. Now the Air Force pays the bills at this airport-based forward operating location for temporarily assigned military and government agency workers.

Off-duty life just north of Venezuela's Caribbean Sea coast draws no complaints from airmen.

"This TDY is like heaven compared to Saudi. It's the first good one I've had in 24 years of service," said Master Sgt. Tom Derrickson, a deployed jet propulsion superintendent.

Curacao sports the biggest, squishiest walkway imaginable. One part Asbury Park boardwalk and one part Disney ride, the Queen Emma Bridge is a large, floating pontoon plaything.

The bridge is really a big toy in civic disguise. Local kids are on the pontoons, smiling and fishing from privileged positions. The bridge swings open so massive cruise ships and small tugboats can enter the harbor. A crowded ferryboat whisks Curacao's schoolchildren, German tourists, hardworking citizenry and a few lucky airmen to the other side, for a nominal fee.

Once ashore, airmen buy fish and plantains at the floating market. Then they take them to "the" chef at their sleeping compound. That's where Italian native Augusto Checcoti cooks Caribbean fish and chip meals with a European "kick" for airmen.

While he prepares a perfect consomme, packs of card-playing GIs watch sports piped in from a sometimes-finicky satellite TV setup.

"At work, I do anything to make life for the guys from America better," the chef says.

Sure, there are airmen doing "island time" at more recognizable locations: many in Hawaii, recon in Greece, airlift folks in Australia, recruiters in Manhattan. Curacao is on their level.

The island was originally a hub of slave trade. Ick, you might say. But the people who remained have removed those vestiges. In fact, the world's only remaining slave ship is part of a jaw-dropping museum of natural history in Curacao. The oldest active synagogue in the hemisphere calls Curacao home, too.

The people are friendly

The people of Curacao are low-key. That's part of what attracts visitors seeking a sunny place where people can just get along. When Dutch Shell founded the world's largest oil refinery there in 1915, the islanders said "Bon Bini" [that's "howdy" in the native Papiamento Creole language], while they encouraged people from more than 50 countries to work, and stay.

Those citizens have also been good friends of the United States. The history of U.S. airpower in Latin America has been dominated by various monitoring and detection missions, from German sub hunting in the 1940s to drug traffic monitoring today.

Yes, Uncle Sam had a World War Ii field in Curacao, and a little monument marking U.S. deeds is a good place to visit and reflect on Memorial Day.

"Everybody who works maintenance on a flight line and has an opportunity to go TDY always thinks about a great place to go, and it never happens. This is a once-in-a-career chance to go to a real Caribbean island, do your job right and have some fun at the same time," said Staff Sgt. Dave Liffick, a jet engine mechanic.

A flight-deck view of Curacao's historic architecture reveals a few shelters of clearly rural African design. They look a bit like the little white stucco and peat bogged-roof cottages one finds on the Irish isles, but nobody lives in them today. They're part of the deep heritage of Curacao.

Like most of the road signs, the main architectural features of Curacao are Dutch to the hilt. The "Old Europe" buildings of governor Peter Stuyvesant's mid-1600s reign were originally white as the houses of Greece, but they glared like fun house mirrors in the Caribbean sun.

So the city fathers of Curacao ordered them painted in relaxing pastels and arresting primary colors years ago. A slew of 17th century buildings were recently declared a world historic site.

The sea waterway that divides the city's downtown is placid like the ritzy Cannery Row bayfront in Monterey, Calif. Airmen can afford an evening of waterside dining in a French restaurant. There, they can people-watch and gaze at the pastel scenery.

Something for everyone

But some folks don't want to eat shrimp with tourists and well-heeled locals. For them, Curacao offers alternatives. How about a Denny's with a pricey "Curacao Creole" menu? Or maybe street-legal drag racing, Amstel Brewery tours and cheap tickets to live boxing matches at the local "boxeo?" What about a mellow, month-long carnival? It's "Eon," as Curacaons say.

Staff Sgt. Ben Carson is a crew chief who likes his vibrant, temporary island life quiet.

"I eat at Denny's, rest in the room, talk to my wife and kid or study for promotion after work. Here, it's a hell of a lot easier to study, because it's so quiet."

Vroom 'n zoom! It's loud drag races that interest Staff Sgt. Michael Brown, an aircraft fuel systems repair craftsman. "They do grudge matches and run them on a strip somewhere on the island. When I found out, my reaction was, 'Hey, check this out,' "he said.

What airmen see or do in Curacao depends on when they're deployed to the island.

Golf is available; the carts and stunning cactus-speckled courses are in very good shape. At least one club offers a 50 percent discount to airmen. Otherwise, the fees would be stratospheric.

Curacao is at low elevation with no fresh water, but don't bring a camel pack full of Perrier to the dry isle. Why would you? One of the largest desalination plants in the world changes salt water into some of the tastiest drinking water this side of heaven.

Most airmen don't notice the business side of Curacao, but it's plentiful. Start with numerous oil refineries, realize Curacao has the largest port in the Caribbean, and go from there. Big business has been here for years. The Navy makes Curacao a routine port of call.

The island is alive with cacti, coral and a national forest at the isle's north end. It's prime for morning hiking, biking and horseback riding, before any heat zaps through your sunblock.

Dive on in! Curacao's real national rain forest is under water. Bar none, the most popular activity among airmen is scuba diving and snorkeling. It's a fine "swimming hole" for new divers.

Master Sgt. John Corwin recalled negotiating fin-to-fin traffic in Curacao's underwater rush hour. "I got caught in the middle of a school of translucent fish. It was awesome!

"Every dive magazine I've opened has an article about Curacao. I know why now. I got certified for $200. That's the lowest price I've seen. It's more like $800 in the States," the deployed first sergeant from Utah's Hill Air Force Base said.

The time in Curacao was not what the airmen from Hill expected. They went south with a Y2K survivalist's palette of Ramen noodles and meals, ready to eat, thinking the worst.

"That's what people perceived. We weren't prepared for the good stuff we found. We didn't know there would be restaurants and beaches close by. People tried them all," Corwin said.

Time can pass quickly for airmen on remote duty here. Before long, it's time to take that last squishy walk over the Queen Emma, fire off that fini-counterdrug flight, rub fins with the big fish and thank the people for being such gracious hosts. Then try to extend your tour or plan a personal snorkel vacation. Well, it's worth a try.

Taking care of our force in Curacao

When airmen rotate into Curacao for counterdrug duty, the contacts who help them with problems are assigned to Detachment 5, 6 12th Air Operations Group.

That outfit has a staff of 14 people in one-deep positions on one-year remote tours. The mission is running the location for fliers. That includes force protection, said Lt. Col. Bruce Alexander, a recent detachment commander.

The colonel's job is similar to an expeditionary support group commander. He handles construction agreements. He works on medical care for airmen. He takes care of people.

Security forces member Airman Michelle Ortman drew Curacao as her first deployment from the 75th Air Base Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. She found a work tempo she liked.

"It's a mission and not a vacation. And there's more to the island than sightseeing. There's also a home for [at-risk] children. Some of us want to volunteer there," she said.

Until late 2000, no airman in Curacao had time to volunteer. Before the detachment's airmen arrived, the 612th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron's members operated flying and support operations.

Forces moved rapidly

Lt. Col. Michael Wobbema, the 612th's commander, was at a Pentagon planning meeting in early spring 1999. One result from the meeting: Move the counterdrug F-16s from Howard Air Force Base, Panama, pronto. Get them flying in Curacao by May 1.

That was inside of 30 days. On April 23, 1999, the colonel hit the ramp at Curacao.

"We were up and running. It was fun," he said.

The first two Det. 5 people arrived that June. They were preceded by contracting members from the U.S. Southern Command Air Forces at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.

The fighter squadron's small staff of Air National Guard members deployed to the isle on two- to four-year tours. Tour lengths depended on the jobs they held.

Those bilingual contractors got to Curacao April 25. There was no airpower. The F-16s were due the first of May. It wasn't pretty, but it's normal for contingency contractors.

These combat-savvy logisticians worry about where people, aircraft and tools go, how to take care of them -- and they get only a few days to do it right.

The airmen who came from Hill learned they were going to Curacao in February 2000, when aerospace expeditionary force cycle I was slotted. Initially, they were cool to the idea.

"People expected us to be in Turkey, dropping bombs on Iraq. Flying defensive counterair [missions] against Iraqi fighters. A commander would rather go to Southwest Asia, because there's a big structure in place," said Lt. Col. Randy Bright, 34th Fighter Squadron commander.

As the Curacao deployment time neared, the colonel said there would be plenty of AEF cycle 2 missions in Kuwait or Incirlik for the airmen from Hill.

Curacao was better than expected. You feel like you're in the Caribbean and Europe. The amount of times we get what you might call 'the tougher deals,' we thought 'why don't we just accept this and enjoy it.' We're doing the job that's been asked of us in grand style," he added.

Facts on Curacao

* Location: Caribbean Sea, 35 miles north of Venezuela, a 2-hour hop from Miami

* Weather: Storms are rare. Winds are always 10-20 mph; 80-degree days are standard issue

* Time: Different! Atlantic Standard Time is one hour ahead of New York City

* Total Area: A shoebox-shaped, 171-square-mile island

* Capital: Willemstad, capital of drag racing in the Caribbean

* Population: 144,097

* Industry: Refining of oil from Venezuela, shipping, mining; tourism is a recent phenomenon

* Official languages: Dutch; Papiamento [a combination of Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, English, Arawak and West African dialects]. Papiamento is the native and most widely used language.
COPYRIGHT 2001 U.S. Air Force, Air Force News Agency
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:airmen return to Curacao
Author:Dendy IV, John B.
Publication:Airman
Geographic Code:0LATI
Date:Feb 1, 2001
Words:1947
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