FAST to fight: 726th EMSS Airmen protect airpower across East Africa

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Dhruv Gopinath
  • 406th Air Expeditionary Wing

The 449th Air Expeditionary Group, based at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti is the primary airlift provider to U.S. Forces in the Horn of Africa. The 449th AEG relies on Fly-Away Security teams from the 726th Expeditionary Mission Support Squadron to protect its missions in order to provide secure, reliable and flexible airlift capabilities to U.S. Africa Command and Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa.

“Our program is the sole AFRICOM FAS team and is designed to ensure adequate protection is provided to our aircraft and personnel transiting or operating out of airfields,” says Master Sgt. Jose Perez, a FAS program manager for the 726th EMSS. “We provide aircraft security, advise aircrews on security and conduct airfield surveys to discover vulnerabilities. We must remain vigilant and maintain constant communication with the Aircraft Commander to alleviate potential threats to our aircrews.”

East Africa is a highly dynamic environment involving large distances between airfields, meaning that FAST members are in high demand to provide force protection.

“On most missions, we will have multiple stops with the aircrews delivering cargo and passengers to various locations,” says Senior Airman William Dewey, a FAS team leader with the 726th EMSS. “That also means we need to be ready to pull security whether it is day or night.”

Dewey, a native of Manhattan, Kan., first joined the Air Force despite what initially seemed like a conflicting interest in law enforcement.

“I’ve always had interest in being a police officer, but I wanted to be in the military at the same time,” says Dewey. “Joining Security Forces was something that I saw would help me grow the skills that would make it easier for me to achieve being in law enforcement.”

As the largest career field in the Air Force, Security Forces handle a wide range of missions to include law enforcement. For the men and women of the 726th EMSS FAS program, however, their experience in Africa is worlds apart from that at their home station.

“FAST is different from everyday Security Forces because you are not working a gate as an entry controller, working at a desk receiving emergency response calls or patrolling the base,” says Senior Airman Julia Pennington, a 726th EMSS FAS team leader. “We typically fly every other week and are more active with our job.”

FAST members attend intelligence briefings and receive special training for the types of missions they are expected to undertake. The close relationship FAST members share with the aircrews of the 449th AEG provides them with a unique perspective that most Airmen deployed to East Africa don’t get to see.

“Not everyone gets to experience what we do here and witness the kinds of unique things we do,” says Pennington. “The biggest challenge is continually adjusting your sleep schedule because the missions occur at various times of the day and while some are short, others can go over 14 hours.”

The work that FAST performs fosters a very close bond between team members as they undertake missions thousands of miles from home.

“I really enjoy the atmosphere of the job here,” says Pennington. “It feels like one big family.”

Apart from that sense of camaraderie, the 726th EMSS FAST members can also feel a sense of pride in knowing that their work protects airpower in East Africa.

“We eliminate the likelihood of any situations preventing aircrews from accomplishing their missions,” says Master Sgt. Brandon McKinney, a 726th EMSS Fly-Away Security program manager. “We allow AFRICOM the flexibility to fly into airfields across the continent and to do so safely. Our superiors and wingmen feel a sense of comfort knowing that we are there to protect their aircraft and their lives.”