Iraq drawdown: Vehicle mechanic hands over keys

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Angelique N. Smythe
  • 65th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Just 25 days after arriving to his new duty station on Lajes Field in 2011, one Airman received orders to assist in the withdrawal of troops in Iraq.

Master Sgt. Fabian Cardona, 65th Logistics Readiness Squadron, was one of the first two Air Force vehicle mechanics to enter Iraq during the 2003 invasion. He was also one of the last troops to exit the country just a few days short of the withdrawal deadline in December 2011.

"It feels good that we actually closed down Iraq," Cardona said. "We did a lot of good things over there, but I think it's time to move on."

Cardona deployed as the 407th Expeditionary Support Squadron vehicle maintenance superintendent on Ali Air Base, Iraq, where he worked on a drawdown plan to ship 189 vehicles out of the country.

A good drawdown plan was necessary to accommodate all base entities while avoiding any compromise of the mission at the same time.

"We had to contact every single user on base and sit down face to face to get an understanding of the least amount of vehicles needed to keep the mission going," he said. "I was not the most popular guy on base because I was always taking people's vehicles away. At the end, they understood I wasn't really doing it because I loved repo'ing (repossessing) vehicles but because most of these assets were going to be redistributed to the AOR (area of responsibility), mostly in Afghanistan."

Since Ali Air Base was the last base to close in Iraq, many people were coming in and out as they processed through and caught their plane rides home.

"At one point we had about 15,000 to 20,000 people over there; when I arrived, there were only 5,000," Cardona said. "Along the way of supporting all these passengers, we had to provide passenger movement for these guys as well. We also had a lot of new people that we weren't expecting come in, such as explosive ordnance disposal and special forces personnel, who were staying all the way until the end, and we had to supply them with vehicles."

Cardona also assisted Army and Navy counterparts who worked alongside Airmen on the base.

"There was a combined unit between our civil engineers and Army, for example," he said. "We provided vehicles for the Army so that they could use them along with their Air Force counterparts. The Navy was in charge of the fuel depot; they worked right alongside our fuels personnel, so we provided them with vehicles, too."

With approximately 5,000 buildings on the joint base, having good firefighting equipment is also very important. Air Force firefighters provided protection not just for Airmen but for all personnel on Ali Air Base. Cardona and his team of 18 workers took care of providing that firefighting capability by maintaining those vehicles as well.

"We had those times we were getting shelled and among all the incoming rockets, we were still maintaining and providing vehicle management," Cardona said. "We had a fire truck that was actually hit by a lot of shrapnel from a rocket. The direct hit was about 25-feet away from the vehicle. It was damaged pretty badly but we managed to fix that vehicle in less than 72 hours."

At the same time, he had another mission -- to train the Iraqis on how to maintain their vehicles. Cardona trained the Iraqis on preventive maintenance and checks, he taught them how to maintain Humvees, do the fuel system, and fix alternators, tires and suspensions.

"We left our vehicle management compound to the Iraqis," he said. "I would say we left 90 percent of everything we had for the Iraqis to use. We left the building, tools, equipment and about 45 vehicles, including R-11 refuelers and fire trucks. Everything that we left on just the vehicle management side was about $4.5 million."

Cardona said he received his biggest sense of accomplishment the day he handed over the keys to the Iraqis.

"It feels great to learn something from the Air Force, something that I enjoy, and then have the chance to teach someone else what I know," he said. "When you actually see that other person do the task right after you've taught them, it feels good to know that you can make a difference, especially since they do not have any technical schools like we do. They pretty much relied on the Americans to get all the training they could get. Now, they're going to be the ones teaching other Iraqis. It's kind of like leaving a legacy behind."

Cardona said he is very grateful for the leaders and senior NCOs he had while deployed to Ali Air Base. He's also very thankful to his wife for taking care of everything at home during his deployment.

"My wife has got to be the coolest wife ever," he said. "Deployments are hard, but if it wasn't for the way my wife is, it would be a lot harder. She has never complained. I don't have to worry about my kids; she takes care of everything. We make a pretty good team."

Cardona and his wife have two children. He returned home from Iraq in December 2011 just in time to celebrate their 10-year anniversary.