By 1st Lt. Megan A. Schafer, Air Force Print News
/ Published October 24, 2005
LA MESA, Panama -- In a camp tucked away in southwest Panama, two Airmen are leaving a lasting impression on their fellow servicemembers and the local people they meet.
Master Sgt. Steve Axie and Tech. Sgt. George Lyon have grown to call it home, but three months ago, the two arrived to build a base camp on a horse pasture provided by Panamanian officials.
They were among Airmen of the 349th Civil Engineer Squadron out of Travis Air Force Base, Calif., who were tasked to build the infrastructure of Joint Task Force Armadillo, a New Horizons 2005 camp here.
“Two rotations of Airmen from our squadron worked to first get the camp habitable,” said Sergeant Axie, a 22-year veteran in charge of maintaining the camp. “The second team added extra amenities like the (morale, recreation and welfare) tent, fitness equipment and Internet access.”
But while the rest of the Air Force civil engineers packed up and went home, the two noncommissioned officers took root and became vital to camp operations.
“We’re here to maintain the camp. If anything goes wrong or breaks, we fix it,” Sergeant Axie said.
Sergeant Lyons uses his electrical expertise to ensure camp facilities run on all cylinders so fellow Soldiers, Sailors and Marines do not have to worry about the little things and be able to “come back from their hard day’s work and feel at home … just with more dirt.”
During the camp’s three-month existence, it housed 300 to 500 troops, most of whom were reservists rotating every two weeks. These frequent rotations caused a lot of wear and tear on the facilities. To keep up with it all, Sergeant Axie said he had to be a jack-of-all-trades.
But the quality of the initial camp infrastructure was so high, and the two reservists were so efficient in fixing problem areas, it allowed them the time to volunteer their talents and skills elsewhere.
“I found out they had certain equipment that no one was trained to operate, but I could, so I volunteered to run it for all the sites,” said Sergeant Axie, a Watsonville, Calif., native. His impromptu assistance soon turned into routine requests for support, making him fundamental to the completion of five of the six projects.
“They’re doing a great job,” said Joint Task Force Command Sgt. Maj. Leroy Haugland, who emphasized the importance of their support of the mission. “When we get into the fight, we’re going to work jointly. By getting to know each other here, it helps us when we get out in the theater.”
That is the driving force of New Horizons, a U.S. Southern Command-sponsored annual readiness training exercise that also provides humanitarian assistance. For Joint Task Force Armadillo, that included providing medical, dental and veterinary care, along with constructing schools and community centers around the province of Veraguas.
Working in the joint environment definitely left an impression on the two Airmen.
“We fall under their structure, but we’re unique because they don’t have a lot of experience building things,” Sergeant Lyon said.
This was the first time the power production craftsman had experienced the joint environment, and he said he took advantage of the opportunity to educate young servicemembers around him.
“I try to mentor those people and fill in the blanks with experience,” the 19-year veteran said.
He worked on five of the six construction sites besides his work keeping the camp’s electrical needs in check.
One person he mentored was his assistant, Marine Lance Cpl. Leaphy Khim. The reservist from Folsum, Pa., was experiencing her first deployment and was fresh out of training school.
“I’d never worked with the other services, so I was a little nervous at first, but Sergeant Lyons taught me a lot and made it a great experience,” she said.
But working with the different services is not always a smooth process. The Airmen had to spend their initial days of camp adapting to the different rules and regulations, especially since they were outnumbered.
“It’s very seamless now. So much that the Army requested my help with their future projects,” Sergeant Axie said. But though he said he has thoroughly enjoyed the experience, he remains partial to the Air Force and even dabbled in a little recruiting around the camp.
That comes with the territory though, being the only Airmen here.
“We try our best to project a good image, a positive image,” he said. “And if people are interesting in joining us, I try to guide them in the right direction.”
As the camp’s last project nears completion, the troops prepare to leave. And that means mission accomplishment, knowing they completed their primary mission of maintaining the camp’s 70 facilities and were key to the success of New Horizons 2005.
“I’d definitely come to help, again,” Sergeant Lyons said.