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Life On A Contingency Operating Base
by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Rachelle Morris
February 22, 2022

Part of the appeal of coming to the Republic of Korea, or any overseas assignment, can be the great unknown. And for those stationed on contingency operating bases (COBs) ... that experience is significantly intensified.

The comforts of a traditional installation often don’t exist, but what isn’t found in amenities can be made up for in camaraderie.

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Kazuhito Ikematsu, 607th Material Maintenance Squadron, works on a ground multiband terminal at Gwangju Air Base, Republic of Korea (ROK), February 15, 2022. This is his second assignment to the ROK and he hopes to one day retire and stay here. (U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Rachelle Morris)
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Kazuhito Ikematsu, 607th Material Maintenance Squadron, works on a ground multiband terminal at Gwangju Air Base, Republic of Korea (ROK), February 15, 2022. This is his second assignment to the ROK and he hopes to one day retire and stay here. (U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Rachelle Morris)

“We only have each other,” said Staff Sgt. Leilani Michel, 607th Material Maintenance Squadron, Detachment 1, services representative. “We are so close - it’s like a family and we all help each other out.”

At Gwangju Air Base, ROK, an instillation meant to support hundreds, 26 Airmen are responsible for the upkeep of 250 acres of War Reserve Material (WRM) facilities and equipment. It isn’t uncommon for the Airmen to do their job and the job of someone else.

“I am currently helping medical with water testing,” said Michel. “I am also filling in for the Airman Dorm Leader (ADL) while they are in quarantine.”

The Airmen assigned at Gwangju AB are from a myriad of backgrounds.

“We have nine functional area – communications, civil engineering, maintenance, munitions, fuels, supply, services, security forces and vehicle maintenance,” said Capt. Min Kim, 607th MMS, Det. 1, commander. “Within those areas we have 22 different AFSCs (Air Force Specialty Codes).”

U.S. Air Force Capt. Min Kim, 607th Material Maintenance Squadron, Detachment 1, commander, speaks with Airmen during a site survey at Gwangju Air Base, Republic of Korea, February 15, 2022. Kim coordinates consistently with outside units to ensure the War Reserve Material (WRM) facilities meet their requirements, should the need arise. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Rachelle Morris)
U.S. Air Force Capt. Min Kim, 607th Material Maintenance Squadron, Detachment 1, commander, speaks with Airmen during a site survey at Gwangju Air Base, Republic of Korea, February 15, 2022. Kim coordinates consistently with outside units to ensure the War Reserve Material (WRM) facilities meet their requirements, should the need arise. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Rachelle Morris)

The base was first stood up in 1968 in response to North Korean aggressions and today, stands in ROK’s sixth largest city. In 2010, it changed to a cold status meaning there were no permanent party assigned.

Airmen would have to Temporary Duty (TDY) there for a couple weeks at a time to make sure everything was still functioning. Master Sgt. Sunny Downes, 607th MMS, Det. 1, senior enlisted leader (SEL,) was among them.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Sunny Downes, 607th Material Maintenance Squadron, Detachment 1, poses for a photo at her desk on Gwangju Air Base, Republic of Korea, February 15, 2022. This is Downes’ last assignment as she will be retiring within the year. She is commonly referred to as the COB’s historian because of her extensive time spent there in previous years. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Rachelle Morris)
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Sunny Downes, 607th Material Maintenance Squadron, Detachment 1, poses for a photo at her desk on Gwangju Air Base, Republic of Korea, February 15, 2022. This is Downes’ last assignment as she will be retiring within the year. She is commonly referred to as the COB’s historian because of her extensive time spent there in previous years. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Rachelle Morris)

“The last time I was in Korea, I TDY’d here 19 times in one year,” she said.

In 2018, Gwangju became a COB and Downes was excited to return as permanent party - so much so that she even extended. She currently wears three hats and is the SEL, aircraft maintenance lead and tank Quality Assurance Personnel (QAP).

“My favorite part is being the SEL,” she said. “I get to deal with the people and learning their part of the mission. It gives me bigger oversight.”

She also loves being more engaged in the Korean culture.

“Because we are so isolated form everything, we get more immersed in the community,” Downes said. “I go off base to do my grocery shopping and if you tell me what type of food you like, I can tell you where the best restaurant is.”

You can feel the jovial spirit and an overwhelming sense of empowerment across the COB. If animals could speak, you might even it confirm it with their pet rooster, El Diablo II.

“This is a gem,” said Kim. “It is a different vibe out here.”

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