MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, Romania -- Around 100 weary but hopeful Soldiers very happy to reach Romania and even more eager to resume their journey reached the joint, combined base airfield the night of Feb. 22, marking the onset of the first repatriation mission conducted at the new MK Passenger Transit Center.
The Soldiers, mainly infantrymen of the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, part of the 1st Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, completed a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom earlier in the month.
Neither the infantrymen nor the famed "Big Red One" patch symbolizing their presence on base remained long enough to grow familiar to local nationals. By the middle of the next night, the Soldiers found themselves processing through the new customs facility built by 21st Theater Sustainment Command engineers and partners. Tired but quite content to catch this particular "red eye" flight, the infantrymen boarded another aircraft -- this a commercial plane bound for Louisville, Ky. via Germany and Maine -- early on the morning of Feb. 24.
Mission organizers described the mission and the facility as an unqualified success. Amazingly, the commander of the outfit managing airfield facilities personally flew the aircraft supporting the inaugural MK repatriation mission.
"Everything was seamless," said Air Force Lt. Col. Todd McCoy, commander of the 780th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron and aircraft commander during the flight into MK. "From the moment we were off the ground in theater to the time we landed at MK and downloaded our very important passengers, everything was perfect.
"The most satisfying aspect of it by far was bringing folks home," added the Charleston, W.V. native.
The MK Passenger Transit Center, constructed mainly in January by Soldiers of the 902nd Engineer Company (Vertical), part of the 21st TSC's 15th Eng. Battalion, 18th Eng. Brigade, provides essential logistical, transportation, reintegration and morale and welfare services, accommodating the flow of American service members into and out of European and Central Asian operating areas through the end of 2014 or the completion of current missions. A "team of teams" including TSC personnel and subordinate units, higher Army headquarters, Airmen from U.S. Air Force Europe and the 780th EAS, Romanian partners and contract personnel, operates the new facility.
The team processed dozens of previous transit flights, all of them taking troops into theater. The arrival of the "freedom bird" Feb. 22 marked an important milestone in the evolution of the MK mission.
"Our Soldiers built the transit center to provide vital logistical, transportation, reintegration and morale and welfare services to our returning warriors," said Lt. Col. Wayne Marotto, the lead 21st TSC spokesman and a Houston native. "The base's mix of quality facilities and quality, professional staff provides our combatant commanders critical throughput, 'transload,' transportation and personnel services support that will ensure our war fighters return home quickly, safely and ready to reintegrate into their homes, units and communities confident their units' equipment will reach its final destination rapidly and efficiently. On a human level, it's great to play a part in this joint, combined effort to reunite our service members with their Families and home bases."
Air Force Col. Robert Dotson, the MK senior airfield authority, described the facility as an illustration of effective regional partnership.
"From my perspective, the new passenger transit center is yet another example of why the United States benefits from having forces that are 'Forward, Ready, Now,'" the California native said. "Without the forward basing of forces that are ever-ready to execute missions shoulder-to-shoulder with our partner nations across Europe, you wouldn't have seen such a rapid and smooth stand-up of the new passenger transit center at MK."
"What you see now is a perfect picture of teamwork between joint and combined partners, supporting an immensely important national mission," he added. "MK serves as a poignant reminder of how forward-based forces continue to enable U.S. global vigilance, global reach and global power on a daily basis."
Their spirits lifted to cruising altitude by visions of loved ones, home towns, home cooking and their choice of beverage, redeploying Soldiers offered generous appraisals of the new MK facilities.
"Honestly, the facilities here are excellent," said Spc. Sean Briggs, an infantryman with the 1-26th and a native of Harrisburg, Ore. who spent most of his OEF tour in Regional Command-South. "This is one of the finest facilities I've seen during the deployment. I was expecting things to be run-down, but I was pleasantly surprised."
"You can tell they put a lot of hard work into it," added Master Sgt. Cheryl Brown, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the 3rd Brigade personnel shop. "I think the Soldiers like it because the facilities are so close and they basically do everything in the same place. It's located very conveniently."
The Newport News, Va. native also praised the accommodations and Soldier support facilities, including the Morale, Welfare and Recreation center and modest post exchange.
"The MWR was awesome," she said. "The theater was 'the bomb.' It has Wi-Fi -- so the Soldiers will love that. Everything is walking distance -- the gym, the post office, the PX. It was great."
Sgt. 1st Class Joe Rios, a platoon sergeant with the 1-26th and veteran of multiple combat deployments, offered an enthusiastic assessment of the new transit center after initial processing.
"It's very nice," the Lubbock, Texas, native said. "You can tell everything's new. They received us well."
Repatriating Soldiers rated the new facilities highly across the board; but the MK Passenger Transit Center passed its most important test with a resounding "A-plus."
"The biggest thing is how fast they turn the Soldiers around," said Brown, who served as a liaison officer as well as a personnel official throughout the redeployment. "When the Soldiers realize this system is organized so they're only spending a day or so -- if not hours -- rather than days or even a week or more in transit, they're going to be very happy they came through MK."
Brown can identify with the sentiment. "Going home and seeing my two daughters -- that's the most important thing to me," she said.
She's not alone. Spc. Brandon Dustman, an infantryman with the 1-26th who divided his tour between RC-South and RC-North, became a father halfway through the deployment and looks forward to uniting with his wife and now-5-month-old daughter Alexis.
"I'm looking most forward to the flight home and seeing my daughter for the first time," the Columbiana, Ohio native said.
"It feels great," Rios added. "This is my fifth deployment. I'm just ready to get home and see my wife and kids."