FROM THE PUBLISHER >> General tells how to build bases fast
Self, who last month became commander of the 314th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base, has been busy preparing for this weekend’s big open house that will attract some 200,000 people as the air base celebrates its 50th anniversary.
They’ll see the Air Force Thunder-birds aerial demonstration team fly in formation under clear skies and pleasant temperatures. But even if the weather prediction is wrong, it will be a lot nicer than in Iraq in April, where temperatures can reach 120 degrees.
It was under those type of conditions that Self, who was still a colonel, led an advance team that built landing strips and air bases almost overnight.
At the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Self was part of an advance team that helped build landing strips and “austere” bases from southern Iraq all the way to the north, creating “a lily-pad effect” as the group skipped around the country and got the job done in a way that the Federal Emergency Management Agency might emulate.
“We were a 700-strong group,” Self recalled in his office last Friday, taking time out from his duties as wing commander, while a group of young military lawyers sat outside his office waiting to discuss legal issues that were no business of mine.
Back in the spring of 2003, coalition forces raced through Iraq from Kuwait and built bases from nothing or almost nothing.
Self wasn’t bragging: He was glad he was chosen for the job — although he’s a pilot, not an engineer.
He won’t tell you that he did his job well, but that is probably one of the reasons he’s a general now.
Self was part of a contingency-response team that Gen. John Handy, who headed Air Mobility and Transportation Command, organized at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
Orders were to put together bases in Iraq as quickly as possible, turning new bases into self-contained wings. Trucks would start rolling in just hours after Self’s team showed up in an area, and before long they had virtual cities sprouting in the desert.
Conditions were often primitive. The advance team worked around the clock in almost unbearable heat, but no one complained, and if they did, it didn’t do them any good.
They’d gone into places like Tallil, 160 miles south of Baghdad. “We took over an abandoned Russian airport,” Self says.
The flight line was all ripped up, and it was Self’s job to fix the landing strip and turn the area into an air base.
“We cleared land mines, cleared the concrete, and within four hours of us being there, the first C-130 landed there,” he said.
“We were the first responders,” Self recalled. “We operated in an austere environment. When we were there, we were totally self-sufficient. Then we moved on to the next objective,” the general says.
The team kept going all over Iraq, setting up bases and learning as they went along. Self had no construction experience: He’s a veteran C-17 pilot, but when he was given his orders, he plunged right in.
“I learned on the job,” the general says.
Self, who’s also a veteran of the Balkan and Afghan wars, grew up in northern California.
He is one-fourth Dutch, which might account for his modesty. His family may have started out in the East: A Dutch clan farmed on what is now the east side of Manhattan. The affluent neighborhood is called Kips Bay.
Self’s old contingency wing has become a permanent fixture in the Air Force. There are two of them and they are responsible for settling U.S. forces permanently wherever they’re sent.
“It’s a feel-good job,” he says.