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From the Sandbox to the Icebox

  • Published
  • By Capt. Catherine L Looper
  • 1AF Det 1
You've been deployed to the desert and nearing completion of your short tour, and you start getting excited about orders for your next assignment. Having had enough of the extreme 130+ weather and sandstorms, you can't wait for the nice change. You open an e-mail from your assignments functional and he asks, "How would you like to go to Canada and work for NORAD?"

"Huh? What the...?" So you phone your functional and he explains that there's a small detachment in Winnipeg, Canada. Sounds interesting enough, plus the months and months of desert heat have made you desperate for cooler climates, so you quickly accept the job. Within one month, you go from living in a sandbox to living in an icebox. And so begins a new Air Force journey with Detachment 1, 1st Air Force.

An interesting and perhaps little known fact is Det 1's location as the northernmost posting for any 1AF personnel. Located in the Central plains region of Canada's Manitoba province, Winnipeg is a metropolitan city roughly 150 miles north of Grand Forks, ND. Detachment 1 consists of 13 active duty USAF members (6 officers, 7 enlisted) assigned to the Canadian NORAD Region (CANR) Headquarters, Canadian Forces Base-Winnipeg. Detachment 1 has the unique mission of supporting the bi-lateral NORAD agreement between the government of the United States and Canada. Det 1 provides a 24/7 US communications link, as well as Fighter, Logistics, Communications, Air Battle Management, and Intelligence personnel who directly support the CANR mission as well as providing administrative personnel support for the USAF 1-star general officer assigned as the Deputy Commander for CANR.

Every Airmen in this 13-member detachment is assigned in either one or two-deep positions as the functional expert or American liaison in their career specialties. A common theme among Det 1 members regarding their jobs is the ability and necessity to perform every function as it relates to their specialty and a few other additional duties.
"Usually in a standard Communications Squadron, I'd be assigned to a flight or section and perform 1 or 2 specific functions such as COMSEC or in an Automated Data Processing Element (ADPE). Here you will do everything in your field. It's a great opportunity to broaden your skill set very quickly," says TSgt Dan Hurt, NCOIC of US Communications who has been here since June 2004.

These sentiments are echoed by SSgt Melinda Cabrera, NCOIC, Commander's Support Staff who arrived in August 2004. "Before this assignment I worked at an MPF as a clerk processing Retirements and Separations, but now, being the only Personnelist assigned to the Det, I'm the MPF, Finance, Postal, and CSS all rolled into one."

Another facet of Det 1 are the unique experiences it affords its members that you won't find anywhere else in the Air Force. MSgt Troy Ball, NCOIC of Communications recalls a short-notice deployment a few years ago to the small Arctic town of Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. "I was deployed as part of Operation Northern Denial to assist in setting up a NORAD dial-up secure terminal (N-DUST) at one of the forward operating locations. It was 3 weeks before Christmas and -40F degree weather. At one point, they announced that we should go outside if we wanted to see the sun one last time because it would not break the horizon again for the remainder of our deployment. The only permanent presence there were some Royal Canadian Mounted Patrol, a small native population, and a couple of store operators."

MSgt Michael Prichard, Detachment Superintendent and Senior Intelligence Analyst, has been in Winnipeg since May 2005 and draws on the uniqueness of his responsibilities in the organization. "I'd never been in a HQ organization of a bi-national level. The most interesting aspect of the job is being able to brief the CANR commander on Russian Strategic Aviation intentions....and being right. It's definitely a very personality-driven position. I'm used to dealing with Intel on a more operations-oriented scope, but CANR Intelligence is done in a strategic and politically driven environment. I tend to mix it up (operations and strategic Intel) and I like doing that."

Aside from enabling and enhancing the mission for NORAD and 1AF, Det 1 members and their families also have many opportunities to participate in Canadian Armed Forces activities as well getting involved in the local community. SSgt Will Lloyd, NCOIC of Information Management was selected to play for the Canadian Forces Prairie Region Basketball team and his outstanding performance during the 2007 annual national tournament held in February earned him recognition on the Canadian Forces All-Star Team. He was the only American to garner such distinction. However, one of his most memorable moments since arriving in July 2006 was, "When I was the US Representative and flag bearer for Canada's Military Appreciation Night during a professional hockey game. It was a very moving tribute to the Armed Forces."

Most Det 1 personnel, especially with school-age children actively engage in a wealth of community and civic organizations year-round such as Girl Guides, Boy Scouts, YMCA, church youth groups, gymnastics, Friends of the Zoo, soccer, hockey, ballet, Wildlife Rescue Center, and Habitat for Humanity just to name a few. Manitoba is also an ideal location for many outdoor activities as well such as fishing, hiking, polar bear sightseeing, cross-country skiing, and viewing the Aurora Borealis or "Northern Lights."

There is no American-based education system or Department of Defense school located in Winnipeg, so all dependent children either attend Canadian public schools or are home-schooled. According to Mike Tabilas, son of SSgt Cabrera and a sophomore at Fort Richmond Collegiate High School, "There really isn't much difference between going to school here and in the States. Canadian high school students have the same interests as American students and most people don't even notice that I'm not Canadian unless I tell them."

Although Canada is our friendly neighbor to the North and is almost identical to living stateside with regards to most aspects of daily living, it still has its own unique peculiarities. Most Detachment personnel can vividly remember their first time shopping at 13% sales tax or purchasing gas at nearly $4 a gallon. Major Kelly Smith, Chief, ISR Branch expressed, "The biggest (first) one that comes to mind is the fact that our (typical) mortgage is fixed for 3 years and has a prepayment penalty with no military provisions. So, even if the military moves me early, I can end up paying several thousand dollars if I "close" my mortgage early. Next, some of the groceries are, whoa, expensive. I've not picked up cheese that was so expensive as here--for "normal" cheese." Detachment members fully appreciate the cost of living allowance given to account for these kinds of spending differences for basic goods and services.

Leading a small detachment in an overseas location can pose its own share of challenges as well, according to Lt Col Anthony Higuera, Det 1 Commander. "Even though it's not a huge unit or flying squadron, I feel a greater responsibility to each of my Airmen and their family members because of the overseas element. When you're on base south of the border, as a commander you typically won't get asked to get involved in particular dependent care issues. For example, I don't have the luxury of having the support you get at a base for medical care, Family support center, and on-base schooling for dependent children. So, any issue is a big issue."

In terms of mission accomplishment, Lt Col Higuera's has defined Det 1's role with the following statement, "As an USAF unit we are small in size but we can have a huge impact in the 1 Canadian Air Division. In three simple words, this is what we in the Det should strive for everyday while at work: Visible, Responsive and Relevant."