It’s the little things we take for granted.
The things we can’t live without, until we have to.
For Master Sgt. John Watson, it’s Michigan’s greenery, being outdoors, camping and fishing.
For Technical Sgt. Robby Carlisle, it’s craft beers, Dexter Bakery doughnuts, Cottage Inn pizza and fall.
And for Master Sgt. David Motycka, it’s his pillow-top, queen-size bed.
At 6 feet 3, Motycka, 33, of Portage, really doesn’t fit very well in the twin-size bunk bed he has been sleeping in for the last several months with the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates — a base that, for the better part of 25 years, was an undisclosed location. Its location recently was allowed to become public, said Air Force Maj. Nicole Reigelman, chief of public affairs.
The wing is hosted at Al Dhafra Air Base, an Emirati military installation near Abu Dhabi. The U.S. compound houses about 3,500 people, with about 3,000 of them Air Force personnel. There are also are service members from the Army, Navy and Marines and partner nations.
Launching jets at all hours of the day, Reigelman said, the base needs crucial support personnel, such as these three Michigan Air National Guardsmen, to keep it running 24-7.
The trio left in the spring and hope to come home by Thanksgiving after a six-month deployment. For each, it is his first deployment to this base.
The Free Press was given the opportunity to talk with trio by phone in September to learn about their roles, their experiences and what they miss about home.
All of them work the swing or midnight shift — which they don’t mind because it’s a little slower and cooler than the 100-plus degree days. It neared 130 degrees in July and 115 degrees on the day of their Free Press interview.
While the temperature drops when the sun goes down, they said, the humidity spikes, making 80 degrees feel like 110 degrees.
Tech. Sgt. Robby Carlisle, electrician with the 380th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron, adjusts wiring during a dormitory renovation project at Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, Sept. 12, 2017. He is a guardsman from the 127th Attack Wing from Selfridge ANG. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Marjorie A. Bowlden, U.S. Air Force)
Carlisle prefers the late shift, which he said provides more flexibility.
“People working at night is greatly reduced. There’s a lot more leeway to train our younger guys and make significant impacts on the project at hand,” he said.
Carlisle, 30, is from Ann Arbor, with his home near the University of Michigan stadium. He roots for Notre Dame, but says with a laugh that the Wolverines’ “success is good for my property value.”
He’s based at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and is in line to possibly be a new home of the F35 fighter jets.
Carlisle, who has been deployed before, has been with the Air Force for a decade and with the Air National Guard for four years. He works with electrical systems, maintaining power distribution at the base.
His role is blended to be like a regular electrician and a DTE Energy lineman. There are 30 people who do this type of work, which is around the clock on three, eight-hour shifts.
Motycka and Watson are with the 110th Attack Wing in Battle Creek.
Motycka said he has been with the Air Force for 15 years and in the Air National Guard for about eight years. He’s part of the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning shop at the Al Dahfra base, which has nearly 600 facilities, from dining facilities to airplane hangars to the medical clinic, 120 tents and 1,240 dormitory rooms.
He said each dormitory room has one air conditioner assigned to it and that the room from which they spoke to the Free Press has seven units. There are more than 5,000 air-conditioning units on the base. It’s also a 24-hour shop with 32 members.
Watson, 40, of Charlotte, near Lansing, has been deployed at least a handful of times in his 22 years with the military, 15 of them with the Air National Guard, the rest with the Air Force.
He’s in the water and fuel systems maintenance shop, working with about 25 other people on water, sewer and fuel operations at the base “like the public works department back home.”
The trio spent most of their workdays on the installation — keeping the electric going, air conditioning running in the pilots’ rooms and supplying fuel for aircraft.
“We go through roughly a half-million gallons of jet fuel a day here,” Watson said.
Free time spent is spent in the downtown areas and visiting sites.
They described the landscape as including rolling sand dunes, blowing sand, lots of rocks, some gravel and maybe a few big palms here and there. They might see some camels in the distance, wild foxes and stray cats, bushes or mirages in the dessert.
The usually cloudless sky is pure blue.
The city is a concrete jungle, with skyscrapers and a few parks scattered throughout for greenery. Some of the beach areas have nice-colored water and the sunsets are beautiful, they said.
Motycka said he got to go up 125 floors in the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, which has 160 stories.
He said driving off-base is “a totally different experience than in the States. They have speed limits, but some people don’t abide by them. They’re a lot more faster. You really have to keep your head on a swivel.”
“The coolest experiences is that day off we get and that ability to go to Abu Dhabi or Dubai and experience their culture,” Carlisle said. “The engineering is beautiful. The architecture, the food is wonderful. There’s some really nice people over here. That’s allowed us to see people in a different way.”
They said that the people are protective of their culture, but have been welcoming, even letting the military members know if there is a stricter dress code before coming into an establishment.
The trio have been lucky in this deployment. They support the pilots who fly into dangerous situations and territories. The biggest injuries they’ve dealt with are work-related ones, Motycka said, “a cut here or there, a shock once in a while.”
When they come home, they’ll eventually return to their civilian jobs.
Carlisle works for the Federal Aviation Administration on radar and satellite, taking care of southeast Michigan airspace. His office is out of Willow Run Airport.
Motycka is a facility maintenance mechanic at the Air National Guard Base in Battle Creek.
And Watson works for Dixon Engineering in Lake Odessa, inspecting water storage facilities, anything from water towers to underground storage tanks. He travels throughout the Midwest.
“It’s gonna be greatly missed and we’ll be inundated with life and media and everybody in a different place and not working toward a common theme,” Carlisle said of their return home.
They said they’ll miss the folks they’ve been with for the last six months, people from different walks of life that put on the same uniform, including many from Michigan.
Despite being more than 7,000 miles from home, many of their colleagues still have to handle issues back home.
There was a colleague who had family in Puerto Rico and was worried about them during the recent hurricanes, and another who was on the phone with his parents, who were helping board up his home in Florida before Hurricane Irma hit.
The men thanked those back home, especially the churches and groups that have sent care packages, with Motycka saying it’s “like Christmas morning to these guys” when they get puzzle books, reading materials and other gifts. The packages often are shared with those who didn’t get one.
“The best one are the ones the young kids send us — their drawings and thank-yous,” Watson said. “They don’t know us and we don’t know them, but it’s nice to get a thank-you. We send a little note back to them, boost their morale that their package was received.”
Watson said in their shop section, there’s a door where letters are taped. Those deployed can read them, look them over, take down an address and respond.
“If someone would send honey Teddy Grahams, I would be forever grateful,” Carlisle added with a laugh.
Will this be their last deployments?
Motycka said he doesn’t know, but if another comes: “I’ll be ready.”
Watson said he’s getting to the end of his career, and while they will “let me out to pasture before not too long, I’ll gladly strap on the boots one more time and come back over.”
Carlisle said he’s only halfway through his career, so he assumes he’ll be deployed again.
“Ideally,” he said, “we can live in a world where we don’t have to deploy.”
►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the WZZM 13 app now.
© 2017 Detroit Free Press