Security forces Airmen protect Sather Air Base

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Russell Wicke
  • 447th Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs
Every week, more than 2,000 foreign nationals bring an average 600 vehicles in and out of Sather Air Base -- Baghdad's only passenger and cargo airfield. Many of these foreign nationals go unescorted in the rest of the Victory Base Complex -- and for this reason, strict precautions are required.

Those precautions take form in Sather's search pit, run by the 447th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron. Airmen assigned to his pit go through painstaking and meticulous procedures to search foreigners and their vehicles, said Master Sgt. Corey Baker, operations superintendent.

"If anything goes wrong on this base, it's likely to be right here," he said.

According to Sergeant Baker, the most obvious threat is a bomb.

"Our biggest fear is a vehicle-born explosive," he said. "Being inside the VBC doesn't make us immune to that threat."

He added the overarching theme is to maintain as much separation between the base populace and a potential threat as possible.

The search begins with the guard at Echo One -- the main gate, said Tech. Sgt. Thomas Charles, 447th ESFS NCO in charge of the vehicle search area. This guard determines who goes through the pit, and who passes on.

The search area, called 'Sierra Three,' consists of a double lane section of road with Hesco Barriers stacked three high on each side. The vehicle occupants are sent through a screening area where they are hand searched and X-rayed. Then they wait in a holding area while the vehicles are searched.

Vehicle searches require a military working dog that specializes in bomb detection. After the dog clears the vehicles, specially trained security forces Airmen comb through all the vehicles.

"We operate from knowledge of what to look for," Sergeant Baker said, explaining that much of their search techniques are secretive.

Contents of all packages and bags all are searched by hand. Sometimes they even find illegal weapons and ammunition, said Lt. Col. Timothy Ferguson, 447th ESFS commander.

"Since March we've made more than 40 contraband seizures," he said, although none of them very serious. "Most people say they don't know how it got there - but we fill out a report anyway."

Since finding a bomb is a rarity, the search-pit Airmen face a challenge that is much less tangible, Sergeant Charles said. Their main challenge is avoiding complacency, he said.

"When you inspect [hundreds] of vehicles a day - often the same vehicle multiple times -- it's tough to stay vigilant," Sergeant Charles said. "That's why we rotate our people through different stations every day."

Ultimately, the search pit is the first line of defense for Sather, said Staff Sgt. David Heptinstall, 447th ESFS shift supervisor for the search pit. With that kind of responsibility, the search-pit job demands the most qualified people.

"We put a lot of faith and trust in our Airmen working this duty," Colonel Ferguson said. "It is their vigilance and attention to detail that keep all of us safe."