Penn Valley daughter refuels war planes
CAMP JUSTICE, Indian Ocean – The daughter of a Penn Valley couple serves her country on a watery edge in the war on terror. Her temporary home is a narrow jungle reef in the Indian Ocean, about 1,000 miles south of the southern India coast.
Air Force Reserve Staff Sgt. Michelle L. Buck, the daughter of Wayne and Hazel Buck, says despite the reef’s tropical feel, it is no Margaritaville. It’s more of a stationary aircraft carrier for the coalition aircraft that have dropped more ordnance on Taliban and Al Qaida forces in Afghanistan than any other unit.
“I am extremely proud to be part of this war,” said Buck. “Each time I walk to my aircraft, I think about how the troops in Afghanistan count on me to do my job.”
The mission of putting bombs on target almost 4,000 miles away is comparable to flying from Chicago to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Success falls on the backs of bombers and aerial refueling aircraft that commute together to Afghanistan. But it takes more than savvy pilots to pull these missions off, said Buck, a KC-10 boom operator with the strike force.
“I refuel advanced bombers and cargo aircraft – when they are 30,000 feet in the sky,” she said with a grin. “I fly every other day, on 71/2 hour missions, offloading 60 to 110,000 gallons of fuel to other aircraft, like the B-52 bomber and C-17 cargo jet. As a reservist, I volunteered for duty here so an active duty boom operator could go home early.”
Buck said the challenges started long before she assumed her duties on the reef. Just getting to the site was difficult in itself. The sandy ridge has no other land within 1,000 miles, with India to the north, Madagascar to the west, Indonesia to the east, and nothing but Antarctica way to the south. The only way in and out is by government ships or planes.
“My flight to the camp was long, but I expected that,” said Buck. “I received my tent assignment and went to work right away. There’s plenty of fuel available for me to offload onto aircraft supporting battles in Afghanistan – there’s always plenty of work to keep us busy.”
Force members live in tents – which cyclones occasionally threaten to throw into the sea – or on a merchant ship that leaves residents with sea legs once they are back on shore.
Still, the spectacular location – where a 30-minute bus tour can show you the entire island – has elements of an adventure vacationer’s dream. There’s windsurfing and fishing for 200 pound marlin. Playing the nine-hole golf course is free – and fun to do barefoot. Snorklers can wade in the warm sea and play tourist with thousands of brilliantly colored tropical fish.
“I don’t consider this a sacrifice,” Buck said. “Since the attacks, I’ve had nothing on my mind but how I could do my part in this war on terrorism. But I waited a few weeks to graduate from college so I could apply for pilot training in the Air Force.
“I have taken military leave from my civilian employer – Boeing Aerospace Operations in Fairfield – to deploy as a volunteer,” she added.
Buck graduated from Nevada Union High School in 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in work force training, education and development from Southern Illinois University.
By John Dendy
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