Contact center rep serves in Iraq

  • Published
  • By Mike Molina
  • Editor
As a contact center representative at the Air Reserve Personnel Center here, Mike Grunwald is usually serving Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve customers over the phone. In December, the 52-year-old Colorado native was serving in Iraq as part of a 45-day deployment with the 140th Wing of the Colorado Air National Guard.

Mr. Grunwald is also a staff sergeant, a Guardsman and jet engine mechanic.

In August, Sergeant Grunwald volunteered for his unit's upcoming deployment to Iraq.

On the drill weekend, Sergeant Grunwald said wing leaders were looking for a certain number of volunteers to go to Iraq. 

"I volunteered, but I was an alternate to an alternate, so I was surprised when I got notified that I was going," he said.

Sergeant Grunwald arrived to Balad Air Base, Iraq on Dec. 5. It was his first deployment to Iraq and did not come without worries.

"There's some anxiety because you don't know what to expect," he said. "You live surrounded by a maze of concrete blast walls and sand bags. They're everywhere. And I kept saying there are only three colors in Iraq - grey, tan and sand."

His concerns soon faded as he was occupied by 12-hour workdays that began at noon and ended at midnight.

The days lasted more like 16 or 17 hours including time to shower, eat and take a bus to and from the worksite -- a panoramic airfield covered with hardened aircraft shelters or HAS. The HAS, which can fit up to four F-16s and is made of thick, reinforced concrete, was where Sergeant Grunwald and his fellow Airmen worked during his deployment.

"The first time I walked into that (maintenance) shop, I said 'wow, these guys are professionals. It was an extremely well-managed shop," he said.

Sergeant Grunwald and the 140th Wing's F-16 squadron joined up with a Guard and an active-duty squadron. The three squadrons each had about 20 jet engine mechanics and the daily workload, as it is with many jobs, could be minimal or nonstop, Sergeant Grunwald said.

"The F-16 has a vulnerability of rocks being sucked up into the engine," he said. "If an engine sucked up a rock and the blades have to be replaced you're looking at a lot of work."

"The computer keeps tabs of what happened with the engine," he said. "We send it to the analysis people, and they can tell us all about the engine: How many times it was put into afterburner; how many times it was started and shut down; were there any problems. Occasionally, we may have to remove an engine."

When his day ended he would catch the bus back to his trailer he shared with three other Airmen. Although he had been up nearly 17 hours, he didn't always fall asleep.

"Because of peoples' schedules, you're constantly being woken up," he said.

Sometimes he might catch a movie at the 24-hour movie theater. There were also Armed Forces Radio and Television and a coffee shop the Army had set up that served premium roast coffee.

"The Army really did a good job with that. That was really nice," he said.

He also had the unique experience of being in Iraq during the holidays.

For Christmas, some of the contractors made paper mache characters using flour and paper.

"They were really nice, but the birds ate them," he said.

There was also a truck decorated as Santa's sleigh complete with reindeer and holiday lights driven by Airmen who handed out candies and soap.

"It was a fairly quiet night, business as usual," he said.

It was the same on New Year's Eve. The Airmen and Soldiers celebrated the new year for about 10 minutes, Sergeant Grunwald said.

"There were balloons and confetti. That was pretty much it," he said.

But the deployment was not without a celebration.

On Jan. 23, Sergeant Grunwald and more than 300 of his fellow Airmen were welcomed home when they arrived safely at Buckley Air Force Base.

"It was good to be home," he said. "But I'll probably volunteer again when the chance comes."