HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Ogden Air Logistics Center freshman commander Brig. Gen. Kathleen Close is acutely aware that airmen at the base here are filling a different role on the ground in Iraq as they help try to keep Army soldiers safe from improvised explosive devices.
Close hosted a media roundtable Friday, less than a month into her job as the first-ever female commander of Hill's Ogden Air Logistics Center. She joins a base that, unlike others, has survived closure while taking on roles outside of what some airmen may have envisioned before entering the Air Force. They are facing new dangers not known to airmen in past wars.
Last January, three Hill airmen working as an explosive ordnance disposal team died while trying to defuse a car bomb in the Baghdad area. In June, another Hill airman died after a roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle in Kirkuk.
Improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or roadside bombs, have become the biggest killer of U.S. troops in Iraq since the war began in 2003.
"IEDs are nasty," Close said. "It doesn't take very much to create an IED. That's a new element of warfare that we've never had to deal with before."
Close said the U.S. military in Iraq is trying to reduce the number of vehicle convoys, which are vulnerable to IED attacks, by airlifting more equipment and supplies to where they're needed. The Pentagon, she noted, also has an increased role in the war on IEDs.
Congress last year approved a $1.9 billion Pentagon-funding bill to develop IED countermeasures. Funds for the Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Fund are available to the secretary of defense until Sept. 30, 2009.
Some of the money is going toward testing of technology such as the "micro aerial vehicle," which flies along roadways in Iraq in search of bombs, Hill's Explosive Ordnance Disposal superintendent Chief Master Sgt. Michael Reilly told the Deseret Morning News last month. At least two Hill airmen have been involved recently in testing the device while in Iraq.
Close called the Iraq war a "long" one and said Hill airmen will continue to fill "in-lieu-of tasking" roles, nontraditional jobs that include guarding prisoners, supporting convoys on the ground and training members of the Iraq and Afghanistan air forces. But those types of deployments for airmen may come at a cost to Hill's total work force.
"There are some areas that are stressed," she said. "Are we broken? No. We have not had to shut anything down."
Close said she'll take about three months to learn more about Hill before she proposes any changes there. But she does plan on trying to increase Hill's role in phasing out a fleet of jets and planes whose average age is 24 years.
"We know that we need to recapitalize," she said. "We need to modernize our inventory, our fleet and the support equipment that goes with that." Such an initiative, she added, would require reducing the Air Force's work force of enlisted personnel, officers and civilians.
Close, who commands Hill's largest unit with 23,500 employees, has been in the Air Force 27 years and has risen to a level most women in the military never reach.
"There is no such thing as a glass ceiling," Close said, calling the Air Force's promotion system fair. "You work hard, you do your job, you'll be rewarded."