EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- Extreme temperatures, dwindling daylight hours, and the looming threat of snow is the best way to describe his current working conditions. The job itself is so demanding that if the “newbies” aren’t told to eat, they’d work straight through lunch. It’s an endless stream of components that need to be checked, fixed, if necessary, and checked again; that’s what keeps the mission going. Welcome to the flight line. Welcome to the world of a crew chief in the United States Air Force.
Airmen don’t start out as crew chiefs; everyone is a civilian first and Staff Sgt. Mark Ward’s journey began just South of Knoxville, Tennessee. If you grew up there you’d know it as “Halls,” the map labels it Halls Crossroads. Ward describes it as a small town with too few jobs that pay enough to make a decent living. “Unless you are a scholarship-grabbing superstar in sports or academics, your future is student loan debt or doing something like pushing buggies (shopping carts) around for almost no pay and that’s not really living,” he said.
Ward’s choice to join the Air Force, in part, stemmed from wanting to see more of the world than what the U.S. had to offer. But more than that it was a tradition of service within his family which dates back generations. It was advice from family who’d served in the Marines that steered him towards the Air Force. “They take better care of their people,” is the line that had him talking to an Air Force recruiter not long after graduating high school.
Ward became Airman Basic Ward in 2011 and now holds the rank of Staff Sergeant. He’s happy with his Air Force decision and especially likes being a crew chief because he can work with his hands and isn’t too tied up behind a desk. The job has also allowed him to see some of the world. Japan and Korea have been the furthest from home so far.
“We go where the jets go,” said Ward. “They (jets and pilots) can’t fly without us and we wouldn’t have a job without them. Besides, pilots need heroes, too.”
Currently, Sergeant Ward is attached to the 8th Fighter Wing’s 80th Aircraft Maintenance Unit and temporarily deployed to Eielson AFB, Alaska, where he helped generate sorties during RED FLAG-Alaska 19-1 and Distant Frontier. RF-A serves as an ideal platform for international engagement and the exercise has a long history of including allies and partners, ultimately enabling all involved to exchange tactics, techniques and procedures while improving interoperability. Distant Frontier is a continuation of the training that RF-A provides allowing additional opportunities to execute detailed combat scenarios that can be more tailored to individual participating units.
Having served nearly eight years, Ward expects to continue his service through 20 years and see where else his job takes him. For the time being, he is happy with his place at Kunsan AB, particularly serving in the 80th AMU. “The 80th is the best AMU I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “The morale and comraderie at Kunsan is amazing … and we’re separated from loved ones in Korea, so these guys here really become your family.”