Monday, November 05, 2001

Ohioan sustains troops' morale

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For the 46,000 Americans living on Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, there is danger, even when the war planes you are launching are delivering food instead of bombs.

        Security has been tight on the sprawling air base a stone's throw from the

        Rhine and close by the French border ever since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks back home.

        Air Force personnel have been working long hours loading planes with boxes of food for the 86th Airlift Wing's grueling 17-hour humanitarian flights to Afghanistan and back.

        At times like these, when morale matters most, is where a Brown County, Ohio, man comes in — Chief Master Sgt. Rodney J. McKinley.

        Chief Master Sgt. McKinley has attained the highest rank an enlisted man can attain in the Air Force. He is personal adviser to the commander of the Kaiserslauten Military Community at Ramstein and is responsible for the “morale, welfare, utilization and progress” of the men and women living under his wing.

        When the commander wants to know what's on the minds of enlisted men and women, he asks Chief Master Sgt. McKinley.

        The chief spends much time in his office — an office filled with Reds, Bengals and Ohio State mementos — but spends even more among the members of the military community.

        He deals daily with problems that Air Force personnel have with housing, services and security. Recently, he helped arrange a USO show on the base by country music star Clint Black that drew thousands.

        “Anything I can do to make it easier for the men and women here, I do,” Chief Master Sgt. McKinley said. “The job they're doing is hard enough as it is.

        “I spend a lot of my time walking the fence lines talking to the security people, talking to the ground crews, the maintenance guys, the flight crews,” said Chief Master Sgt. McKinley, a former high school athlete from Mount Orab, who joined the Air Force 27 years ago.

        Most of the young airmen he deals with weren't even born when he joined the Air Force out of Ohio State University.

        “They're good kids; America can be proud of them,” said the chief. “They ask a lot more questions than airmen did when I started out. When I was young, if somebody said "dig a ditch,' you dug a ditch.”

        At Kaiserslauten, many of them are married and parents of young children. The base has its own public education system, 11 schools for the children of servicemen and civilian employees.

        Others are young single men and women, away from home for the first time, like Airman 1st Class Jason Reneman, who, two years ago, was a senior at Oak Hills High School.

        Airman Reneman is a security officer at Ramstein, one of an elite corps of security specialists chosen to help beef up security at the base — which is about the size of Rhode Island — after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

        “I think people here are pretty OK with the situation,” said Airman Reneman, who has been at Ramstein 18 months. “Morale is good. People are into doing their jobs, no matter what.”

        KMC-TV, the base television channel , airs constant warnings that Ramstein is on “Force Protection Condition CHARLIE” — the highest state of alert.

        “Off-base residents will not display uniforms while traveling to and from work,” KMC-TV warns. “Stay vigilant. Please be aware of your surroundings. Report any suspicious activity to security officials at your installation.”

        Getting on and off the base these days means going through extra security, Chief Master Sgt. McKinley said, “but everybody understands why. What we're doing here is very important to the cause.”

        Ramstein is the headquarters for the 86th Airlift Wing. Flights of humanitarian food aid to Afghanistan fly out of there and other 86th facilities around Germany on a daily basis.

        Chief Master Sgt. McKinley said he often watches crews preparing the food packets for long flights to central Asia.

        “It's tremendous to watch; these people know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it,” Chief Master Sgt. McKinley said.

        They, too, hear the news reports of the Taliban stealing food drops, reportedly in order to poison the food, distribute it to Afghans and then blame the United States for the deaths.

        “We trust in the top brass to figure out how to prevent that from happening,” Chief Master Sgt. McKinley said. “Our job here is to keep the food coming.”


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