In August of 1988, I was monitoring AWACS flight operations in the Persian Gulf (Iran/Iraq War of the 1980’s) as my squadron’s deployed Director of Operations (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia). Iran and Iraq had just agreed to a cease-fire to go into effect 30 days later when my squadron commander called from Tinker AFB to ask me to consider an assignment to the NATO AWACS program at Geilenkirchen AB, Germany. My first instinct was to think how could I politely say, “No”, but I asked for some time to consider my options. After I checked with some of my staff members, I decided to go for it – after all, I could do anything for just a couple of years (standard unaccompanied overseas tour length). Eight months later, as I left for Germany, the Berlin Wall was still standing and the Cold War was ongoing.
The NATO AWACS Program had 18 E-3 AWACS aircraft, each of which were operated by crews of mixed nationalities using English as the agreed common language – lucky for me. Upon my arrival in April 1989, I discovered that the NATO AWACS Component had been known to some as the “NATO Flying Club” and I soon learned why. It was a great life operating out of different countries from month to month. My USAF NCOs pleaded with me not to force them to use their leave since doing so would result in missing one or more of our TDYs – possibly a week to the beaches of western Greece, the carpet stores of central Turkey, the fiords of Norway, the restaurants of Sicily, or some other European exercise location. All of Western Europe was considered our local operating area. When I took a NATO E-3 crew to Puerto Rico to train with the USS Saratoga (CV-60) in early 1990, that deployment was considered out of area. Saratoga was preparing for their last European cruise before decommissioning – a trip that was extended after Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait. While staying at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, my crew stayed in condos on the beach after NATO officially declared the U.S. Navy housing to be below NATO standards.
The European political landscape started to change after the Berlin Wall came down in December 1989 and all the good flying club days came to an end when Saddam Hussein directed his forces to invade Kuwait. Suddenly, NATO had a more visible mission called Anchor Guard, NATO’s response to Desert Shield/Storm. During Anchor Guard, I had the opportunity to command deployments to both Greece and Turkey. When it came time to fly ANCHOR GUARD (DESERT STORM) sorties, we were based at the Turkish Riviera city of Antalya in a 4-star hotel with a belly dancer in the disco each night and where our security escort to and from the airport consisted of three gentlemen dressed in black suits each carrying a black gym bag containing a loaded Uzi and driving a ’57 Chevrolet convertible. Each day we took off prepared to assume the USAF AWACS role in the event of an airborne abort. Clearly, we had it much easier than our troops in the desert.
Since I was planning on getting married to someone I met at Geilenkirchen named Marina (Greek Citizen), I needed to find a way to stay in Europe. My next assignment was to the USAFE HQ at Ramstein AB, Germany. I had been deemed the best qualified volunteer for a USAFE AWACS position that ceased to exist 6-months before the military personnel center started advertising for a replacement. When the error was discovered, it was too late. Since I didn’t have a “permanent” job, I became a USAFE floating Lt Colonel to meet command requirements. I closed bases, worked budget issues, deployed to Operation Provide Comfort (OPC) as the Deputy/C3, conducted a Secretary of the Air Force IG investigation, and served on CINC USAFE’s Tiger Team overseeing the fratricide investigation when two USAF F-15s shot down two US Army Blackhawks at Operation Provide Comfort (a lengthy story in itself). By the way, I was allowed to use a pass to go back to Greece from Turkey to marry Marina as planned.
o avoid killing my new wife’s career at Geilenkirchen, I was able to land my next and final position in Europe at the NATO political headquarters in Brussels, Belgium where I was the US Board Member to several NATO boards dealing with standardization. My Pentagon boss told me, “Don’t call here looking for guidance. You will know more about what is going on in Brussels than we will. Just keep us informed as to what you commit the USAF to after the fact” (reverse of normal military staffing). By the time I reached mandatory retirement, I had been in Brussels enjoying the diplomatic life for 7+ years. Following retirement, I returned to Geilenkirchen to join the rest of my family which by now included three sons. Before I retired, we had been commuting between countries for years. Actually, each weekend we picked a country to live in, Germany or Belgium.
Fourteen years after I left for a 2-year PCS, I returned to the USA to become a defense contractor working at Hanscom AFB. The Cold War was over, the Warsaw Pact no longer existed, the most recent war in Iraq had commenced, and Russia was a NATO Partnership for Peace Nation. I left as a bachelor and returned with a wife and three sons. Today, my wife is a math teacher in our local schools; Tasos and Nikos are students in high school; and Yannis is a Firstie at West Point. My children’s primary language is now English. I never imagined the consequences of the decision to accept a “2-year” PCS in 1989.
Bill Van Horn
9491 South Johnson Court
Littleton, CO 80127
USAFA Class of '74 - published a book of our experiences for our 40th reunion!