Marylanders at Dover base move cargo to Saudi Arabia PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN/Support at home

January 17, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, DEL. — The 135th Military Aerial Port Flight, identified as an Air Force ,, Reserve outfit in an article in yesterday's Evening Sun, is in fact an Air National Guard unit. The Evening Sun regrets the error.

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- Maryland reservists Brenda Derr and Harold Payne lean their backs into a huge block of cargo bound for Saudi Arabia and push with their legs.

They slide it back on rollers toward a heavyweight forklift waiting to load it aboard one of the C-5 intercontinental transports lined up on the tarmac ramp.


The big and busy aerial port at this vast, intricate air base is motorized, mechanized and computerized, but, often enough, moving cargo comes down to muscle and bone and sweat.

Tech. Sgt. Derr, a major at Eastern Correctional Institution near Princess Anne, and Staff Sgt. Payne, who handles baggage for United Air Lines at Dulles Airport in Virginia as a civilian, were activated Dec. 27 with the 135th Military Aerial Port Flight, an Air Force Reserve outfit based at Martin State Airport in Middle River.

Members of the 135th arrived here Dec. 29. They went to work the next day. They've been working 12-hour shifts around the clock, ever since, three days on and two off. This week the port will be busier and they're going on a five-days-on, two-off schedule.

Almost all of the cargo moving through Dover these days is destined for the Mideast.

Loaded aluminum pallets bound with slings and covered with plastic are scattered all over the port area, inside and out.

Incoming tractor-trailers back up in all kinds of improvised parking spots at the bay they call "the Beach," where outsize cargo is received and processed for shipping.

Dover crews set a record in November, moving 5,458,070 pounds of cargo in one day.

But, still, humping cargo does not have much glamour. And the 135th is about as far from harm's way as you can get here. They're a whole lot more likely to get hit by a forklift than a Scud missile. They're not even very far from home.

The reservists of the 135th know this. But they feel they're doing a necessary job, a job they're good at and proud of. They've got a lot of esprit de corps.

"I traveled all the way up from Crisfield once a month to drill with this unit because I like them so much," Derr says. "I like the unit and I like the people. I've been with 'em nine years."

She used to live in Baltimore. She moved to the Eastern Shore to work at ECI, where she was the only female shift commander at a male prison in the Maryland system. She's one of four women among the 57 people in the 135th.

"It's a job that has to be done, and if it helps keep America free I'm more than happy to do it," she says.

"There have been lots of Americans who made bigger sacrifices. The people who are making the true sacrifices are those who are over in the desert."

Harold Payne's a big bulky guy who lives in Rosedale. He and his wife, Carole, have two daughters. Their first granddaughter, Lori, will be 2 in April. Payne spent a year in Vietnam two decades ago with an Army signal outfit. He saw a lot of that war as a courier traveling throughout South Vietnam.

"If there's anything I want to see out of this one," he says, "is that it not be like Vietnam, where we could only go so far. That's what griped me over there."

The 135th has been activated until June 24, or 179 days. If the term were longer, the members would become eligible for certain veterans benefits. Even preparedness has budgetary and legal constraints.

But Defense Secretary Richard Cheney last week said he may try to keep reservists on active duty for as long as two years because of the gulf crisis.

Maj. Ronald A. Decker, the tall, steady lawyer who is commanding officer of the 135th, says that would mean some rethinking for his men and women.

"But I haven't heard anything but the normal concerns of people away from their homes and jobs," he says.

Decker's 46. He's married and he and his wife, Toni, have three teen-age children. His home is in Baldwin. He works for the Moore, Carney, Ryan and Lattanzi law firm in Perry Hall. Before that he was staff counsel with the Public Service Commission for 10 years.

"It's what it does to your civilian life and career," Decker says. "Being from a small law firm, I don't know how long they can afford to be without someone to take over my position. They're working hard now."

No matter how you cut it, he says, there's a difference between six months and two years.

"What's two years among friends?" quips Master Sgt. Stephen L. Topolnicki, who is the 135th's "Top Shirt" -- acting first sergeant. Back in Baltimore, he's a computer programmer and analyst with B. Green and Co. food wholesalers. He lives in Middle River with his wife, Vicki, and daughter, Nicole, 12.

"I did two years before and I know it's a long time," says Topolnicki. He did a tour of duty with the Navy in the '60s, working with seaborne cargo. "And that two years would be a lot longer if we get deployed from here."

Lots of 135th people have already been home on their days off. And they build up leave time at a rate of 2 1/2 days a month.

Denis Griffin, 32, who's running a forklift unloading a flatbed trailer at the Beach, left his wife, Sharon Lynn, back home in Glen Burnie with their 4-week-old baby, Holli Nicole.

"That's the hard part," he says. But he's already been home twice.

"I'm lucky compared with plenty of guys in Saudi who don't even get to see their babies at all."

A couple of his friends called up the other day and said they were proud of him.

"That felt good," he says. "I think we're doing a big part here, so much stuff is going in and out. I'm proud of the job we're doing."

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