A sense of somber relief pervaded this sprawling air base Thursday afternoon.
There was relief that in the first stages of the Persian Gulf war, things must be going well for Hill's men and women deployed to the Middle East, because American casualties were low in the air war. And there was relief that a tense period of waiting for action had ended at last.In a press conference here, wives of two Air Force men sent to the Mideast, the vice commander of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, and the base chaplain all described feelings of cautious optimism.
Two squadrons of the 388th, stationed at Hill, flew to the Persian Gulf region in late August. Officers refuse to say in what country they are, or how many, but an educated guess is that close to 2,000 men and women may be in the war theater, counting pilots and their support crews.
Security was exceptionally heavy at Hill on Thursday because of concern about terrorist attacks. At the south gate, near Layton, sentries armed with rifles were checking the identifications of everyone entering the base.
At the visitor center beside the gate, a cleaning woman was told she could not go in for her ordinary duties unless she was escorted. Reporters had to present not only drivers' licenses but car registrations before they could drive in.
Cheryl Bixby, wife of Senior Master Sgt. Dana Bixby, 2849th Air Base Group, who is overseas for Operation Desert Storm, told reporters she feels comfortable and at peace. She has turned to the Lord, realizing that "my worrying isn't going to make my husband any safer."
"I have mixed feelings," said Suzanne Scott, wife of Lt. Col. Alan Scott, who went to the Middle East with two of the 388th's squadrons of F-16 jets.
"Naturally, there's a certain amount of anxiety . . . But I have to say I really am proud. I know that the men are professionals." Those left behind pray for their safety, she said.
The couple's two children - age 17 and 12 - are proud of Lt. Col. Scott, and they have questions about the operation, she said. They know as well as anyone that it's impossible to say when he will come home.
Cheryl Bixby said that when Hill's men and women were sent overseas, the couple's sons, 13 and 11, wanted to know, "Is Dad in very imminent danger now?"
"We tried to explain to them that they are in danger, but they're doing everything they can to be as safe as they possibly can. My husband has 19 years of training. He knows what to do, and they have a lot of confidence in that. They don't ask a whole lot of questions now . . . They're very much at ease with everything now."
She said that the children seem able to take the situation in stride. "We do talk about our feelings. We do a lot of hugging.
"They're very proud of their father also. They know he's doing what he feels, and we feel, is right. And both of them know that he's doing it to protect the country."
Suzanne Scott said that at the time of the first attack on Iraq, Wednesday night, her support group had a meeting "to give moral support to each other."
Col. Peter H. Fox, vice commander of the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, said the Hill people remaining in Utah were upbeat when the fighting began. "I would describe the mood as one in which we were very glad for the success that we have apparently enjoyed.
"I would caution that, however, with the comments of Secretary Cheney (Defense Secretary Dick Cheney) not to be too quick on the euphoria aspect of it." This is apparently only the initial stage of the conflict, he added.
Fox said he knows of no planning for additional deployments from the 388th.
Over the past weekend, before the fighting began, the mood was "very tense," said the base chaplain, Capt. Robert D. Dunn.
"Last night (Wednesday), people seemed to be more optimistic. Still, we're not out of the waters," he said.
"People are still tense. It's not over, by any means. We're still worried." However, Dunn said, tension is easing somewhat. Many people attended church on Thursday, he said.
Capt. H. Allen Reid, a clinical psychologist at the Hill hospital, said experts are bracing for possible problems among the children of people sent overseas for Desert Storm. "In the early stages when we were in Desert Shield, in August and September . . . there was quite a number of problems. It seemed like more than we'd normally expect when school started."
But Reid said in the past four or five days, no problems were noticed.
Diana Wiggins, volunteer coordinator at Hill's Family Support Center, said members of the military or family members of anyone deployed for Desert Storm can call the center at 775-CARE for help.
Fox said he has not talked with any of the Hill people in the Middle East since the onslaught began Wednesday. He would not say whether Hill's F-16 had engaged the Iraqis.
"For operational reasons I will not discuss details which may be emanating from reports that we have," he said. He hoped they were involved in the attack.
Hill's pilots have trained for years at the Utah Test and Training Range in the western desert. Fox said that seems to have paid off. "What we're doing over there is similar to what we do day in, day out," he said.
Hill is routinely in contact with the people it deployed, discussing parts and other items that are needed.
Val Hollands, air terminal manager, said, "We're shipping approximately 300,000 pounds of cargo per day, and have been for some time." About 40,000 pounds can be carried by a single C-141 cargo plane. He did not specify what portion of that goes to Hill's contingent, or if some goes to other bases in the Middle East.
Asked what the base's crews might have done during the attacks, he said the traditional job of the F-16 is "dropping bombs, very simply."
Asked about environmental dangers resulting from the battles, R. Craig Postlewaite, chief of environmental health at the base hospital, said, "Naturally, if things are going up, things are burning, there's chemical hazards being released."