By Master Sgt. Jefferson Thompson, 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing
/ Published February 26, 2021
Female voters display their purple finger tips after casting ballots at an elementary school in Nasiriyah March 7. By law, women must fill 25percent -- 82 out of the 325 -- parliamentary seats. The heavy purple dye reduces attempts of double-voting fraud. No election day violence occurred in Nasiriyah, Iraq's fourth largest city bisected by the Euphrates River in the southern province of Dhi Qar. Iraqi security forces were responsible for all security.
The history of the 332d dates back to World War II where members of the Army Air Corps flew dangerous missions escorting bombers to their targets over war-torn Europe. After the war ended the wing stood down for many years.
In 2002 the wing was returned to service in when American Airmen again went into harm’s way enforcing the no-fly zone during operation SOUTHERN WATCH and then went on to participate in Operation’s ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM.
Today, one deployed Airman remembers his four separate deployments with the wing spanning a nearly 30-year period. Chief Master Sgt. Jeff Vander Woude is currently the superintendent of maintenance at the 332d AEW, having arrived in-theater just weeks ago from the 114th Fighter Wing in Sioux Falls, Sd.
At 57 years-of-age this will be his last overseas deployment as he nears retirement.
“This is my fourth time associated with the 332d, three times as a wing, once as a group, what’s unique in my career is that I’ve done all four rotations in four different career fields,” he said.
Those career fields include munitions storage, plans and scheduling, first sergeant and now group superintendent.
“There’s many differences, your focus of interest is different, when we were in Kuwait it was Saddam Hussein and his regime,” he said. “When we were in Iraq in 2006 and 2008 it was Al Qaeda and terrorist groups and now we are here and it’s ISIS.”
He says this deployment and his last as a first sergeant are people focused, “which is what makes me tick, I enjoy visiting and getting to know people and making their life better.”
One thing remains the same over the span of more than 20 years.
“It’s the desert, you know you’re not home anymore,” he said with a smile on the experience of stepping off the plane each time.
Even before arriving in-country his experiences were useful, allowing him to help people who aren’t familiar with how deployments work.
“We had a number of first-time deployers here and I visited with them and you could see the apprehension and the questions they had in mind and I was able to help them navigate through some of those anxieties and that was rewarding,” he said.
As he nears retirement he says his deployed experiences will remain with him for the rest of his life starting with his first deployment to Panama. Although that deployment was separate from the one with the 332nd he said seeing people freed from Gen. Manuel Noriega’s rule will never leave him.
“I was in operation JUST CAUSE in 1989 and 90 when we took Gen. Noriega out of Panama and the freedom the people of Panama experienced was absolutely amazing to witness and be part of.”
He said it evoked similar feelings in Iraq as those people were able to vote for the first time following the fall of Saddam Hussein.
“Watching the people in Iraq, in Baghdad and other communities vote and dipping their fingers in purple ink to signify that they had voted and seeing their pride will always be a feel-good moment for me.