Eglin firefighters, now home, were first in Iraq

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Associated Press



EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE Eighteen Eglin firefighters were transformed into war fighters when they arrived in Iraq shortly after combat began.

The first Air Force firefighters sent into hostile territory are back in the Florida Panhandle nearly five months after they flew into a captured Iraqi air base.

"We stepped off in Iraq, locked and loaded," said Airman 1st Class Carlos Martinez of Miami. "The whole team was nervous. We didn't know what to expect. We didn't know where we were going."

While running for the cover inside dilapidated buildings, Martinez saw blown up tanks and other debris.

"I thought I was dropped off in the wrong place," he said.

"There was absolutely nothing there," said Staff Sgt. Christy M. Skerrett, one of two women on the team.

No electricity, no latrines and nothing but MREs to eat. They rationed drinking water and slept on the ground for more than a week before cots arrived.

Their first job was to clean sand from inside one of the buildings that served as their fire station.

At the onset, the only water for fighting fires came on the two trucks they brought with them. They had to dig a trench to a river several miles away to get water they then stored in huge bladders.

The firefighters took no hostile fire, but that didn't mean they could put down their guns. For the first couple weeks they covered each other while handling emergencies. They also had to wear chemical warfare suits under their bunker gear for the first month.

"You feel like the Michelin man," said Martinez, holding his arms way out. "It restrained movement a lot. It was really hot and hard to put on."

The team was busy throughout its deployment.

"We had a few good fires and basically everything else was medevac," Martinez said.

The firefighters had to drive 40 miles to douse a civilian tanker truck that had blown up. They also responded when a shot-up A-10 "Warthog" fighter made an emergency landing and helped treat wounded American and Iraqi soldiers as well as civilians.

By the time the Eglin team left, the base had blossomed into a tent city. Generators provided electricity and there was a mess hall, gym, chapel and other amenities.

The most vivid memories for Martinez, however, were of the first month or two. They made him appreciate even little things everyone takes for granted in the United States.

He laughed and said, "I flushed the toilet like three times when I got home."