Intel Airman reflects on his time at JBER

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Ian Hensley
  • 381st Intelligence Squadron

Against the clouded sky, a large, metallic, circular structure transforms the beautiful Alaskan landscape near Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. At a diameter of 1,433 feet and 137 feet tall, this structure is a relic of the Cold War. It is known officially as the AN/FLR-9 circularly disposed antenna array, or “Flare-9,” and was decommissioned in May 2016. The 40-acre footprint and 120-foot tower height dimensions is referred as a tongue-in-cheek name: the Elephant Cage.  One could be forgiven for assuming as the Flare-9 passed into history, so too would the presence of the National Security Agency at JBER.

My name is Senior Airman Ian Hensley, and I call Anchorage home. I work at the operations building across from the Flare-9 as a signals intelligence analyst, performing a mission with the NSA in cooperation with the United States Air Force. The Alaska Mission Operations Center provides time-critical combat intelligence to U.S. theater battle commanders, unified and specified commands, national and Department of Defense leadership, as well as operating and sustaining sensitive communications and computer systems in support of national intelligence missions. The work of the AMOC has not ceased in the decades since its founding, and in that time, the work my fellow Airmen accomplished has spoken for itself.

 I arrived at JBER and the AMOC in June 2016 following an intense, sophisticated curriculum in technical training school at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas. I didn’t know what to expect - I was told by my instructors, “It’s different everywhere you go, and it’s classified anyway so I couldn’t tell you if I knew.”

There are plenty of myths and rumors circulating on the news or Internet forums about what intelligence work is all about. While I can’t get into specifics, I’ll let the reader know a secret: most of my day is office work, such as writing reports on activities that usually make their way to the nightly news. It’s rewarding to notice something in the nightly news and think, “I contributed to that” (in one way or another).

The reason the AMOC matters is the wealth of knowledge, attention to detail, and the commitment to mission displayed by the Airmen. It’s a wake-up call when an individual with stars on their shoulders pats you on the back because you made their job easier or their mission capable of being executed. The nature of our work is highly technical, requiring a true effort to stay on top of things and never, ever let something slip. To do so would be to flirt with danger - the thought that real-life, flesh-and-blood people are counting on our efforts is never far from my mind.

The relationships I’ve developed across my time at the AMOC are what I’m the proudest of. When I think back on some of the things I’ve seen or done, it’s usually less the activity itself than the people I worked with in support of that activity. My work has taken me across JBER, Alaska, the continental United States and national borders. The official vision of the Air Force is, at least in part, “Global Vigilance, Reach and Power.” That reality is felt and understood on a daily basis in pursuit of my mission. I couldn’t see myself doing anything less than my best in my interaction with Airmen and our fantastic foreign partners.

Ultimately, when I depart the AMOC next year for new experiences in new units, I am confident I will remember my experience in Alaska fondly. The state itself is one big national park, complete with all the outdoorsy activities that will appeal to anybody. And while I was glad for my shifts to end so I could experience the next hiking trail, I was and still am always ready to get back to work and complete the next mission. In my home, I’ve taken the liberty of assembling a memento box of my time in Alaska. Between the unit patches I’ve been gifted and coins I’ve received, there is a collage of photos featured prominently. Almost all of them feature uniform-clad individuals in front of fighter jets or rivers with mountains in the distance. My friends and I are in these photos, and I will treasure our time together whether executing missions or exploring the Alaska countryside. Without hyperbole, two of the best decisions I’ve ever made were enlisting in the U.S. Air Force and volunteering to take an assignment at the Alaska Mission Operations Center.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are SrA Hensley’s and do not reflect those of the NSA.)