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Rachel's Weekend Visits
By Rachel Sloane
RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall are in West Suffolk, near the villages that they take their names from.
An American airbase, once you are through the tight security, really is like a town in the USA. If it wasn't for driving on the left hand side of the road and the occasional roundabout, you could be forgiven for rubbing your eyes in disbelief. American cars, spacious wide streets, low built buildings and lots of parking areas. Is this really Suffolk?
Base Commander, Brigadier General John W Hesterman
The Base Commander, Brigadier General John W Hesterman, told me that around 20,000 people live or work at RAF Lakenheath including 5000 US military, 2000 British Ministry of Defence personnel, about 400 contractors and 14-15,000 family members.
I asked him to explain the relationship between the twin airbases, apart from their geographical proximity and sharing of many domestic facilities.
"We have a power projection mission here at RAF Lakenheath," he said. "We have fighter aircraft that are designed to either control the air or augment the ground forces if called.
"We also have a rescue helicopter squadron here. Mildenhall, on the other hand, has a tanker force and they do air refuelling for the entire European Theatre. So it's not at all uncommon for us to work with them."
Many of the American personnel live off base in the surrounding towns and villages, and some of the children attend local schools. Once on the base there is everything to make them feel at home.
Angelina Quamina (second left)
Clubs and societies, a bowling alley, restaurants and bars, shops that stock familiar items from home and everything paid for in American dollars. There is a school for those who want their children educated in the American system, childcare facilities and a hospital.
Everyone I met seemed to be enjoying their two or three year tour of duty to Britain and some, including the Brigadier General and his wife, have been stationed in Suffolk before. Everyone jokes about the language difficulties, but it is obvious that the similarities between our two cultures make Suffolk a popular posting.
The team that helps newcomers settle in when first arriving in Suffolk includes Angelina Quamina, Base In-processing Manager. Angelina is a British woman who grew up in a RAF family and so appreciates what is needed to make a move abroad successful for all the family. Apparently some of the advice doesn't involve the practicalities of driving licenses, paperwork or shopping hours.
Stained glass at the RAF Lakenheath Chapel
"When people first arrive here they have usually come from a hot climate so at the airport they will have extra outer gear and what they do is to put their hoods up so they can keep nice and warm," she said.
"Being in England, the first thing people do is to see their hoods up and think they are about to do something! That doesn't come across as a good first impression, so we make sure they know."
The Chaplaincy truck
This is an expensive country for American people but bargains can be found at the base thrift shop and the donated items found for no cost at the "Airmans Attic" means that surplus clothes, televisions and beds are recycled among the families arriving and departing.
I visited the base chapel (actually more the size of a cathedral) just as the weekly lunch for newcomers was ending. The pastoral team of six chaplains praised the work of the three assistant chaplains and their huge team of volunteers. Together they can offer support to people of all faiths and denominations.
With the many Protestant and Catholic services and masses attracting congregations of a couple of hundred worshippers, around 2000 people coming through their doors each week, and visits to personnel at work around the airbase, it is a busy workload. So what do they see as their role?
Sgt Kevin Drake with his Boston Red Sox collection
"Our mandate is to meet the spiritual needs of the people who are serving in the airforce," said Head Chaplain Bruce Arnold. "We do that through three core processes and that is religious observances, through the pastoral care and counselling we provide and then we also advise our leadership."
Although there was no flying on the day that I went to RAF Lakenheath, after more than 70 F15s were grounded for safety checks, everywhere I went there was always a feeling that everyone knew what their role was, the defence of their nation and that meant times could be tough.
Baseball fanatic Sergeant Kevin Drake, surrounded by the Boston Red Sox memorabilia that adorns his office walls, pointed out to me what his role was.
Emily, Gabby and Jack
"Our number one resource in the air force is to have productive airmen out there and if they're not right mentally they can't do a good job for us. We make sure morale is high and they are happy and they are being well employed."
And that means supporting airmen and their families at times of real tragedy, or just when smaller worries arise. One memorable occasion saw a worried pet owner whose cat was stuck up a tree!
last updated: 04/07/2008 at 10:00