By Master Sgt. Kevin Wallace, 366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published January 22, 2013
MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- He fought among unfamiliar brothers and then returned to heal alone.
He was misunderstood, he said, feeling "leadership had no idea."
Combat wasn't easy for Tech. Sgt. James Zientek, yet the Air Force learned from the lessons security forces Airmen taught.
As a squad leader in Iraq, Zientek, a 366th Security Forces Squadron flight chief and 11-year Air Force veteran, led a 16-person team patrolling towns and villages near Baghdad.
The Defender's combat experience wasn't trial by fire; rather it was a culmination of multiple deployments and extensive preparation.
As an airman first class, Zientek first deployed to Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, in 2003. After PSAB, he permanently changed station to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, where he was exposed to a plethora of training opportunities.
"I was an instructor in Germany at the 786th SFS and was able to attend training exercises all over Germany and deploy to many locations in Africa," said Zientek. "We conducted missions ranging from medical care to assisting the 10th Special Forces Group in securing their compound."
In 2007 Zientek deployed to Camp Bucca, Iraq, where he was part of a quick-reaction force, tasked with patrolling areas outside the wire around the camp's perimeter.
When troops came under attack, it was Zientek's team who'd scurry to gear up and then rush to aid.
"We worked side-by-side with the Iraqi Army in attempt to counter any threats in the area," said Zientek, whose duties often meant responding to improvised-explosive devices and unexploded ordnance.
Exposure to constant IED and UXO threats helped prepare Zientek for his most kinetic deployment, which was a 365-day tour to Iraq.
In January 2009, Zientek deployed to a forward operating base south of Baghdad and during the last six months of that deployment, relocated to Camp Stryker.
Several days were kinetic and there was a drastic variance of experiences during his deployment, but Zientek most-often reflects on the day his team lost 1st Lt. Joseph Helton, Jr., to an IED blast.
Helton, an Air Force Academy graduate from Monroe, Ga., was the first Air Force security forces officer to be killed in Iraq.
Since his death, Zientek has become very close to Helton's father, Joey, who lives in Seattle, about an 11-hour drive from Mountain Home Air Force Base.
Army and Marine Corps units typically train as a team, deploy as a team, fight as a team, and return to home station to readjust as a team. For Airmen, the process is often quite different.
Airmen often leave home station in a small group or as an individual, train with the Army during Combat Skills Training, deploy to a unit they're unfamiliar with, then return to the Air Force unit alone or with that small group.
Aside from Helton's death, Zientek said he feels the worst day of his deployment was returning to Baltimore International Airport with the brothers he grew close to during the year-long deployment, then going their separate ways in Baltimore with only hopes that they'll meet again.
"Some of us have been through many trials and tribulations," said Zientek. "Still, I know there are folks out there who have it way worse than we do."
Zientek said he feels the Air Force did little to prepare his team for war, but recognizes vast improvements in the process today.
"When I left, leadership had no idea. When I came back, there was never a question asked about what we'd been through while downrange," said Zientek, reflecting on his 2007 deployment. "There was an issue of the Air Force not knowing how to handle this Army-like mission we were doing."
The Air Force then reacted and sent a team of doctors to attend the security forces pre-deployment training at Fort Bliss, Texas. After training, Zientek assumed the time he spent with the doctors was documented and complete, and that the Air Force was studying the lessons learned.
Then something strange happened.
"They actually flew the same doctors out to Baghdad for follow-up research with us, and once we all returned, they brought us all down to Lackland (Air Force Base, Texas,) to reveal all their research and the effects deployment had on us," said Zientek.
In war, things can change rapidly. Airmen must be fully prepared for anything that comes their way.
For Zientek, one major challenge is preparing Airmen because he doesn't like to talk about his experiences, he said.
Yet he realizes he needs to help Defenders junior to him to become resilient and able to endure war.
With a nod to steps the Air Force has taken to solidify resiliency and identify post-traumatic stress disorder, Defenders can walk with more confidence than they did in some of Zientek's earlier deployments.
Editor's note: This is part 3 of series on 366th SFS Defenders. Be prepared to read the riveting stories of Staff Sgt. Matthew Smith, Tech. Sgt. Francis Woznick, Master Sgt. Ryan Glosson, Senior Master Sgt. David Williams, Joshua Williams and other brave Defenders in the coming weeks.