Getting thousands of airmen-in-training (AiTs) home for the holidays is a process that begins long before the first gift is wrapped.
Coordinating travel plans so that about 3,000 airmen-in-training can go home for the holidays.
At Sheppard Air Force Base there are more than 4,000 AiTs, most of which will be leaving the base in massive numbers Thursday and Friday in an event called Exodus.
Ashley Stewart, SAFB Information, Tickets and Travel office manager, said her team started in August to get everything in order for Exodus.
They arrange bus travel plans for about 2,500 AiTs to take them to various airports. AiTs travel by air, bus, train and some catch a ride home with their parents.
A majority of AiTs take leave for about 10 days.
Airmen who stay on base through the holidays can participate in numerous activities to pass the time.
Stewart said there is a big Christmas dinner open to any base personnel and their families.
Airmen can go on trips throughout the week to local entertainment venues, watch movies play game marathons, or just hang out in their rooms and relax.
Some of these airmen have not been home since beginning basic training, Stewart said, and it is rewarding for her to help them get home to their families.
“Some of them had never traveled before that first flight from home to basic. This helps get them used to military travel, something that they will deal with for the rest of their careers,” she said.
There are airmen who plan special surprises when they see family, some proposing or even getting married during the break. Stewart said her office staff love to see all their excited faces and they enjoy begin a part of this happy time.
Sheppard has been doing Exodus for 30 years. With new AiTs, different military and civilian personnel – each year is a challenge. This is Stewart’s second Exodus. One change is a big increase in the number of AiTs on the base. Last year, there were about 2,500 students and this year that number nearly doubled to more than 4,000.
Like a smooth-running machine, several departments from all over Sheppard coordinate to get the AiTs to their holiday destinations.
Tech. Sgt. Katelynn Brooks, wing military training leader, said her office works for months preparing with other base agencies to get the thousands of airmen on the road within a 12-hour time frame. She said they will work long hours Thursday, turn over the operation to another team for a few hours, then come back in the early morning hours to make arrangements for the AiTs who are not leaving.
With nearly double the AiTs coming through the base, Brooks said they were aware of the increased number several months ahead of time and started work sooner to compensate.
This is her third year at Sheppard, and Brooks said Exodus is her favorite time of the year. She recalled an airmen who came by earlier in the day and said he was looking forward to surprising his grandmother, who did not know he was coming home.
She said these airmen work hard training and studying for months, and this break helps them rejuvenate and come back better than ever.
Spending time with family and taking a short break from training is important said Airman First Class Luke Vandenbogaerde. The 21-year-old has been stationed at Sheppard a little over a year and his helping the wing MTL office with Exodus.
Since Sheppard is a training base, there are many more AiTs who leave for the holidays than other bases. Vandenbogaerde said at his previous base, there were only about 300 people taking holiday leave. Being one of those young airmen not too long ago, he said he did not think about the work that goes into putting a process like that together.
“I just filled out the forms in my packet, had some cookies and waited to leave,” he said.
Now as an organizer, Vandenbogaerde said he understands how much work goes into it and can appreciate how well all the different areas of the base work together to make it happen.
“For some airmen they saw some of their family at basic, but they could not see their whole family. Now they can see their families and share what they have done and the family can see how they have progressed,” he said.
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