By Carl Surran
Much of America was introduced to Lajes Field, the Azores, as the site of the March summit meeting where President Bush and the leaders of Great Britain, Spain and Portugal met to prepare for war in Iraq.
Lajes Field has only recently become known as a vital pit stop in the global war on terrorism. Actually, this floating gas station in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean has pumped fuel for fighters and transport aircraft for 60 years of military operations from the Berlin Airlift to Operation Iraqi Freedom, earning a reputation as the "crossroads of the Atlantic."
Home to the 65th Air Base Wing and U.S. Forces Azores, Lajes Field provides logistics support for more than 3,000 aircraft, including fighters from the United States and 20 allied nations, each year - the equivalent of an entire fighter squadron every three days.
Airmen in the unit perform every task imaginable, from air traffic control to replacing part of a flight control unit. Technicians pull oil samples out of every aircraft that passes through, analyzing them to make sure an engine won't break when the journey is resumed. If something is wrong, the problem is fixed.
But if you step away from the boom and bustle of the base and venture into the surrounding countryside, you'll think you stepped back in time.
Old World Charm
About 1,000 servicemembers are stationed at Lajes Field on the northeast tip of a tiny island called Terceira, one of nine that make up the Azores. The island measures roughly 12 miles by 20 miles, and is located some 2,200 miles east of New York City and nearly 900 miles west of Lisbon, Portugal. The Azores are a part of Portugal, and the U.S. military is a tenant on what's known to the Portuguese military as Base Area #4.
Each of the Azores islands is a mini-paradise, with incredible ocean views everywhere. Terceira residents enjoy a temperate climate all year round, with highs averaging in the mid 70s during the summer and low 60s in winter. Although the winter months are often windy and stormy, the temperature rarely dips below 45, so the Terceira Island Golf Club, jointly headed by a board comprised of Portuguese and Americans, always stays open.
Opportunities for outdoor activities - horseback riding, hiking, camping, mountain climbing, all-terrain bicycling, golfing, sailing, diving, windsurfing, deep-sea fishing, whale and dolphin watching, and then some - are ever present.
But surprisingly, tourism is almost nonexistent on Terceira. There are no huge resort hotels, and no commercial American airlines fly to Terceira.
Dairy farming and fishing are the island's major industries, just as they were 300 years ago. The population of the two largest towns on the island, Angra do Heroismo and Praia de Vitoria, totals just 14,000 and 9,000, respectively.
The occasional traffic jam is far more likely to be caused by a farmer's cows lazily crossing the street than by urban gridlock.
Cultural and religious festivals, some based on traditions dating back hundreds of years, abound in even the smallest towns during spring and summer. Residents line the narrow cobblestone streets and sit on the rooftops of their villages to watch weekly street bullfights.
Except for the towns and the tiny Mediterranean-style hamlets, the hilly landscape is a lush, green patchwork of fields dotted with the white silhouettes of dairy cows, divided by stone fences and narrow, winding roads that crisscross the island. Terceira is almost entirely bordered by high cliffs, adding to the spectacular scenery. Factories and smokestacks are nowhere to be found.
A Remote Outpost
For all its natural beauty, however, there's no denying the remoteness of this duty station. Unlike other European stations where a servicemember can easily drive a car or hop on a train to thousands of tourist sites, the choices are far more limited at Terceira. Thus, for some, the assignments on Lajes Field - airmen serve either 15-month or two-year tours, depending on whether or not they bring families - can seem long. The adjustment is especially difficult for young, single airmen.
Forget about everyday American comforts like fast-food restaurants and sprawling shopping malls. Internet shopping is big at Lajes because, for one thing, there's no other way for parents to buy the toys their kids really want.
The cost of living is relatively inexpensive, however, as long as the family shops on base. For example, the price of gasoline on base is comparable to that in the U.S. because AAFES purchases it at a significant discount. Off base, gas can cost more than $4 a gallon.
The base offers spacious, well-maintained housing, and new units are being built through 2007. But until this construction is complete, on-base housing is at a premium and new arrivals should expect a wait of two to six months before securing an opening. Off-base housing, while very affordable, is smaller than U.S. standards and most lack basic amenities like central heating. (Air conditioning is rare and isn't really needed, but the humid climate makes a dehumidifier a prized possession.) Most rentals are up to eight miles from the base, so newcomers should arrange for their car to be shipped as early as possible.
The base has some fine facilities, such as family support and education centers, laundry/dry cleaner, chapel, library, post office, radio/television station and movie theater. Recreational facilities include several well-lighted tennis courts, racquetball courts, gymnasium with weight room, bowling alley, softball fields, skating rink, outdoor pool, and a youth center. A skate park for skateboarders and rollerbladers is in the works.
Nevertheless, the small base population and space restrict the offerings in the commissary and Base Exchange. Medical and dental care is limited, and emergency medical needs are handled through the island's Portuguese hospital or the medical aerovac system.
The local currency is the euro. The exchange rate changes each business day and is affected by the strength of the U.S. dollar in foreign money markets. (The dollar is the medium of exchange on base.) Pentagon Federal Credit Union has a branch at Lajes, but does not provide cash services. However, the credit union processes loans, handles accounts and provides cashier's checks that may be cashed elsewhere on base.
Employment opportunities for spouses, as at many overseas bases, are severely limited. Only 110 U.S.-funded positions at Lajes are potentially available to spouses, and some of those require employees with unique skills or experience, so there is always a waiting list for any remaining slots. Typically, only a handful of contractor and instructor jobs are available at any time. The reality is that most military families must make ends meet on a single income.
Forming Close Bonds
Despite the hardships - or perhaps because of them - Lajes Field boasts a strong camaraderie that is hard to find at other bases. At this small outpost, one gets the sense that everybody knows everybody, from the lowest ranking airman to the wing commander.
Once a person living on Terceira has seen and done everything on the island - which doesn't take long - boredom can set in. So Americans living there turn to each other, often forming close bonds.
That camaraderie extends to the island's Portuguese hosts. Cooperation between Americans and the Portuguese locals is harmonious, as American personnel work side by side with their Portuguese civilian and military counterparts.
Similarly, the old world and the new world work together in harmony at this unique locale. Terceira is a land of extreme contrasts - futuristic aircraft and state-of-the-art technology coexisting with farmers and herders tending their fields and flocks. For military families, Lajes Field is an assignment of potentially extreme ups and downs - endearing and charming but, for some, isolated and boring.
The challenge of this quiet spot, as at any remote assignment, is for each person to make the best of it - even enjoy it - before encountering the high-speed nitty-gritty he or she may find at the next base.