COURTESY PHOTO | Justin Kruel while stationed at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in April
At 30 years old, Air Force Tech Sgt. Justin Kruel has logged enough air miles to circle the world several times over. Since joining the branch’s security forces in 2001, one week before the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the Flanders native has been deployed seven times — three times to Iraq, twice to Afghanistan and once each to Kuwait and Qatar.
His most recent deployment was to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, which came under continual mortar and rocket fire from Taliban militants — including a deadly attack in June that took the lives of four U.S. servicemen.
Sgt. Kruel returned home safely to Flanders last Monday.
The News-Review caught up with him this week before he headed back to his base in Georgia to discuss his motivation for joining the military, hunting for Taliban operatives in Afghanistan and why the military offers more opportunities than some may think.
Q: When did you decide to join the military?
A: It was probably my senior year of high school. I hadn’t really planned on doing much after I graduated and my cousin joined a year before I did. So I ended up going to talk to a recruiter. My original plan was to go in as security forces, which is basically like an Air Force cop. I originally planned to go in and do four years, get out and be a civilian cop, but I ended up liking it so much I just decided to stay in.
Q: You’re a squad leader in the 822nd Base Defense Squadron. What is your unit’s mission?
A: Our main responsibility is to deploy. Basically I have 12 people who report straight to me and I run missions when we go off base.
Q: What was a typical patrol like?
A: We’d drive around and do disruption patrols so they didn’t have a chance to set up IDF [indirect fire]. We basically got so good at doing that, when it got warmer out they started setting up IEDs [improvised explosive devices] to try to blow up our trucks.
I worked from 9 at night until 9 o’clock in the morning. Basically, get to work at 9 o’clock, we do our mission briefing, we go downstairs, get in the trucks and then we were off base. We’d come back in for an hour to get a break between missions and then we’d be right back out … there were some nights where we were off base, we drove a few miles then we walked for five miles, depending on where the area was where we had to go through.
Q: And you’d get out of your armored trucks to search an area?
A: We’d have to dismount down into the river valleys and do sweeps of fields to try to find stuff. And I mean sometimes we found rockets that were just laid out waiting to get shot at base. And sometimes we didn’t find anything.
Q: How do you prepare for these dangerous missions?
A: I think a lot of it has to do with how many times you’ve been deployed and all the training our squadron does before to get prepared for it. Usually we get a tasking … so we cut a lot of other stuff out that we know we’re not going to need. A lot of other cop units when they’re home they’re doing a stateside mission where they’re either doing law enforcement or some type of security at whatever base they’re on. Our whole mission while we’re home is to train.
Q: You mentioned you plan to stay in the military until you can retire and recently re-enlisted for another six years. What do you find most rewarding about your role in security forces?
A: I find my job pretty rewarding just in itself. Just the things that I’ve experienced so far that nobody else back here [has]. Like friends and stuff like that, it’s hard for me to explain to them what I do. A lot of people don’t understand the concept that when I went to work when I was deployed I literally walked around Afghanistan looking for bad guys. They’re like, “Yeah, right. You didn’t do that.” That’s the stuff you see in the movies, but that’s what I do.
Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception about joining the military? Would you recommend people look into serving?
A: A lot of people, I don’t think, understand that there’s so many jobs in the Air Force. You don’t have to go into the Air Force to do something specific like a military type job … [People say] “I don’t want to join the military, I don’t want to shoot guns.” But you can join the military and go do something in the dental field or mental health.
An Air Force base or any kind of base is basically a kind of self-sustaining little town. We have a fire department, we have police, we have services that prepare food at all the chow halls. We basically have everything we need in one spot. There’s so many different jobs, if you just go talk to a recruiter and look into what you really want to do.”