Billie and Shawn Hamby are a modern military family. The couple has 42 years of combined service in the Air Force and they were both deployed in conflicts from the first Persian Gulf War to the Global War on Terrorism.
The Hambys both enlisted in the Air Force immediately after graduating high school. Shawn Hamby landed in Germany for his first assignment in 1991 and Billie Hamby was stationed at the same base two years later. The couple married and had their first child in Germany.
For the next two decades, Billie and Shawn Hamby raised a family on military bases around the country and across the globe. They were each deployed to combat zones several times. Luckily, their unit never sent both parents at the same time, so while one parent was overseas, the other was in charge of family duties.
Being away from family was hard and people often asked them how they managed to raise a family while both parents were in the service.
“We didn’t know any better,” Shawn Hamby said, “We didn’t have an experience of life outside the military until we retired.”
Billie Hamby added that the distance provided a new perspective for her, making her “appreciate what I have back home.”
The Air Force was always there to help and Billie Hamby said that the other servicemen and women in their unit were like an extended family.
“We had our first kid in Germany, far from our families,” Shawn Hamby said, “But everyone in our unit stepped up to help. We didn’t have to furnish our first house because our neighbors ended up giving us so many things.”
Shawn Hamby’s first deployment was in Ta’if, Saudi Arabia, in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm. He specialized in computers and worked on a team that flew U2 spy planes over Iraq. The plane’s cockpit was built in a way that prevented the pilot from seeing the runway during takeoff and landing, Hamby said. So the high-tech planes had to be guided up and down the runway by “souped-up Mustangs” racing along at 150 mph in the desert heat, he added. Pogo sticks held the wings up and a Chevy crew cab followed behind the convoy to pick the sticks up.
Hamby’s second deployment was to Bosnia as part of the NATO peacekeeping force during the Kosovo Crisis. Bosnia still showed the scars of its recent war-torn past. Marble was the biggest import into Sarajevo because it was needed for the many headstones, Hamby said. The former Olympic field in Sarajevo was a cemetery. Active minefields existed all over the place. NATO teams frequently dug up mass graves.
“Seeing these things – there’s no way to describe it,” Hamby said.
Billie Hamby’s first deployment was to Kuwait in 2005 as the insurgency against American troops in Iraq intensified. This was the first time Hamby had been in the Middle East when a war was going on. She said it was frightening landing the first night in full combat readiness, with body armor on and the windows sealed.
While Kuwait was outside the war-zone raging in Iraq, danger always lurked. Terrorists attacked U.S. bases and targets in Kuwait. Hamby said that she and her unit always had to be on high alert.
“One minute you’re working out or going about your business,” she said. “The next minute the alarms go off and you go into full combat mode.”
Like her husband, Hamby specialized in computers and communications. In Kuwait, she worked as a “moral supporter,” maintaining Internet and phone services on base so soldiers could communicate with loved ones at home.
Hamby describes her experience in Kuwait as “eye opening.” In 2005, the main base was still primitive and all soldiers lived in tents, dealing with a constant barrage of sand. There was no plumbing. Trees and green grass were scarce. When she left the base, Hamby had to follow the strict Islamic codes of the country. She had to fully cover up, was forbidden from speaking to local men and was not allowed to drive.
Hamby returned to Kuwait for a second deployment in 2008. The base had improved dramatically, with dorms instead of tents, plumbing, a movie theatre and a gym. But the sense of danger still pervaded. During her second tour, terrorists blew up a dining hall down the road from where Hamby was stationed.
Shawn Hamby served on two additional deployments to Iraq in 2008 and 2010. He was a member of an air control squadron stationed out of Balad Air Base, 25 miles north of Baghdad. His squadron worked to set up small air bases in forward positions outfitted with temporary runways and control towers. Only three of these specialized squadrons operated during the Iraq War, Hamby said.
Between his times in Iraq, Hamby spent a brief period in Afghanistan on “site visits” to check out air facilities. He and his unit were on full alert and had to sleep in level-four body armor every night.
“I didn’t sleep for five days in Afghanistan,” he said. “Everything was so sketchy. A local guy might be your friend one day and the next day shoot you in the back.”
Hamby also served on one deployment in the small African country of Djibouti, near the war-torn region of Somalia.
Hamby said that all of his deployments had a silver lining because of the fascinating and historically important places he was able to see. He visited the sail-shaped Burj al Arab in Dubai – one of the world’s tallest hotels. In Sarajevo, he stayed at the same hotel where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was lodging in 1914 before he was assassinated, setting off World War I.