From the Frontlines: Senior Airman Tara Loftin

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- Senior Airman Tara Loftin, 509th Force Support Squadron fitness specialist, was deployed to Southwest Asia from April to October 2012. While deployed, Loftin handled numerous responsibilities, primarily that of quality assurance evaluator for local nationals. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Nick Wilson) (Released)

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- Senior Airman Tara Loftin, 509th Force Support Squadron fitness specialist, was deployed to Southwest Asia from April to October 2012. While deployed, Loftin handled numerous responsibilities, primarily that of quality assurance evaluator for local nationals. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Nick Wilson) (Released)

WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- The Air Force offers Airmen many opportunities to Journey across the world. For Senior Airman Tara Loftin, 509th Force Support Squadron fitness specialist, the journey took her to Southwest Asia.

Leaving in April 2012 and returning in October, Loftin worked downrange as a quality assurance evaluator for six months. As a quality assurance inspector, Loftin worked in the dining facility and inspected the work of the host-nationals who prepared meals.

"Our job was to make sure contractors there were doing their job properly," Loftin said. "We had a performance work statement listing all of their duties as contractors."

Even though most of the host nationals spoke English, the cultural differences sometimes made it difficult to provide quality assurance, according to Loftin.

"They didn't know some of the things we do in the U.S. in regards to health and safety," Loftin said. "We had to ensure certain expectations were being met."

Since the Air Force has to prepare food with certain standards of cleanliness, it was important for Loftin to ensure local-nationals were meeting those expectations.

The importance of her mission was to ensure all aspects of the U.S. government's services contract were accounted for, according to Loftin.

"If something wasn't being done properly we had to perform write-ups and make sure it was brought to the attention of the contractors," Loftin said. "We had to make sure troops coming in had the best quality food and service that could be provided to them."

Loftin's day-to-day duties varied throughout the duration of her deployment. She worked the day shift the first half and the night shift the second half of her deployment.

"When I worked days, I checked the time and dates on all food items," Loftin said. "If the trash was overfilled, for example, I would make sure the contractor knew he needed to get someone to do that job."

In addition to providing quality assurance, Loftin escorted food trucks to and from the front gate of the installation.

"I also provided accountability for "Meals, Ready to Eat," that were delivered to our warehouse," Loftin said. "We controlled more than 3,000 MREs during my deployment."

While the dayshift demanded daily mission inspections, the nightshift was a different monster. During nightshift she was responsible for controlling the dining facility inventory and ensuring contractors could pass health inspections.

"We made sure expired food from the storage area was thrown out and incoming food was organized in first-in-first-out order," Loftin said. "The nightshift entailed a lot more organizing and making sure items were prepped for the busier dayshift."

From ensuring contractors were properly handling food by day, to inspecting inventory items at night, her deployed mission was completely different to her homestation mission at Whiteman. She worked in the dining facility while deployed and works in the fitness center at Whiteman.

"We don't have a contractor at Whiteman because we perform the mission," Loftin said. "It was difficult being deployed and not being able to do the job. I had times where I wanted to do things myself, but wasn't allowed to."

A big difference between her deployed mission and her homestation mission was that her job at Whiteman is more hands-on.

"The best part about my deployed job was seeing how many different countries we helped support," Loftin said. "It was really neat seeing our countries support each other."

Loftin said another good aspect of her deployment was having the ability to go outside the wire.

"It was a once in a lifetime experience," Loftin said. "We had the opportunity to go white-water rafting or horseback-riding. Being able to see how the locals lived was amazing."

In addition to getting a first-hand experience of the Southwest Asian culture during her downtime, Loftin also volunteered at two local kindergarten to twelfth-grade schools.

"We got to visit the children and see their schools," Loftin said. "While I was deployed, we raised more than $1,200 and provided them with soccer jerseys, winter jackets and school supplies."

Experiencing the quality of life for the host-nationals was a big eye-opener for Loftin. It helped her appreciate how privileged she was to live in the U.S. compared to how the life-style is for those less-fortunate.

Even though Loftin enjoyed her deployment, there were still things she missed besides friends and family.

"I missed real food that didn't come from the dining facility," Loftin said. "Also, in the dorms my bed was right next to the door, which slammed all night. Being able to sleep alone in my quiet bedroom was nice."

Overall the deployment to Southwest Asia was a learning experience for Loftin.

"The deployment was an excellent way for Loftin to gain a breath of experience," said Staff Sgt. Alaina Baldowski, 509th Force Support Squadron assistant lodging manager. "She won Airman of the Month while deployed and was picked number one out of 130 enlisted members for her excellent job performance, community involvement, volunteer efforts and self-improvement."

Taking advantage of working with the host-nation and being involved with sister-services was an opportunity for Loftin to gain leadership and team-building skills, according to Baldowski.

"My job at services gave me a greater sense of what I do for the Air Force," Loftin said. "Without services, Airmen wouldn't have a place to eat, sleep, work out or enjoy recreation."