SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE — The Air Force cargo planes bearing their sacred payloads touch down here often, sometimes several times a week.
The planes are headed west from Dover, Del., en route to the final resting places of the fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines whose flag-draped coffins occupy the cargo holds.
As the planes refuel at Scott for the final legs of their journeys, airmen from the base take up sentry positions around the aircraft, allowing the uniformed men and women who serve as escorts for the fallen to leave the planes for a meal and a break.
For Col. David L. Almand, the commander of the 375th Air Mobility Wing, this is some of the most important work taking place at Scott.
"We bring everyone home," Almand said. "And we don't leave them alone until we've taken them to their family."
Memorial Day occurs once a year in the civilian world. But it's a different story at Scott, whose personnel are continually reminded of the human toll the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost this nation.
In this connection, Almand mentioned the effect of the death last month of Capt. Brandon Cyr, 28, who died when the MC-12 surveillance plane he was piloting crashed near Kandahar Airfield, in Afghanistan. Three other members of Cyr's air crew died in the crash.
Before volunteering for the deployment to Afghanistan, the popular and athletic Cyr served as an instructor-pilot on the KC-135 air tankers assigned to the 126th Air Refueling Wing, based at Scott.
Losing an officer like Cyr "is no different than any losing a family member, a member of your organization," Almand said. "It's very hard and personal. He was a great young officer. Our nation's best."
When asked how he dealt with the loss of comrades such as Cyr, Almand thought hard for a few seconds.
"We honor them by carrying on where they left off," he said.
Such thoughts weigh heavily on Almand as he and his family prepare to say good-bye to Scott. After only a year as commander of the 375th Air Mobility Wing, which oversees Scott Air Force Base, Almand is getting ready for his next assignment: Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C.
Almand's exit becomes official with a change-of-command ceremony June 14.
As the incoming commander of the 89th Airlift Wing, Almand will oversee one of the most prestigious -- and pressure-filled -- assignments in the U.S. military: logistics and communications support for the Boeing VC-25A airliner with the iconic call sign of Air Force One, the plane that ferries President Barack Obama and his staff around the globe.
The wing also provides airlift capability for Vice President Joe Biden and a Who's Who of other top government and military leaders.
A 1990 graduate of the Air Force Academy, and a command pilot with more than 4,100 flight hours, the Midland, Texas, native clearly relishes the challenge of his new assignment, even if it means uprooting his wife, Cathy, and their two young sons from their lives in the metro-east.
"Even though it's been a year, it feels like we've planted roots," said Almand, 45. "So it's sad to leave this community."
One of the big lessons Almand said he learned during his year as Scott's commander concerns the nature of the tight bond that has formed between the base and metro-east communities since 1917, when Scott began its existence as a training site for World War I pilots.
"There is absolutely no other community or Air Force base that I've been at that is like this," he said. "It not only has a current great relationship, but has had one for so long. Absolutely how the community is so intertwined with the base, and in a positive way."
Almand called Scott "a national treasure." Why?
Because "the global impact that Scott Air Force Base has on global air mobility operations," he said. "No other country has it, and we don't have it anywhere else. But it's the sum of the whole of Scott Air Force Base that's just unbelievable."
Even so, Almand is eager to get started at Andrews.
"Command is a unique and incredible opportunity and a privilege," he said. "It reflects on what (senior Air Force leaders) value. And a lot of that is experience ... We don't want to put you in charge of our airmen without having given you the experience in other jobs to be prepared for that. But to get that experience you move around a lot."
Almand gained plenty of experience dealing with high-pressure situations during his year at Scott, the home for several major military commands, as well as two four-star generals and at least 30 other senior military officers with the equivalent rank of one-star general and above.
As if dealing with the demands of trying to please so much top brass wasn't hard enough, Almand also had to manage the fallout from the sudden, and steep, spending cuts caused by the federal budget sequester, which took effect March 1.
As a result, Almand and his staff had to get creative with ways to keep the base looking good at the same time they're under pressure to cut the base's operations and maintenance expenditures.
The big question of the day: "So how we can simplify it and still keep it looking appropriately professional and nice?" Almand said.
"We've been smarter than we used to be," he said. "An example of that is we have eliminated as many flower beds as possible ... We're letting the grass grow longer than we used to and mowing less often and letting some areas return to nature."
Meanwhile, base leaders are bracing for the effect of 4,500 civilian workers at the base being forced to take 11 unpaid furlough days beginning next month because of the sequester. Nearly 700,000 Defense Department employees will be forced to take unpaid time off.
Just as difficult, though, has been the uncertainty that has accompanied the big budget cuts, which, among other things, slashed by 50 percent the number of training hours for Scott air crews.
"The challenge right now, with budget uncertainty, is how do we ensure our young airmen are prepared to go do what we may ask them to do?" Almand said. "That's my No. 1 responsibility as wing commander, is to organize, train and equip airmen so when tasked by the president or requested by the combatant commanders, that we're going to send them prepared for what they may be asked to do."
The biggest crisis Almand had to handle during his tenure as Scott's commander was the flooding that hit the base April 18.
Five inches of rain fell, overwhelming the banks of Silver Creek, flooding streets and major buildings and turning parking lots into small lakes.
Almand recounted with pride the response of his troops to that day.
"By six o'clock that evening people were in full force cleaning up, helping each other, ripping carpet out of flooded buildings and securing furniture," Almand said. "And never any thought of giving up ... Their resiliency and the positive attitude of Scott team members continues to amaze me every day."
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at email@example.com or 618-239-2533.