“The Last Journey”

#3 “ The Pax-Men”


July 26, 2010...Ramstein Air Base, pax terminal…In years past, I spent quite some time working ground operations for a very large helicopter company in Hawaii.  I obtained that job in 1992 and started in Hilo, Hawaii, at the international airport there.  In short, my job was to take care of passengers on and off the aircraft as well as coordinating their flights.  It was a very demanding job but one I thoroughly enjoyed.  To this day, I’m still very close friends with one of the owners of Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, who now operate over 20-tour helicopters on four different islands in Hawaii.  It was very good training for me and to this day it has taught me much about how to handle passengers.  In subsequent years to follow, I did a similar but more stringent type job for the US military during combat operations in Balad, Iraq in the years 2004-2006.  Once again I was handling passengers moving on and off aircraft, only they were not on vacation, they were in the war zone. 


Today, I am at the mercy of the “pax-men” here in Ramstein, Germany, as they handle all kinds of passengers going to and from this aerial port while others such as myself try to catch a hop into the war zone.  It’s a very long and difficult process, but one I am somewhat familiar with.  If anywhere there was ever the cliché, “hurry up and wait,” this would be that experience.  It’s just the way it is but it does have its rewards at some point in time.  So, today, with nothing but time on my hands, I decided to focus in on two Airmen that are doing their jobs in a very busy setting here at the pax terminal in Ramstein.  The first one is 30-year-old SSgt Merrill Slepica and 20-year-old Roberto Gonzales.  Both are under the direction of SMSgt. Richard Rizzo, known as “Riz” to anyone and everyone who eventually comes in contact with him.  Riz is the Superintendant of the terminal and is pretty much the man who sets the professional tone for all those under his direction. 


When I inquired as to writing a story about some men under his supervison, I specifically asked to focus in on at least one young Airman.  He emailed me back and was all for the idea.  In his email he mentioned to me that each day he comes to work he strives to make a difference in at least four or five people a day who need that extra bit of time.  Asking around a bit I came to find out that all the people I spoke with agreed that “Riz really loves his job and is very, very good at it”.  In my brief time in dealing with SMSgt Rizzo, over the course of many emails and then meeting him in person, I have to concurr with all those that spoke about him.  He’s good, and the United States Air Force is lucky to have him out front and center in one of the top pax terminals throughout the entire global system of Air Force terminals. 


SSgt Merril Slepica hails from Las Vegas, Nevada.  At 30, he’s got some time in the Air Force, (eight years already) and is for sure on a track to do at least twenty.  He loves his job and his positive attitude shows it.  Slepica has been in the air trans operations here in Ramstein for the past five years.  Previous duty stations included San Antonio, Japan and a stint in Afghanistan during the years 2007-2008.  He has dealt with a wide range of services in this career field, (2T2-71) but his first love in the Air Force is that of parachute rigging.  He’s currently on track to be stationed in Al Udeid and will be involved in training those under him to carry on his high quality of professionalism. 


When asked what it is that makes his job here so meaningful, SSgt. Slepica replied with a serious look, “ Everything I do here is related to the entire big picture. When I send someone down range or a pallet with supplies for the war fighters, or a dependent of one of the war fighters, I become one intently with that portion of the mission and support it with my whole being”.  He goes on to say, “I love this country with all I’ve got and to serve everyone is what I’m all about.” 


Slepica went on to tell me how the Air Force has given him direction and discipline and that he feels quite blessed to be in the right place at the right time in his life.  SSgt. Merrill Slepica is married to his wife Amanda and they have one son, two and half years old.


The next person that caught my eye is 20-year-old Airman Roberto Gonzales, from Brownsville, Texas.  He’s small in stature, quite trim and looks extremely sharp in his blues.  He’s a southpaw and handles all kinds of manifesting paperwork and has to deal directly with the public throughout a fair portion of his work day.  He joined the Air Force right after high school and at twenty years old, he already has two years of service under his belt.  He projects a youthful grin about him with an air of confidence behind his measured speaking, when he handles literally scores of inquiries in a days work. 



Roberto is extremely well mannered and smiles as I take him to a quieter place to ask him some questions about how he decided to join the Air Force at such a young age.  He tells me with another grin, “I had heard that there were good opportunities and that finances for college education in the future would be available”.  Gonzales is the second of three children, having an older sister above him and a younger brother below him.  He comes from a typical tight south Texas Hispanic home where wealth was found not in bank accounts but rather in family traditions.  He tells me an interesting story about having learned teamwork from playing in a band with his younger brother.  Gonzales played clarinet throughtout his school years but really enjoyed “jamming’ with his brother Pedro who played bass guitar while Roberto played lead guitar.  Once again that grin appeared as he smiled relaying the story about playing music with his sibling. 


Ramstein Air Base passenger terminal is Gonzales’ first assignment station.  He originally came into the Air Force as an open mechanic but someone above him in the Air Force must have noticed his professional people skills which is a dire requirement for handling passengers in an Air Force pax terminal.  He tells me he’s a people person and that although he did not choose this field, he’s accelled in it quite well.  Gonzales, who is proficient in two languages has had ample opportunity to exercise his Spanish speaking ability with many, many passengers during his time here in Ramstein. 


I asked 20-year-old Airman Roberto Gonzales if he will make a career out of the Air Force.  He looked at me once again, smiling and said, “right now I’m taking it one year at a time”.  I mentioned to him if he had ever heard of US Army four star General Ricardo Sanchez, (retired) who hails from Gonzales’ neck of the woods in south Texas.  He replied he had not.  I took a good hard look at this young Airman and inside I would not be surprised to see him go just as far as General Sanchez did.  Must be something in those good south Texas grapefruits that helps produce good men fit for service to their country.


I’ve been waiting here in Ramstein now for what seems like an eternity.  All along, I also have been taking note of how things operate here in the pax terminal.  All in all, if I have to wait anywhere for a flight into the war zone, being here has turned into a good thing just getting to know briefly those under SMSgt Rizzo’s direction.  Passengers coming through the pax terminal at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, can count themselves blessed to be waited upon by the likes of SSGT Merrill Slepica and Airman Roberto Gonzales, both serving their country with a high degree of professionalism while at the same time taking care of restless passengers one at a time all day and night long. 


The “Pax-Men” got it under control.  They’ll get you on your way.  Enjoy the wait, it’s a good place.

Jim Spiri

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