Photographer's insight: Personal experiences at Eifel Thunder 2011

GEROLSTEIN, Germany –Airmen from the 606th Air Control Squadron line up for breakfast as part of exercise Eifel Thunder 2011 here May 10. The 606th ACS participated in a field exercise that tested their ability to deploy and set up a deployed radar and satellite communications site as well as everything else required to accomplish their mission.  The squadron returned to Spangdahlem Air Base May 16. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Nick Wilson)

GEROLSTEIN, Germany –Airmen from the 606th Air Control Squadron line up for breakfast as part of exercise Eifel Thunder 2011 here May 10. The 606th ACS participated in a field exercise that tested their ability to deploy and set up a deployed radar and satellite communications site as well as everything else required to accomplish their mission. The squadron returned to Spangdahlem Air Base May 16. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Nick Wilson)

GEROLSTEIN, Germany – Staff Sgt. Dustin Smith, 606th Air Control Squadron power production journeyman, shaves using the side view mirror of a Humvee while participating in exercise Eifel Thunder 2011 here May 10. The 606th ACS participated in a field exercise that tested their ability to deploy and set up a deployed radar and satellite communications site as well as everything else required to accomplish their mission. The squadron returned to Spangdahlem Air Base May 16. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Nick Wilson)

GEROLSTEIN, Germany – Staff Sgt. Dustin Smith, 606th Air Control Squadron power production journeyman, shaves using the side view mirror of a Humvee while participating in exercise Eifel Thunder 2011 here May 10. The 606th ACS participated in a field exercise that tested their ability to deploy and set up a deployed radar and satellite communications site as well as everything else required to accomplish their mission. The squadron returned to Spangdahlem Air Base May 16. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Nick Wilson)

GEROLSTEIN, Germany –Airman 1st Class Derek Paterson, 606th Air Control Squadron radio frequency transmission systems journeyman, shuffles cards during some downtime during exercise Eifel Thunder 2011 here May 10. The 606th ACS participated in a field exercise that tested their ability to deploy and set up a deployed radar and satellite communications site as well as everything else required to accomplish their mission. The squadron returned to Spangdahlem Air Base May 16. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Nick Wilson)

GEROLSTEIN, Germany –Airman 1st Class Derek Paterson, 606th Air Control Squadron radio frequency transmission systems journeyman, shuffles cards during some downtime during exercise Eifel Thunder 2011 here May 10. The 606th ACS participated in a field exercise that tested their ability to deploy and set up a deployed radar and satellite communications site as well as everything else required to accomplish their mission. The squadron returned to Spangdahlem Air Base May 16. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Nick Wilson)

GEROLSTEIN, Germany – Airman 1st Class David Contreras, 606th Air Control Squadron ground radar technician, throws a softball during some downtime during exercise Eifel Thunder 2011 here May 10. The 606th ACS participated in a field exercise that tested their ability to deploy and set up a deployed radar and satellite communications site as well as everything else required to accomplish their mission. The squadron returned to Spangdahlem Air Base May 16. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Nick Wilson)

GEROLSTEIN, Germany – Airman 1st Class David Contreras, 606th Air Control Squadron ground radar technician, throws a softball during some downtime during exercise Eifel Thunder 2011 here May 10. The 606th ACS participated in a field exercise that tested their ability to deploy and set up a deployed radar and satellite communications site as well as everything else required to accomplish their mission. The squadron returned to Spangdahlem Air Base May 16. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Nick Wilson)

SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- "I love you, Trey," I said.

"Gaahh," my 2-month-old son said with a big smile on his face while squeezing the blood circulation out of my index finger and rapidly kicking his fat little legs as if he was running a marathon.

I could feel a couple of tears slowly trickling down my cheeks like rain drops on a windshield before I kissed my wife goodbye and departed for a one week exercise called "Eifel Thunder" in Gerolstein, Germany. The purpose of the exercise was for Airmen to live and work in an isolated location as if they were on a real deployment.

I met up with members from the 606th Air Control Squadron at their main building before joining the 20-vehicle convoy of trucks that would soon depart for Gerolstein. Upon arrival, I was issued a folder containing convoy information and a $600 radio that I would be liable for if it was lost or broken.

The convoy out to the site was pretty fun. I got to radio in, "Charlie 19 passed checkpoint," every time we passed a checkpoint en route to our final destination. I was also able to spot a major hot brake malfunction because I was driving behind an Airman whose rear brakes were so hot I could smell the burning inside my government-owned vehicle with my windows closed.

Why is the brake issue so important? The entire convoy had to stop because I told the Airmen in the truck ahead of me about the brake issue. Eventually it was fixed, but it could have been worse if I didn't notice or say anything about it. About a half an hour later, another truck had to break away from the convoy due to maintenance issues. The Airmen in the truck in front of me stayed back to help. With effective radio communication, the two trucks were able to get back on course and rejoin the convoy.

Once I arrived to Gerolstein, the weather was sweltering but beautiful, and the view on the field we put our tents and equipment on was breathtaking. There was a small village surrounded by hills and a castle shadowed the village like a king on a podium towering a crowd.

Unfortunately, the weather wasn't the same at night. The temperature dropped down to what felt like freezing, and the physical training gear and sleeping bag I brought to sleep in just weren't cutting it. So I wrapped my legs and body in my shower towel and zipped my sleeping bag all the way up so I looked like I was hibernating in a cocoon all night - and I was still cold! The next time I slept, I was in full ABUs and cold weather gear.

My time there was productive, yet exhausting. I took photos and caption information day and night, trying to capture every aspect of the exercise I possibly could. I also got to build tents, sew camouflage and learn important lessons from experienced Airmen and NCOs about combat medical triage, interrogation for base security, and the mission of the 606th ACS as a whole.

In addition to taking three-minute showers, building and sleeping in tents, eating Meals Ready to Eat, and all the other experiences I had made Eifel Thunder 2011 made me feel like I was an actual combat cameraman on a real deployment.

On the fourth day, when I finally returned to Spangdahlem Air Base, I came back with a sense of appreciation for all of those who are deployed and have lost their lives while serving on an actual deployment. I know that what I experienced is like a walk in Disney World compared to the real thing.