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Destination: Manas

Inlander staff photographer Young Kwak flies to Kyrgyzstan, home away from home for Fairchild's refueling tankers

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Thirty hours. Fourteen time zones. A whole other world.

I'm on a military-hosted media trip, flying from Fairchild Air Force Base to the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan. The center houses KC-135 aerial refueling tankers from Fairchild and acts as a transit point for troops going in and out of Afghanistan. At least for now. Last summer, the Kyrgyz parliament voted to end the lease agreement with the U.S. government in 2014, and the fate of the tankers isn't yet clear.

My mission here is simple: Document the base, and the men and women who keep it running, far from home and their families. Over seven days in mid-December, I'll meet those who have been deployed for the first time and others who have been to Manas time and again. And after a grueling flight home, I'll see families reunited on the runway after months apart. In between, everything else: refueling missions, troops fresh from Afghanistan packing for home, long flights, sleeping on the floor of tankers, big skies, bigger mountains, hustling, waiting, security checks, a fenced-in slice of America in the middle of Central Asia. A trip there and back. ♦

The late afternoon sky at Fairchild before our initial flight, with our military liaisons and fellow journalists. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • The late afternoon sky at Fairchild before our initial flight, with our military liaisons and fellow journalists.
Before reaching Manas, the plane stopped over at a base in England. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Before reaching Manas, the plane stopped over at a base in England.
YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
Major Robert Mehan — stationed at Dobbins Air Reserve Base outside of Atlanta, Georgia — waits to disembark at the Transit Center at Manas, having flown from Fairchild to England before reaching Kyrgyzstan. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Major Robert Mehan — stationed at Dobbins Air Reserve Base outside of Atlanta, Georgia — waits to disembark at the Transit Center at Manas, having flown from Fairchild to England before reaching Kyrgyzstan.
Sunset over Manas. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Sunset over Manas.
YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
Marine Sgt. Lloyd Beckford checks his rifle during a customs briefing, the first step to going home from a combat deployment in Afghanistan. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Marine Sgt. Lloyd Beckford checks his rifle during a customs briefing, the first step to going home from a combat deployment in Afghanistan.
Staff Sgt. Velinzala Wallace picks up food from the Manas Pizza Hut. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Staff Sgt. Velinzala Wallace picks up food from the Manas Pizza Hut.
K9 Handler Senior Airman Zach Villano and his dog Spikey prepare to do a security sweep of a plane. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • K9 Handler Senior Airman Zach Villano and his dog Spikey prepare to do a security sweep of a plane.
Marine Cpl. Arnold Alejo goes through his luggage, making sure he's ready for his trip home. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Marine Cpl. Arnold Alejo goes through his luggage, making sure he's ready for his trip home.
Heading to work: a refueling mission. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Heading to work: a refueling mission.
Senior Airman Dave Fernandez refuels an F-16 from a KC-135. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Senior Airman Dave Fernandez refuels an F-16 from a KC-135.
An F-16 soars away after getting fuel from a KC-135 tanker over northern Afghanistan. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • An F-16 soars away after getting fuel from a KC-135 tanker over northern Afghanistan.
Captain Mike Dobbs, right, checks the wheel well of a KC-135 at Manas, as Senior Airman Nick Stevens looks on. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Captain Mike Dobbs, right, checks the wheel well of a KC-135 at Manas, as Senior Airman Nick Stevens looks on.
Welcome home. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Welcome home.
YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
Capt. Ariel Kayne kisses his wife, Sara, for the first time in three months, at Fairchild Air Force Base. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Capt. Ariel Kayne kisses his wife, Sara, for the first time in three months, at Fairchild Air Force Base.