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Small Australian force filling big role

609th Air and Space Operations Center Royal Australian Air Force contingent pose for a photo March 17 at an undisclosed location Southwest Asia. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Raymond Hoy)

609th Air and Space Operations Center Royal Australian Air Force contingent pose for a photo March 17 at an undisclosed location Southwest Asia. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Raymond Hoy)

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Known best for the Crocodile Hunter, Vegemite, and a quirky 80s band, Australia is, to most Americans, just a land down under that would be cool to visit. For a group of 24 coalition members, it's a place they are proud to call home.

The Royal Australian Air Force contingent is made up of 10 officers and 14 enlisted Airmen and Airwomen who are assigned to the 609th Air and Space Operations Center. They work alongside their coalition partners in everything from administrative and communications support, to air space and flight management.

The Australian contingent is a small but effective group who strive to prove their worth among their larger coalition cousins.

"For a small nation with a smaller defense force, I believe we are punching well above our weight in the experience we bring to the party," said Squadron Leader Shaun Nelson, a "Queenslander" from Ipswich, a small city near Brisbane, Queensland. "We hold our own with our coalition partners."

While the RAAF only has around 14,000 active duty personnel, they bring a unique perspective to the fight. Each coalition partner has different experiences with NATO partners around the world. These experiences are what allow partners like the Australians to thrive among their peers in the CAOC.

For instance, Nelson, currently serving on a four month rotation to the CAOC from his home station of RAAF Williamtown, has served in two other overseas operations. His first was in East Timor. His second, and the one for which he is most proud, was Banda Aceh, Indonesia in 2005.

Much like the American combat controllers who controlled the skies over Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Nelson and a small group of Australians controlled the air space over Banda Aceh following the Boxing Day Tsunami that hit there in late December, 2004.

"That was the highlight of my career," he said. "What we did as a small Australian contingent of air traffic controllers and being able to bring support to that devastated community was amazing."

This unique experience is what gives coalition members like Nelson a meaningful voice in the CAOC.

One person who recognizes the Aussie's unique abilities and experiences, and has seen them firsthand, is Lt. Col. Brian Jackson, the CAOC's deputy director of the air forces operations cell.

"While many of our guys are smart on the [Federal Aviation Administration] procedures," Jackson explained, "[the Australians] are able to give us a unique insight on the international procedures that we may not know about. It's very reassuring to have them to turn to when we have questions."

The team benefits from sharing each other's culture as much as they do sharing mission experience.

"We also get great information from them about cricket and Australian-rules football, whether we want it or not," laughed Jackson. "We get a Commonwealth take on plenty of stuff besides work, but just day-to-day life."

And when things get a little too "American," the quiet, unassuming Australian is there to remind the Americans what the others bring to the table.

"Squadron Leader Nelson has just a dry biting wit, and he is really just a funny guy," Jackson said. "So any time something ridiculously American comes up, he's always there to put us in our place with a, 'It's not just an American effort, it's a team effort.' There's always a fun, friendly banter though."

These discussions tend to lighten the mood in what can be a stressful environment. While day-to-day life is discussed, many conversations come back to sports.

"Cricket is probably the thing we talk about the most," Jackson said. "We always say we want to go out and take a couple swings of the cricket bat, but they insist there's no way we could ever do it and we would just embarrass ourselves ... they may be right."

"It's not their fault," Nelson said. "The way they've grown up with baseball, the paradigm shift with cricket is just too much. We've got to take them out and have a bit of a giggle one day. They'll be able to hit the ball, but they'd never be able to win, it's just too different of a game."

For Leading Aircraft Woman Jagroop Mangat, a communications specialist currently serving on her first overseas operation, sometimes being an ambassador for their country is just as important as the work.

"I don't much to do with the coalition forces at work, but I get to see them out-of-hours," said Mangat, a Melbourne, Victoria native deployed from RAAF Richmond near Sydney. "I enjoy discussing daily life with Americans and I always encourage them to visit Australia. It's a great country and we're very proud of it. Everybody should get a chance to come visit."

Ultimately, for the small group of 24 on a base of 9,500, the Australians are just excited to be a part of the fight. They are proud of the fact that they are a small group doing big things.

"This is our contribution," Nelson said. "We can't afford to be sheltered. The contributions that each nation makes complement each other. It's such a great learning experience for all of the Australian forces who come here, no matter what they do."