By Maria José Subiria
Accross a terminal at the world's busiest airport, Sgt. Tamara Heibel, of the U.S. Army National Guard, spots Sgt. Maj. Jim Aiken, and her eyes light up immediately.
She has fcused on his large, black, arm band that reads, "Military Assistance NCOIC (Non-commissioned Officer in Charge)." She quickly walks toward Aiken, whose arm band has identified him as the point person for the United States Army Atlanta Personnel Assistance Point at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
She proceeds to ask him how to locate her bags. Aiken points her toward baggage carousel number eight, at the north terminal.
One of Aiken's missions is to make sure members of all branches of the U.S. military have their problems solved. He works for the officer in charge, but is the senior enlisted person at the assistance headquarters, located on the third floor of the atrium, between the airport's Interfaith Chapel and the United Service Organization (USO).
"As the non-commissioned officer in charge, I oversee the execution of the mission, and ensure that the soldiers are taken care of, as far as, career development and any issues that may affect their ability to perform at their peak of performance," said Aiken, who assumed his position at Atlanta's airport on July 5.
The operation at the airport assists U.S. Department of Defense civilian employees, and members of the U.S. military who are on leave under the U.S. Central Command Rest and Recuperation Leave Program.
To qualify for the program, a member of the U. S. Army would need to be deployed for 15 months to be eligible for 18 days of leave. Members of any other branch of the U.S. military, or Department of Defense civilian employees, would need to be deployed for a year to be eligible for 15 days of leave, according to the Rest and Recuperation web site, www.armyg1.army.mil/randr/ Also, both members of the U.S. military and U.S. Department of Defense civilian employees have to be serving in one of the 17 designated contingency countries, which include Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and United Arab Emirates, among others.
Aiken said there are only two U.S. Army Personnel Assistance Points in the nation: at Hartsfield-Jackson and at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.
Military personnel, on leave, must advise the U.S. Army Personnel Assistance Point that they've arrived from their assignment location, at one of the two locations. "It's their central place to stop, if they need to change their ticket, or if there's a problem," explained Aiken. "We provide all sorts of assistance."
Aiken said the operation at Hartsfield-Jackson provides communication assets, such as a phone or the Internet; transportation management, which includes solving problems that relate to flights, or ground transportation; health and welfare support, such as providing emotionally distressed individuals with a chaplain, or ill, or hurt individuals with medical assistance; and any additional support that may be needed.
For Aiken, the most rewarding part of his job is "dealing with heroes, and talking to them, and getting kind of a feel of what's going on in different areas [parts of the world]."
He said he grew up a Navy brat, in Virginia Beach, Va., and his father served in the U.S. Navy from 1940 to 1966. While in college, Aiken was drafted, in 1971, the Vietnam War-era, but was unable to serve, because he was a sole surviving son of his father, who passed away due to a service-related illness.
"My [draft lottery] number was 110," said Aiken. "I remember it well.
"I was in college, and my student [loan] deferment ran out. You knew it [the draft] could, or couldn't have happened," he added. "I thought it [joining the army] was a good thing for everybody to do."
According to Aiken, he began his tenure with the U.S. Army as a student in the Military Police School at Fort Banning, Ga., and advanced to become traffic supervisor for the 1,189th U.S.A. Transportation Terminal in Charleston, S.C.
He enrolled as a student in Tidewater Community College, located at Virginia Beach, Va., he said, and received an associate degree in management in 1980.
"The more educated people you have, the better your company, platoon, or squad," said Aiken, about the importance of education.
Ultimately, Aiken attained his current position of sergeant major, and in 2006, was sent on assignment to Soto Cano, Honduras to aid villagers and orphaned children, with resources, he said.
"It was very rewarding. Each command supported an orphanage," he said. "One hundred and forty children, abandoned boys and girls. We would have fund-raisers, and buy them school clothes and food, and visit them once a month, sometimes twice a month."
In addition, Aiken said, the military provided all sorts of medical, optical and dental care for the needy in Central America, as well as veterinary care for animals.
Aiken said, Soto Cano, Honduras was the base headquarters, but he also provided aid to people in El Salvador and Guatemala. Now, working in Atlanta, he said, it is easier for his family to be able to visit him more often than when he was on assignment in Honduras.