By Edward Landeros | Nov. 21, 2020 1:00 p.m.
Former President Barack Obama waving goodbye to Saudi Arabia as he boards Air Force One. Photo credit: Edward Landeros.
A glimpse at a day in the life of a United States military member during his tour in Saudi Arabia.
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Veteran’s Day has approached us after an eventful year with the Presidential Election and a global pandemic. On this day, I am reminded of a pivotal moment in my career as a Security Forces Member in the United States Air Force: securing President Obama and Air Force One in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
In March 2014, I was assigned to a secret mission during my deployment at Eskan Village Air Base, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). I was 20 and had just been promoted to Senior Airman (E-4) in Security Forces (SF), a career field that handles security of aircrafts and nuclear weapons as well as law enforcement.
At the time I was growing more accustomed to the base and familiarizing myself with the people I worked with. I had some friends from my home station that were deployed with me and made new friends with SF members from other duty stations. Our typical day consisted of checking ID’s and visitors at the main gate, inspecting vehicles in the search pit, scanning entry control points from watchtowers, and patrolling the base for any suspicious activity. 12 to 14 hours a day, 6 days a week.
One day, my supervisor, Master Sergeant Shaw (E-9), pulled me and eight other SF members to the side to tell us we were assigned to a confidential mission in Riyadh, the capital of KSA. No other details were provided other than we would be leaving within a few days and needed to pack our bags. I was excited and nervous about what was to come.
We left for Riyadh and arrived at a hotel where we would get the full details of our mission. President Obama was scheduled to land at the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, and we would be securing the fuel and the presidential fleet, Air Force One, while he visited the King of Saudi Arabia. I was thrilled. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I never thought I would come across. It all felt surreal to me. We were not allowed to tell anyone about our mission until the job was complete, so I stayed quiet about it with my wife and family for the time being.
Flags for the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the King Khalid International Airport. Photo credit: Edward Landeros.
When we arrived at the King Khalid International Airport, I observed the security guards at the base to see how they compared to American soldiers. They were very similar in posture and demeanor; stoic bodies on guard, occasional chit-chat, and eyes that intimidated. I saw one guard who looked as young as I did. He was carrying an AK-47 wearing a blue dress uniform akin to our Air Force blues. I smiled politely to him and waved, and he smiled back and nodded. It was a short exchange, but I was happy to make the connection.
For the first two days, the SF team and I guarded the fuel trucks while fuel technicians came out for safety inspections. We would sit on the flight line for 8 to 10 hours scanning the barren flight line making sure no one would tamper with the fuel trucks reserved for Air Force One. In the afternoon, two Saudi fuel technicians would drive out to the trucks and we would watch them as they inspected the fuel, making sure the levels were right and safe to use. They were always friendly, smiling while they conducted their checks, and striking up the occasional conversation about the weather and if we were excited for President Obama to fly in. It was nice to see the pleasantries, but we remained on guard as we were trained and kept the conversations limited.
Finally, the day had arrived: President Obama would arrive at King Khalid International Airport that afternoon. The plan was to secure the perimeter with the Saudi guards before Air Force One landed, then we would contact the U.S. Secret Service to rope off the air fleet while POTUS and other passengers exited the plane. We were ready.
The fuel technicians came out to check the trucks one last time, but they brought a surprise. They came up to me and the SF team with a foil pan filled with rice, chicken, and homemade pita bread. They were smiling and said, “Let’s celebrate!” but MSgt Shaw and team were uneasy about the sentiment. What if this was a trap? What if they poisoned the food and we failed our mission because we were vulnerable? The security of our country was at stake.
Marines touch ground at the King Khalid International Airport. Photo credit: Edward Landeros.
I thought about the honor and sacrifice many soldiers made before us. I thought about our country’s reputation in Saudi Arabia and how denying this kind gesture might suggest negative stereotypes of Americans untrustworthy of foreigners, even those trying to ensure the safety of our president. It was a tough decision, but I could not let fear control me.
I decided I would embrace the gesture and share a meal with the fuel technicians. I knew there were more of my teammates who would not eat the food, therefore if I died, they would be able to call in the sabotage and handle any conflict that would occur. The fuel technicians laid out a rug on the flight line and opened the foil pan and started to dig in with their hands. As I knelt, one of my teammates joined me and we took fistfuls of rice and chicken and began to eat as our MSgt Shaw and teammates watched cautiously.
The food was delicious. The chicken was cooked and seasoned perfectly while the rice was similar to Spanish rice made back home in California. The pita bread was warm and soft, melting in my mouth. And the best part: it wasn’t poisoned. We all smiled and laughed as we joined to celebrate President Obama’s arrival.
Air Force One at King Khalid International Airport. Photo: Edward Landeros.
A short while later, Air Force One had landed. We secured the perimeter, roped off the aircrafts, and contacted the Secret Service. They were quick to the point and as professional as one would expect of the President’s security. We set up at the rear of Air Force One and watched as President Obama and a full flight of passengers from Air Force One and Air Force Two unloaded, casually chatting with each other about how tired they were or how clear the sky was. They were happy to have arrived and so were we. We spent the next 12 to 14 hours securing the aircrafts with the Secret Service until the President and passengers returned the next afternoon.
I brought my camera with me to take pictures of the hotel and downtown, not thinking I might have an opportunity to see the President of the United States. Initially, we were not allowed to have phones or other electronic devices on the flight line. On the last day, however, MSgt Shaw gave us permission to take photos of the president as he left KSA. It was one of the most exciting moments in my life and by far the highlight of my military career.
President Barack Obama leaves the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Photo credit: Edward Landeros
I would later learn that President Obama visited the King of Saudi Arabia to reassure him about concerns regarding nuclear negotiations with Iran and Syria. President Obama also presented the International Women of Courage award to Dr. Maha Al Muneef, the executive director of KSA’s National Family Safety Program who works to spread awareness about child abuse and domestic violence.
I received some gifts from the Secret Service, including a box of presidential M&M’s. I look at that box of M&M’s every now and then and think about this mission and my deployment. The experience to secure the President of the United States and the culture shock of living in a foreign country renewed pride in my duty as a military member. I sometimes get lost in the complacency of my daily life, waiting on change to come and feeling helpless in my inability to pick up the pace. But thinking about this moment reminds me there are military members working tirelessly to ensure the safety of our country: medics, scientists, technicians, firefighters, leaders, and soldiers to say the least. These heroes make an oath to protect and serve their fellow Americans in the most dire of circumstances and they live among us as our family and friends. It inspires me in my daily life to keep promoting change and positivity through my social interactions, remembering that we stand united as a nation through thick and thin.
Thank you to all veterans for their dedication to their duties and the burdens they carry.