Breaking the ice: WARB SMSgt becomes first AFRC 1st Sgt. in Antarctica

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Kristi MacDonald
  • 439th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Senior Master Sgt. Joseph Coffey, 439th Aerospace Medical Squadron 1st Sgt., received a unique opportunity to deploy to McMurdo Station, Antarctica as the 13th Air Expeditionary Group 1st Sgt. for Operation DEEP FREEZE.

He is the first reservist to fill the role, which is normally filled by the 109th Airlift Wing, Stratton Air National Guard Base in Schenectady, New York.

“I'm still performing the same duties I would as a shirt at Westover,” said Coffey. “But due to the remote location and lack of resources that would normally be found on an Air Force base, there's some additional PERSCO [Personnel Contingency Operations] and Services type functions that I am performing as well.”

Air Force 1st Sgts. work to maintain their unit’s health, morale, welfare, and readiness. They also provide their commander with a mission ready force.

“Our maintainers and flight crews work busy schedules, so myself and the other support staff do everything we can to make their lives easier,” he said. “Additionally, since I am the only Shirt on the continent, I don't have a First Sergeant Council to lean on which can be difficult at times.”

He said deploying to a such a remote location poses its own set of challenges.

“It's an extremely unique environment here that requires a significant amount of logistic preparation due to how remote it is, with everything being brought in via aircraft or ship,” Coffey said. “The day-to-day life here is busy with most people working six days a week. Fortunately, there is a great recreation program on McMurdo Station and there is always something going for people that are interested.”

He said communication is also difficult since there is no cell phone service and the internet has limited bandwidth.

Personnel currently at McMurdo Station also experience 24 hours of sunlight a day due to the Austral Summer, which makes sleep schedules difficult to adjust to, Coffey said.

“The weather where we are stationed isn't as bad as most people would expect when they hear Antarctica,” he said. “It's comparable to January and February in New England with temperatures in the 20s, though the further South you go the more extreme it becomes. The weather can also change quite rapidly, and despite it being an Arctic desert, we've gotten a few inches of snow here and there.”

Coffey said some things he didn’t expect was the lack of animals and outdoor scents.

“I knew there was very little wildlife here, but you don't see any insects or small animals, and you don't see much outside of the seals laying out on the ice, and an occasional Skua (a type of sea bird),” he said. “There are no natural smells like grass or trees that you don't think about back home.”

What Antarctica lacks in wildlife, it makes up for in views said Coffey.

“The entire experience has been amazing, but the one that stands out is hiking to and climbing Castle Rock, which is about four miles from the station,” he said. “The views of Mount Erebus and the surrounding areas were both stunning and humbling. None of the pictures I have taken do any justice to the scale of the landscape here. The views, even when walking out of our dormitories, look like something out of a painting.”

“The community here has been great,” Coffey said. “There are people from all locations and backgrounds that come to work in scientific or support roles, but they all have this place in common and seem to thoroughly enjoy it.”

Operation DEEP FREEZE, run by the Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica, supports the National Science Foundation and U.S. Antarctic Program.