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Combat coders build Web pages for warfighters

by Senior Airman Dillon White
U.S. AFCENT Public Affairs Office

4/27/2010 - COMBINED AIR AND SPACE OPERATIONS CENTER, SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Not unlike the other men and women in the Combined Air and Space Operations Center, combat coders are often tethered to their computers; their faces lit with a pixilated glow, fingertips maneuvering above matte-black keyboards, 'click-clacking' rows of keys amidst the whir of computer fans.

However, their sentences may look bizarre to most.

These Airmen write computer code. They write lines upon lines of code by the thousands and structure those lines of code into applications that servicemembers use both in the CAOC and throughout Southwest Asia.

They are also the only combat coders the Air Force employs in support of operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.

"They're really dedicated," Staff Sgt. Jonathan Kirby, the NCO in charge of combat coding, said about the three Airmen he leads. "Their skill sets have really developed since we got here."

It's not uncommon for the team to stay in the CAOC until long past the Arabian sun sets and sometimes after the sun rises the next morning, Sergeant Kirby said.

The 20 plus hours of writing and subsequent testing ensure their programs reach their customers on time.

Senior Airman Armani Wilson, a software engineer deployed from Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, Ala., arrived here several months ago on his first deployment.

"Initially it was challenging," he said referring to nuances of different programming languages he learned here. "It's been a rewarding deployment. I work directly with the customers and see the projects start-to-finish. Also, once a program is finished, it makes a difference for the customers in the field."

Airman Wilson has worked on numerous projects, including a program that tracks the status of passports for senior leaders, preventing possible expirations and a program that joint terminal attack controllers use to enter post-mission data used by U.S. Air Forces Central Command leadership in the CAOC.

He also guided aircraft-maintenance Airmen here through creating a career development course study program.

"It's not something I created myself, but I spent time showing them how to build it themselves," Airman Wilson said. "It's set up with questions and answers they can use to study."

Not all the coders at the CAOC wear camouflage though.

"Twenty years ago, programming would have been supported by a mainframe with a crew of workers and the data would have been stored on magnetic tapes," said Steve Veverica, a combat coder contractor. "To make a change it would require a grant from Congress and lot of time to rewrite the mainframe. Now it takes much less time and instead of a huge mainframe it's a desktop computer."

The coders build more than just Web pages.

"A classic Web page will read like a brochure, there are tabs and information, but there is no data integration," Mr. Veverica said. "With an application, which is what we build, the user can load information and retrieve it. There are moving parts. What's important to the user is that we make data more accessible."

One of the programs he is currently perfecting is the A1 Personnel System that maintains personnel records on all base members here.

The crew is working on several projects including a trilingual Web site for the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, that would allow the Kyrgyzstan populace to view the latest Manas news in their native tongue written with the Cyrillic alphabet.

Another application would keep servicemembers off of road notorious for improvised explosive devices by allowing them to log onto their computer and request a seat on a flight instead of physically traveling to the local passenger terminal.

Senior Airman Josh Miller, a software engineer at the CAOC, said the system will move people around the area of responsibility significantly better.

"The days of people having to travel on dangerous roads to a passenger terminal and spend a lot of time there, waiting to see if they did or didn't make a flight, will become a thing of the past. People will request a flight online and find out via e-mail whether or not they made it," he said.

The coders also solved a problem that arose when full Social Security numbers were removed from ID cards and host nation officials wouldn't allow servicemembers to enter their country without it.

To proactively address this issue, the coders created an application that now allows host nation customs officers to scan ID cards and retrieve proper identification.

At the end of the day coders will leave the whir and bustle of their office and step into the heat of the desert night to go for a run, go to class, catch up with friends and family, or another of life's pursuits, but they will be back in the office the next morning to continue writing so servicemembers downrange can continue fighting.

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