July 20, 2001

Serving a Tour of Duty on an Island Back in Time

By Elaine Aviles

LAJES FIELD, Azores — The daughter of a San Diego woman can't disagree when people say she' stuck in the past. It has been a while since she's eaten at a fast food joint or shopped at a neighborhood strip mall. And on her way to work, she's much more likely to get stuck behind a lazy cow or a farmer's horse-drawn cart than a sports car.

Air Force Capt. Kristen Skopeck, a public affairs officer, is stationed on Terceira, a tiny island that’s home to Lajes Field. Terceira is one of nine islands that make up the Azores,a remote group of islands about 900 miles from mainland Portugal.

But don't knock her lifestyle. While most people need a book or a documentary to see into the past, Air Force Capt. Kristen Skopeck can just look out her front door.

Skopeck, daughter of Susan Ford of San Diego, is one of the more than 1,000 service members stationed at Lajes Field on the island of Terceira. This tiny 148-square-mile island, one of the nine Azorean islands, was discovered and settled by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century. Not much has changed since then. With its sprawling farmlands, roadside vendors and tiny hamlets, to airmen like Skopeck, Terceira seems almost frozen in time.

"The lifestyle is laid back here," said Skopeck, who earned her bachelor's degree in comparative literature at California State University at Long Beach, Calif., in 1997. "My two-year-old daughter and I love it here, and have already traveled to four of the nine islands. We love to visit the local parks and shop in the stores.

"The people are very warm and family oriented. In fact, we even spent Christmas Eve with the family of my daughter's nanny. I've never felt so at home away from home. This is a wonderful place," she said.

And a remote one. Terceira is far out in the Atlantic ocean, more than 900 miles from the nearest city of Lisbon. With quaint, cobblestone streets, lush foliage and breathtaking ocean views, it appears to be the perfect vacation spot.

But there's more to this island than meets the eye.

Brave locals taunt a bull during a street bullfight, just one of the many old-world traditions kept alive by the islanders.

First used by the U.S. and British military for sub-hunting missions during World War II, the United States later recognized its value as a refueling station. Now known as the "crossroads of the Atlantic," Lajes Field has become a trans-Atlantic gas station of sorts, providing a pit stop for aircraft from around the world. Working alongside their Portuguese counterparts, airmen refuel and repair these aircraft so they can continue on their way, whether to Europe, the Middle East or other spots around the world.

A big job for such a small island. But there are a lot of behind-the scenes airmen like Skopeck, a public affairs officer, who help get the job done.

"I direct all public affairs programs for the base, as well as an internal information program for 3,500 base personnel," Skopeck said. "I also direct a community relations program between base and local communities and serve as the focal point for all media relations activities involving the Azorean press."

Airmen like Skopeck enable aircraft to support military operations and save lives in hot spots like Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. But what makes this assignment truly unique isn't what the airmen do, it's where they do it.

"This is one of the most interesting places I've ever been," Skopeck said. "I particularly enjoy the street bullfighting. The bulls don't get hurt and the community has the opportunity to come together and talk, eat and relax. Bullfighting has been the highlight of visits from my family. My mother-in-law likes it so much she's visited for a total of three months in the 11 months I've been here.

"The weather can get wild, with winds up to 90 mph, but the gorgeous flora and fauna more than makes up for it," she added.

Skopeck may not be able to enjoy all the modern conveniences of home, like 180-channel cable TVs and block-long malls, but don't knock her lifestyle. Thanks to her support, she's ensuring the rest of the world can.

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