story and photos by
Tech. Sgt. Timothy P. Barela
Someone once said that Australia is like a big donut. All the good parts
are on the outside, and there's nothing in the middle -- except for Woomera.
Of course, this is an exaggeration, but a visit to the remote military town
gives you a sense of what the person must have felt.
Woomera, which is home to about 190 bluesuiters and their families assigned
to the 5th Space Warning Squadron, is part of Australia's "donut hole." The
isolated South Australian town is a virtual oasis. As one airman put it,
it passes the ultimate test of seclusion -- "It's five hours away from the
Nearly 90 percent of Australia's population lives along its coastal regions.
The interior, known as the outback, is mainly arid desert or dry grassland
that doesn't receive enough rainfall to support a large population. So even
though Australia is roughly the same size as the United States, it has a
population of about 17 million, compared to the U.S. population of 250
With water having to be piped in some 300 miles away, Woomera is definitely
not part of Australia's famous beach-front property. The rectangular town
of about one-square mile houses more than 1,000 Australians and Americans
who man the Joint Defense Facility Nurrungar, 15 kilometers away.
Nurrungar, an aboriginal term for "listen," serves as a space-age listening
post with a space-based surveillance system. Tapping into a Defense Support
Program bus-size satellite orbiting more than 22,000 miles away, the unit
provides space warning for Australia and the United States. It tracks missile
and space launches, nuclear detonations and other data of interest around
"I guess our primary claim to fame was when the sirens went off on CNN during
the [Persian] Gulf War," said Col. Henry W. Poburka Jr., commander of the
5th Space Warning Squadron and the Joint Defense Force. "We were the ones
who spotted the Scud launches from Iraq and alerted our troops."
Nurrungar combines forces from the 5th Space Warning Squadron and Australia's
No. 1 Joint Communications Unit, as well as Australian civilians from their
department of defense, Australian Protective Service and a handful of Australian
and American contractors.
While Woomera is definitely isolated, it's not your typical Air Force remote
assignment. Perhaps the biggest telltale sign is a lot of people don't want
to leave. More than 40 percent of the bluesuiters assigned there apply for
extensions when their tour of duty is over. And many of those who do leave
end up emulating the aboriginal boomerang.
They come back.
"It's a popular place to be," Poburka said. "We actually have to turn some
people away because it can hurt their careers to stay longer."
For the typical outsider, it probably seems the people who want to stay may
have been blind-sided one too many times in a rough and tumble game of Aussie
rules football. And let's face it, at first glance, they'd appear to have
a good case.
Summer days at Woomera reach a sweltering 120 degrees. The bush flies can
get so bad residents are forced to make them part of their diet. And while
kangaroos and emus are abundant and fun to watch, the outback also is home
to venomous snakes like the king brown and the death adder, as well as nasty
little critters such as scorpions and centipedes. Woomerites, in particular,
have to deal with the poisonous red-back spider, which has a serious bite.
If that's not enough to deal with, there's always the typical inconveniences
of being stuck out in the middle of nowhere: separated from family in the
States; no malls, base exchange or commissary; not always the choicest material
goods and foods; and driving on the "wrong" side of the road with nothing
for miles around armed only with a Shoo-Roo (a small device attached to vehicles
that sends out a high-pitched noise to discourage kangaroos from running
in your path).
So what draws people to Woomera?
Maybe it starts with the gorgeous sunrises and ends with even more spectacular
sunsets. Poburka says it's that and everything in-between.
"First, the Australian people are great," the colonel said. "They have a
way of making this feel like home almost instantly." It's a small town
atmosphere, a crime-free environment. Plus, it doesn't hurt that airmen are
authorized to bring family members, and housing for families and singles
Poburka also thinks it has a lot to do with the mission.
"People here realize how important their jobs are -- watching for ballistic
missile launches," Poburka said. "They take it personally. It could be a
buddy's life they save when they send out that warning."
From the time the unit detects a launch to sending that information to Cheyenne
Mountain in Colorado, less than a second elapses, the colonel said.
"The information flow is traveling at the speed of light -- 186,000 miles
a second," he said. "We can push a button to release the information, and
by the time we pick up the phone, they have it."
The unit has an unprecedented record of capability -- more than 35 months
without a critical error.
"That's a phenomenal accomplishment," Poburka said. "No other unit anywhere
has come close to that."
Which means Nurrungar is pretty darn good at assessing data timely and
accurately. Poburka attributes it to empowering people at every level.
"Airmen here are making decisions some technical sergeants normally would
make," the colonel said. "They don't get in trouble for making decisions
or mistakes. So people can be relaxed instead of on pins and needles worrying
about messing up. That way they can concentrate on getting better and
Integrating forces from two countries obviously hasn't hurt either.
"Australians and Americans work well together," said Australian Wing Commander
Bill Talbot, commanding officer of the No. 1 Joint Communications Unit and
deputy commander of Nurrungar. "We've managed to mesh our cultures and make
the working environment seamless. Sometimes there's a little problem with
accents or phrases that cause some misunderstandings, but there's a lot of
tolerance on both sides."
Indeed, while both Yanks and Aussies speak English, there are some disparities
in terms. For instance, in Australia you "cheer for a team"; you do not "root
for a team" (this is a vulgar phrase in Australia). And words can get confusing.
Australians call cookies, biscuits; dinner, tea; girl, sheila; guy, bloke;
and a car trunk, a boot.
Also, don't be offended if an Australian calls you a bastard -- it usually
is said with affection and means he likes you. Additionally, if you're told
you have "blood worth bottling," you've just received high praise.
Of course that doesn't mean guys like Tech. Sgt. Karl Martin -- whose supervisor
is Australian Army Sgt. Raymond Meehan -- wants to see "That bastard Sergeant
Martin is a beaut of a bloke with blood worth bottling" on his next enlisted
"Writing EPRs takes a little getting used to," admitted Meehan, who along
with Martin works in satellite communications.
"It's not so bad," Martin said with a wry smile. "I talked him into giving
me a 6 [5 is the highest rating]."
"Yeah, but it cost him three quarts of beer," Meehan shot back, grinning.
"Actually working together here works very well, because of the professionalism,"
Meehan continued. "We get along great. Probably the biggest difference is
being Australian army, since I'm a little more regimented than the U.S. Air
"You mean a little more old-fashioned," Martin joked. Then, on a more serious
note, he added, "Actually, things run smoothly. We have some minor differences
in how we see the world but get along where it's important."
That carries over into their social lives as well.
"People form life-long friendships here," Talbot said. "A lot of Americans
even end up marrying Australians."
That tight-knit relationship between two cultures appears to be the real
magic that gives Woomera its character and keeps people coming back.
For Master Sgt. Robert Burleson Jr., a flight chief in satellite operations,
and his wife, Gloria, who works in the traffic management office, it made
all the difference.
"When we first arrived here, my reaction was, 'Oh my!' " Burleson said. "I
kept trying to take pictures, but there was nothing to take pictures of -
-nothing for miles."
Gloria's reaction was similar, "Where is everything?"
"But the closeness of the community gets you over the initial shock," Gloria
"You have to be a social person to survive," Robert agreed. "But that's easy,
because Australians are outstanding people."
Of course, that doesn't mean the couple doesn't miss some of the comforts
"The food here is very different," Gloria said, furrowing her brow. "I remember
cooking kangaroo meat and running outside for fresh air. That meat is wild.
I didn't eat it." Then she added wistfully, "I miss McDonalds and Taco
"But probably the worst thing about this place are the bush flies. They are
kamikaze flies and will fly right into your mouth. That's where the 'Woomera
wave' came from. You think everybody here is waving at you, but they are
actually just brushing flies off their face."
"You're not really a Woomerite until you've swallowed your first bush fly,"
Robert joked. Of course, he's the one who also has eaten kangaroo, emu and
The Burlesons agreed, though, that the good outweighed the bad. In addition
to the people, they like the family housing. And being in Australia does
have its perks, such as access to the popular cities of Adelaide and
For 1st Lt. Jerry Stonecipher, chief of logistics support and quality, and
his wife, Linda, Woomera has proven to be an ideal place to raise their sons,
Jerry III, 8, and Nathanial, 5.
"I like the small-town atmosphere that is virtually crime-free," Linda said.
"You can actually let your kids go outside and play without worrying about
someone carting them off."
Jerry likes the school.
"The kids have really blossomed in school here," he said. "They're confident
and doing a lot of creative things. Plus they get to learn about two cultures."
The school runs year around, and all the faculty are Australians. The curriculum
includes both Australian and American requirements.
"The boys are even picking up the Australian accent," Jerry added. "If they
were teens back in the States, with that accent, they'd probably do great
with the girls."
While Jerry and Linda say they really feel at home in Woomera, they also
said that friends and family in the States really don't understand where
"To most of them, Australia is a far-off mythical place with beautiful beaches,"
Linda said. "They have no concept of how isolated Woomera really is. They're
more interested in if the Australians really say 'G'day, mate' [and they
do], and if we see any kangaroos."
The couple not only sees kangaroos, they've eaten kangaroo.
"It doesn't taste like chicken," Linda quipped.
"I liked it," Jerry said. "It's kind of like a lean steak, but a little gamey.
I felt guilty, though, because I was at Breen Park [in Woomera] at the time,
where they keep various wildlife penned up for tourists. Some of the kangaroos
kept glaring at me like I was eating one of their cousins."
While families tend to fit right in at Woomera, surprisingly enough, single
airmen seem to enjoy it just as much.
"Life's more slow-paced here, but that's kind of good for me," said Senior
Airman Angela Fisher, who works in the accounting and finance office as chief
of accounts payable. "I was stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base [in Washington]
and was out and about all the time, running around in no direction. Now I'm
more focused on my career and education.
"Some people say, 'There's nothing to do here.' Wrong answer. I bowl, play
softball, take tap lessons, and joined a drama group and the honor guard.
I'm also learning to run the projector at the movie theater and am a DJ at
the radio station. Plus, I'm going to school to get a degree in accounting.
You have to get involved in the community or go stir crazy."
Fisher said Woomera is like one big family -- just in a lot of different
"Of course, that can be good and bad," she said. "Good because you know everyone.
Bad because everyone knows you. If you run out to the store, what should
take five minutes takes two hours. Everyone you run into knows you, and you
end up talking to them. Sometimes I think instead of Woomera, they should
call this place Rumora. Everybody knows your business."
Maybe the best thing single airmen have going for them are the dormitories.
Each room has a private bath, full kitchen, dining room, living room, bedroom,
washer and dryer, and is fully furnished.
"The dorms beat anything they have back in the States," said Senior Airman
Michael Merrell, a computer technician from Hawaii. "Younger airmen see these
dorms and say, 'I'm not leaving.' They're the size of two regular dorm rooms
in the States and are configured more like apartments."
Perhaps that's what's most unique about Woomera and Nurrungar. Facilities
like the dorms, which are closer to what Air Force has planned for the rest
of its bases in the year 2020, and space-age technology monitoring the world's
most sophisticated satellites, contrast with the vast, barren, untamed Australian
outback where it is located. It's a part of the country that hasn't changed
much since the first settlers in the mid-1800s tried to cross this desert
and starved to death.
Woomera just proves that not all of Australia's good parts are on the outside.
There's at least one tasty morsel smack dab in the donut hole.