CHEYENNE — It all begins at Lackland Air Force Base.
That’s where every United States Air Force recruit spends their eight weeks of basic training before being stationed at one of the 59 Air Force bases within the continental United States — if they aren’t deployed overseas, that is.
Some airmen end up here at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, one of three installations that oversee the domestic Intercontinental Ballistic Missile force, forming one-third of our country’s nuclear triad. Whether they hail from the luscious greenery of central Oregon, the humid southern air of Florida, the dry hearth of the Texas panhandle or the snowcapped mountains in Utah, these military servicemen and women now call the high plains of Laramie County their home.
Consequently, they were required to abandon the environment of their hometowns, the security of childhood friend groups and comfort of regional familiarities. But more strenuous a trial than any of these is the sudden absence of their familial foundation.
However, these airmen need not feel alone in Cheyenne.
Since 2019, F.E. Warren Air Force Base has encouraged its airmen to enter the Adopt an Airman WYO program, which matches military members with willing Cheyenne-area residents. The program allows for these younger individuals to have a “home away from home,” where they can remove themselves from the stress of daily tasks, have a home-cooked meal and build lasting connections with community members.
Such connections have proven instrumental in many airmen’s and foster families’ quality of life.
Last Monday morning, Sharon Taylor was sitting beside her son, Airman 1st Class Jasiah Brown, in the home of Brenda and Paul Gregg just south of Cheyenne. Taylor made the trip from their home state of Oregon less than 24 hours earlier to visit her son for the first time since he moved to Cheyenne last summer.
“I think this was a good way for him to get out and see things,” she said.
“I just wanted him to be able to experience things. I think the benefit of this program is he’s able to have others and a family, especially since I’m not going to be here.”
Like her son, she had never seen the vast Western landscape or lived in a place as cold, flat and botanically barren as southeast Wyoming. It was one of Brown’s primary worries when he first arrived, knowing that the outside elements would only encourage him to become a recluse in the military dorms, hindering his experience in his first station.
“It’s more of being able to basically get out and see things. Most people, when they first get here, they don’t necessarily know what to do because they see Wyoming and they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s kind of flat,” Brown said. “They think, ‘What do we do?’ So most of them go down to Colorado to ski, or whatever.
“So (F.E. Warren) pushes people to do the program just to kind of learn what there is out there.”
Airmen can commune with their matched families as often as they want, whether these opportunities come in the form of weekly dinners, family outings or simple game nights with the other airmen who are under a family’s care.
Matches between an airman and a family can fall through — some families can serve as a better support system, depending on an airman’s needs, lifestyle and interests. Luckily, Brown seems to have found the right match with the Greggs.
Aside from some unlikely common interests between he and Paul Gregg — particularly, knives and knots — he was more easily able to learn more about the Front Range region and the activities available to him. On slower weekends, he had a place to eat and an inviting shelter from the Wyoming winter.
“Paul and I stay really busy, and we love to rock hound, we love to fish, we hunt, metal detect, we go pan — we have something going all the time, year-round,” Brenda Gregg said.
This winter is a bit of a different story, however. Gregg stopped and motioned out the window to the blanket of snow still coating the ground from the most recent storm.
“A couple of weekends ago, it was freezing,” she said. “We sat here, and my son came down from Douglas, who also was in the Navy, and we had a good time. We played ‘Wyoming-opoli,’ and my other airman beat the crap out of all of us.”
The Greggs raised sons who ultimately decided to serve in the U.S. Navy. For this reason, they are well acclimated to the military way of life, the deployments and rotations, and know the difficulties that military service places upon newly enlisted personnel.
Their enthusiasm for the Adopt an Airman program reflects the deeper meaning and emotional fulfillment that comes with participating in the program.
“It is pretty awesome to watch these young airmen grow,” Brenda Gregg said. “To watch them with their personal triumphs, see their military accomplishments and to be along for the ride, I think, is pretty awesome.”
The Greggs also emphasized that participating in the program, opening up your home to airmen, doesn’t require elaborate planning or restructuring of your daily schedule. The essence of the Adopt An Airman program is for a family to simply provide the space and include the airman in their life.
Relationships between airmen and their matched families are something that, like most thing, best develop organically. This is the case with David and Melissa Wilson, who own and operate a ranch just northeast of Cheyenne. It was Melissa’s idea to apply for the program last summer, and since then, they’ve come to quickly form a bond with their airman.
With ample space and farm life to spare, they’re completely capable of hosting three young airmen — two men and one woman — who come and go as they please. Though it’s only been a short time since they opened their home, they are well on their way to forming a long-term bond with these airmen, having grown accustomed to their unique personalities and interests.
The key to their experience so far is the release of any expectations or agenda.
“If people who go into the program embrace that, they’re gonna get something wonderful out of it, because it allows these people to open up and to blossom with you. It kind of puts all their guards down, so to speak, when there’s no expectation, when there’s no agenda,” David Wilson said in a phone interview Thursday morning.
Calling in from their ranch home, the Wilsons identified this as one of the major benefits to not only the program, but their specific location.
One of the Wilsons’ three airmen is Blake Patrick, a native of Michigan who was on assignment at the time of the interview. The Wilsons essentially have an open-door policy — all of the airmen have the opportunity to visit the house unannounced, even when the Wilsons aren’t home.
Patrick, in particular, the Wilsons said, finds solace in the isolated environment of the ranch. It is a place where, after a “sand in the wound” kind of day, he can go to clear his mind, David Wilson said. Patrick will often step out to visit the horses and barn cats, immersing himself in a welcome change of scenery from the day-in, day-out responsibilities he has in the military.
“When you go into the military, you are told, ‘This is what you do. This is what you eat, where you go, when you do it,’” David Wilson said. “There’s still a very strong amount of regiment there, which is not bad. But I also think because these folks are young and they’re in the prime of their lives, they’re still learning about life.
“It makes sense, because we can give them a place not to replace their parents, not to replace their families or their homes, but maybe to give them an opportunity where they feel like there’s a little bit of home.”
More airmen, regardless of their years of experience in the military, likely need this kind of escape.
Carolyn Ritschard, program director for Adopt an Airman WYO, told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle that there is currently a waiting list for airmen looking to participate in the program due to lack of family applicants. Like the Wilsons and the Greggs, many families have elected to take in multiple airmen to make up for the shortage.
Recently, Noam Mantaka and Abby Rowswell, who already care for their young son and are expecting their second, have taken in another airman as their longtime match is preparing for rotation at the beginning of May.
The transition is expected to be a difficult one between them and Omar Saidi, who has been with Mantaka and Rowswell since 2019. On Wednesday morning, the three sat in the living room of Mantaka and Rowswell’s home, while Aviv, their son, played on the carpet before them.
Over the years, Saidi has built a significant catalog of memories with his host family, from accidentally breaking Mantaka’s bike — an event they laugh about during the interview — to working in Mantaka’s food truck, “Noam’s Table,” to attending Rowswell’s graduation from Laramie County Community College.
They’ve celebrated holidays together, like Passover and Christmas, and have invited Saidi to break his fast during Ramadan. Saidi, originally from Florida, has also come to acquire a vast knowledge of the region and what it has to offer, some of which he has hiked and camped, others he has biked with Mantaka.
“He knows that he is safe,” Mantaka said. “If he is stuck, he knows that he can call someone, and he will get help. We will do everything we (can). If I cannot do it, I will send a friend.”
Mantaka has already vowed to call Saidi regularly once he makes the trip to Texas, where he will be retrained as an F-35 crew chief and then restationed.
Though his time in Cheyenne is approaching an end, Saidi’s time with Mantaka and Rowswell likely never will.
“I don’t know how I’ll ever get out of the crazy situations I get myself into without this guy,” Saidi said, smiling at Mantaka.