ERBIL, Iraq –
The last time Maynor Reyes had set foot in Iraq, Lebron James was a high school hoops star, “The Apprentice” had yet to debut on television, and Saddam Hussein was still in power in Baghdad – the destination of the rapidly advancing U.S. forces that the young Staff Sgt. Reyes was tasked with keeping supplied.
Now a master sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve, the Miami native currently serves on Erbil Air Base in northern Iraq in support of the Combined Joint Task Force–Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led multinational Coalition launched in 2014 to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Reyes’ St. Petersburg-based unit arrived almost 15 years to the day that he previously left the country.
“I never thought I would be back after so long,” Reyes said. “It never even crossed my mind.”
Erbil Air Base is currently home to more than 3,600 military and civilian personnel from 13 different nations. As one of the base’s most senior engineers, Reyes oversees numerous base construction projects in cooperation with his Coalition partners. Routine projects can include road work, building expansions and new base living quarters. The experience is a long way in both years and miles from the insurgency that was just beginning to grip the country when he completed his previous tour.
A graduate of Miami Senior High and Miami Dade College, Reyes shipped out for the Army in 1994, just four days after marrying his wife, Bernalda. He spent the next six years on active duty before transitioning to the Army Reserve in 2000. Less than two years later, he went to work for the newly-formed Transportation Security Agency, created in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks. The TSA technology back then, he remembered, was rudimentary at best, with antiquated black and white X-ray machines in place to prevent another 9/11.
While he was still adapting to his new civilian career to protect the homeland, he was called away to a fill a different role as his reserve unit was mobilized in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Reyes arrived just in time to witness the start of the March 2003 invasion from Kuwait, where he had served a tour in 1998. But unlike that earlier deployment, this time his unit would be moving north across the Iraq border. Reyes and his soldiers spent much of the next year shifting between numerous locations across Iraq to establish supply chains from the bases in the south.
“We never even worked in an office,” he said. “We were always moving. There was no time to make mistakes. We depended on each other and the bond we developed as a team was really strong.”
By the time Reyes left Iraq in 2004, signs of a brewing insurgency were present, but to that point had been mostly contained. Reyes’ unit departed Iraq in April of that year, heading home without suffering any serious casualties. He had little idea what the future held for his military service, but didn’t imagine it would involve a return deployment 15 years later.
Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, has largely been secure from ISIS attacks, and was even further removed from the chaos that gripped much of Iraq during the earlier insurgency. For Reyes, the most difficult part of his day isn’t insurgents, it’s linguistics.
“The most challenging part is communication,” he said, referring to his work with service members from the 13 different nations housed on the air base. “Trying to explain the construction process is hard sometimes to get across to them, but also because my accent is sometimes stronger than usual.”
Language aside, his work alongside Coalition engineers has been deeply rewarding. “It’s awesome to work with them,” he said. “Those guys have a lot of knowledge. They’re very organized, and plan well. They’ve taught me a lot.”
Shortly after his current deployment is expected to end, Reyes and his wife will celebrate 25 years of marriage, along with his 25 years of military service. In addition to returning to the TSA and completing his bachelor's, he hopes to serve another five years in the Reserve before hanging up his well-worn uniform for good.