A Lifetime of Service

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Siuta B. Ika
  • 39th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

During a time when frequent job transitions have become the norm, there's a remarkable tale of commitment and heartfelt dedication that has unfolded over the course of an astounding 48 years in the corridors of the 39th Air Base Wing. In an era where change is the only constant, Mehmet Birbiri -- affectionately known simply as Mehmet -- has not just worked here; he's woven his story into the very essence of Incirlik Air Base.

His story isn't merely a narrative of long-standing employment; it's a poignant journey of love, passion, and the profound impact one person can have on a base that, for Mehmet, isn't just a job or location -- it's home.

While Nov. 24, 2023 marked Mehmet’s 48-year anniversary of working at Incirlik, his story began in 1951 in Adana, Türkiye -- the city right outside the gates of Incirlik AB. Mehmet was born and raised in the city, left to attend college in Istanbul, but returned in 1972 following the death of his father.

“I have three brothers and one sister, and I’m the eldest,” Mehmet said. “So when my father died I had to come back to take care of my family.”

His journey at Incirlik began on Nov. 24, 1975 as a clerk at the dry cleaning shop, subsequently taking on roles as a law enforcement desk interpreter and later as a shift supervisor at the dry cleaning shop. Beyond his official duties, Mehmet answered his calling in teaching Turkish language and culture classes at the base education center for the University of Maryland University College.

“I always wanted to help people, which has always been my favorite part of working at Incirlik,” Mehmet said. “The Air Force members here are my country’s guests, so if I can help them in any way it pleases me.”

In 1980, Mehmet worked as a customs liaison officer before transitioning into the host nation advisor role at the public affairs office -- the role that would come to define his career -- in 1985.

This pivotal position allowed him to bridge the gap between the Turkish and U.S. Air Forces, but has required substantial knowledge of both cultures and languages, which showcased Mehmet’s ability to navigate the complexities with tact and grace. His enduring commitment to fostering understanding and cooperation was on display during several critical moments in Incirlik’s history.

Since the 1970s, the base has hosted various U.S. aircraft and saw an explosion in activity stemming from the Defense and Economic Cooperation Agreement signed in 1980; became the center for major earthquake relief efforts in 1976, 1999 and 2023; supported several major U.S. operations like Operations Desert Storm Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and Northern Watch; and supported displaced Americans during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict.

Mehmet remained steadfast through all of these world-altering events, and his perspective is one that only comes with time and experience, said Capt. Kaitlin Cashin, the current chief of the 39th Wing Public Affairs office.

“When Mehmet says why something is the way it is or if we should do something a certain way, our senior leaders here take heed because his words carry the weight of 48 years of Incirlik experience,” she said. “The advice he gives is so wise and fatherly, that I’ve joked that he’s basically my Turkish father.”

Mentoring has become second nature to Mehmet, as he’s served under and provided trusted counsel to 42 different 39th Air Base Wing commanders. He’s also served with nearly 1,000 different public affairs Airmen, to include the current Department of Defense Press Secretary, Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, who served at Incirlik as a first lieutenant from 1994 to 1996.

Mehmet also continued teaching for UMUC for 32 years, finally “retiring” from it in 2009. His “Ask Mehmet” column was born out of teaching, and for several years was a PA best practice throughout the U.S. Air Forces in Europe Command. It’s conservatively estimated that he’s personally impacted more than 100,000 servicemembers and their family members.

Mehmet didn’t simply just “clock in,” work his shift, and “clock out,” he has won more than 75 individual awards -- quarterly, annual, lifetime achievement -- from the squadron level all the way to the Air Force level, which attest to his exceptional contributions as a host nation advisor.

But ask Mehmet, and he’ll be the first to say that his legacy isn’t in the coins, medals and plaques, but rather the cultural bridges he’s built, and the enduring spirit he’s cultivated that defines Incirlik and the relationship between the Turkish and American armed forces.

“When it comes to the foreign policies of our great nations, this isn’t the first time [the relationship between the U.S. and Türkiye] has been complicated,” Mehmet said. “There’s been many ups and downs, and of course the political shade reflects on the activities here, but I can proudly say that the relationship between the Turkish and American Air Forces has always been strong. And I do not see that changing in the future.”

Mehmet’s wisdom extends beyond duty, emphasizing planning, adaptability, and a positive outlook. As he contemplates retirement as he nears 50 years of service, he knows his time at Incirlik may soon come to an end, but that won’t stop him from imparting more nuggets of wisdom to those he encounters.

“You must always see people as equal, and respect their beliefs and personalities,” he said. “Treat people how you want to be treated and always think positively. Life is like a mirror, if you smile at it, it will smile back. Frown and you will see a frown back at you.”