JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. - More than 175 members of the District of Columbia National Guard deployed to Afghanistan earlier this month, initiating the first Air National Guard F-16 deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
F-16 Fighting Falcon pilots, maintenance crews and support personnel from the 113th Wing departed in three stages and on Oct. 11 the final crews and jets began their 7-hour flight across the Atlantic.
"This is the second deployment for our aviation package in 18 months," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Johnson, 113th Wing commander. "However this is the first F-16 package the Air National Guard will send to Afghanistan, so it presents some new challenges for us."
The crews will operate from Bagram Airfield, roughly 40 miles north of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital.
"We'll perform a variety of missions like providing close air support, destroying weapons caches, and taking down high value targets," said Lt. Col. Timothy Madden, 121st Fighter Squadron commander.
Depending on the target or threat, F-16 pilots can aid in gathering intelligence, conducting armed overwatch, tracking vehicles or destroying targets. Their diverse capabilities will keep the squadron in high demand throughout their deployment.
"This is what we train for, and it's the job we signed up for," Madden said. "When we are deployed we get to focus on our jobs in a totally different way, but it comes at a high price."
The father of six speaks from experience as this is his 11th deployment in his 23-year career.
Madden said there is no formula that makes another deployment easier on the family, but knowing he's surrounded by well-trained professionals does make a difference.
"It is very challenging over here. The terrain is mountainous, the weather is starting to roll in - making for some tough scenarios," Madden said. "I'm extremely confident in our team, and I know we will deliver the aerial support or required firepower exactly when it's needed."
The last aviation deployment for the 113 WG and the121 FS took these F-16 operators to Iraq, where they employed weapons against insurgent strongholds and provided key aerial support for Army, Marine and multi-national ground units.
"The operations in Afghanistan will be similar in nature, but it obviously requires a shift in focus to ensure we are meeting the mission goals," said Air Force Col. George Degnon, 113 Wing vice commander.
"We are proud to be the first Air National Guard F-16, Block 30 unit to conduct combat operations in Afghanistan as part of the total force," Degnon said. "This deployment reinforces that the Guard can provide expertly-trained operators at a great value for our nation."
Air National Guard units nationwide have supported deployed operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the 113 Wing - dubbed the Capital Guardians - has a demanding mission at home that made their deployment preparations unique.
"We have the lead [North American Aerospace Defense Command] mission to provide air defenses for the National Capital Region," Johnson said. "Even though we are deploying our forces forward to Afghanistan, we still maintain a constant homeland defense mission here at home."
Since Sept. 11, 2011, the 113th has maintained a 24/7 Aerospace Control Alert response force for the nation's capitol. This includes several pilots and maintenance crews standing by for an alert call (indicating a potential threat), and ready to launch F-16's, armed with live weapons, at any time.
That means while most units can engage all their jets or people to meet a deployment need, the 113th has the added responsibility of balancing their resources to meet a no-fail mission at home and overseas.
"We have a high operations tempo here at the 113th, but that allows us to be much more prepared to answer the nation's call when an emergency situation arises," Johnson said.