SELFRIDGE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mich. - More than 300 Michigan Airmen and about a dozen aircraft are now on duty in Afghanistan, the largest deployment for the Michigan Air National Guard to Afghanistan.
"Some of the finest men and women in Michigan will call Afghanistan home for the next several months and will play an integral role in bringing peace and stability to the Afghan people," said Air Force Col. Michael Thomas, commander of the 127th Wing at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, the home station for the Airmen who deployed.
Deployed to Kandahar Airfield, a NATO base in southern Afghanistan, are personnel from the 107th Fighter Squadron, the 127th Operations Group and the 127th Maintenance Group.
Included in the group are pilots, aircrew life support specialists and a wide range of aircraft maintenance personnel, with specialties running from engines and avionics to fuels and weapons systems.
For several of the senior members of the deployment, this is their fourth major overseas deployment since Sept. 11, 2001. The deployment is expected to last about four months, with a number of airmen serving an additional one to two months in Afghanistan.
Moving the group to Afghanistan represented a Herculean task that touched not only all parts of the 127th Wing, but showcased the teamwork of the Total Force focus that exists across the Air Force, according to Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Morgan, deployments noncommissioned officer in charge for the 127th Wing.
Typically, Air National Guard units get about a nine months notice that a deployment will be taking place, said Morgan. In the case of the Selfridge deployment to Afghanistan, the official notification came down with only about 90 days of lead time.
"Every timeline we have for deploying people had to get compressed," Morgan said. "When you are talking about sending people into Afghanistan, not getting it done is not an option."
Chief among the challenges was ensuring that the unit's aircraft were prepared to go into a potentially hostile environment. Initially, the wing's fighter component was scheduled for their rotation to Afghanistan some time in late spring or early summer of 2012. When the Air Force decided to move up that timeline, based on other worldwide requirements of the force, aircraft maintainers at Selfridge moved into high gear.
The 127th Wing was nearing the end of an approximately two year transition process into the A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft, more affectionately known by most as the Warthog. The wing stopped flying F-16 Fighting Falcons in 2009 and began flying the 'Hog.' The wing was targeting declaring its aircraft at initial operational capability by the end of 2011, in keeping with the typical timeline. Instead, the wing's A-10s were declared IOC on June 30, about six months earlier than originally planned.
Preparing Airmen for the deployment was equally critical. Pilots and maintainers had already participated in a Red Flag training exercise, which is the Air Force's premier air combat training program, earlier in the year. In addition, air crews had to go through survival training and various members of the deployment group needed regular upgrade training in their professions.
"There was a lot more pressure on a lot more people, but we got the mission done and everyone left on time," Morgan said.
Among the tasks to forward deploy is ensuring that those who deploy are medically and physically ready. That means physical fitness tests need to be scheduled, run and recorded and medical records need to be updated, said Air Force Master Sgt. Cory McClusky, who works on readiness issues for the 127th Medical Group.
"It does a commander no good - and it does the individual no good - to deploy into a forward area and then have that person not available because there is a medical issue that could have been prevented," McClusky said.
McClusky and other medical specialists review the records of those scheduled to deploy and ensure that they are up to date for any regularly scheduled medical screenings, immunizations or other issues. Complicating the process is the fact that if an Airman is due for a medical procedure during his or her deployment, it needed to be accomplished before the departure.
"So, an Airman might think that he's good to go, but if his birthday falls during the deployment, then we need to do his annual physical before he goes, so he can stay current while he's gone," McClusky said.
Always an area of concern is dental health.
"If we allow a person to go over there who has a dental issue that requires treatment, now that Airman has to be flown out of Afghanistan and probably to Germany for treatment, meaning that there is a shortage in his or her work shop and also that person is taking a place on an aircraft that could be used to transport someone or something else," McClusky said.
Areas of the 127th Mission Support Group had to balloon class offerings over the end of the summer for just-in-time readiness training needed for deployment. In July, August and part of September the 127th Security Forces Squadron combat arms training qualified hundreds of Airmen on the M9, the M16, and the M4.
"Knowing that we had all these folks to train, we dedicated one week a month offering two classes a day specifically for these deployers," said Alan Pionk, the Selfridge Small Arms Range manager and instructor.
The Selfridge range also supports local police departments and other base units' training needs which had to be de-conflicted with the need to train deploying Airmen. With space to train up to 40 Airmen a day, the security forces squadron brought out their own traditional status Guard members to keep the combat arms training classes full of instructors, backfilling other areas of security forces missions as needed.
"We kept a very rapid pace going through our training, as quickly and as safely as reasonably possible," Pionk explained. He estimated they expended close to 4,000 rounds of ammunition for the M16 and M4, and about 1,000 rounds for the M9 in support of getting this large group deployed to Afghanistan.
Survival skills training, a hands-on reinforcement of computer based training teaching the skills needed in post-attack reconnaissance, contamination avoidance and proper wear of the chemical protective over-garment and mask is also required within six months of deployment. The 127th Civil Engineer Emergency Management Flight trained almost 400 people in 24 classes over the 90-day preparation period.
"We are in constant contact with Master Sgt. Morgan's office so that we can be aware of the numbers of Airmen needing training and so we can properly schedule them for our two hour classes," said Air Force Master Sgt. Steven Jakle, 127th Emergency manager. "We set up a lot of classes, worked closely with the unit training managers and kept a close eye on the numbers to ensure these Airmen were trained and ready for this deployment."
The efforts from across the wing to prepare for the deployment represents the best of a long tradition of the Guard always being ready to serve when the nation calls, said Air Force Col. Mac Crawford, 127th MSG commander.
"The Airmen of the 127th Mission Support Group never fail to impress me," Crawford said. "We are one group supporting the continuous deployment requirements of our KC-135s, our Weather Flight folks and now this large deployment of our A-10 contingent to Afghanistan. MSG was there to support and helped make this happen in a very short amount of time, always proving that this wing does indeed 'stand ready' for any mission."
It takes a lot of equipment to keep aircraft flying. Spare parts need to be readily at hand. Tools of all types need to be within easy reach.
The Airmen need to bring extra uniforms. They need gym clothes to work out in. They want to bring pictures of their family to remind them of home and perhaps a creature comfort item or two. All that times about 300 people.
It all added up to some 100 short tons of cargo and equipment - roughly 200,000 pounds. All that cargo made up 41 "increments of stock." Some were pallets of goods. Others were items that don't fit on a regular pallet, such as an extra jet engine.
To carry the load, three C-17 Globemaster IIIs from the 62nd Airlift Wing Joint Base at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington and one from the 60th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Air Force Base in California arrived at Selfridge to take on cargo. All 41 increments were processed in less than 18 working hours, said Morgan. The C-17s made a stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on their way to their final destination in Afghanistan.
The Big Push
Over a four day period, the bulk of the deploying personnel, cargo and aircraft departed for Afghanistan. Several smaller groups of people left a day or two early, to prepare to receive their fellow Airmen, their cargo and aircraft. In each case, family members were on hand to say goodbye to their loved ones. Wing chaplains, the state adjutant general, family support group members and others were on hand for their departures as well.
The cargo load lasted late into the evening on a Saturday and the majority of the personnel left on Sunday, traveling in an Air Force-contracted 767.
Moving such a large group meant assistance from other Air Force commands. In addition to the C-17s that helped move the cargo, two Air National Guard refueling wings - the 155th from Nebraska and the 157th from New Hampshire - as well as a KC-135 from Selfridge's 127th Air Refueling Group provided in-flight refueling to the A-10s while en route.
Due to the relatively slow cruising speed of the A-10s, they made three overnight stops on the way to Afghanistan, picking up additional European-based tanker aircraft along the way for more in-flight fuelings.
Air Force Reserve units in Missouri - the 442nd Fighter Wing from Whiteman Air Force Base - and Louisiana - the 917th Fighter Group at Barksdale Air Force Base - provided some A-10s to the mission, allowing the Michigan Air National Guard to continue to operate some A-10s at Selfridge so that those pilots and maintenance personnel who did not deploy with this group can maintain their qualification levels.
'Biggest' But Not 'Only'
While the deployment of the A-10s represents the largest single deployment by the Michigan Air National Guard at Selfridge since a similar-sized group deployed with F-16 Fighting Falcons to Iraq in 2007, it is far from the only deployment that was taking place this summer and fall.
Morgan said while preparing the A-10 unit to deploy, numerous other much smaller groups, sometimes just a single Airman, were routinely deploying or returning from deployment.
"It's a lot to manage, but we have some people around here who are dedicated to getting the job done right," he said.
Recently, about two dozen of the 127th Wing's civil engineers returned from a six-month deployment to Afghanistan and the wing's KC-135 Airmen have deployed in recent months to locations in Europe and Southwest Asia.
Composed of approximately 1,700 Citizen-Airmen, the 127th Wing of the Michigan Air National Guard is the host organization at Selfridge, flying the KC-135 Stratotanker, an aerial refueler, and the A-10 Thunderbolt II, also known as the Warthog, which is an air-to-ground attack fighter.
In addition to the Wing, Selfridge is home to numerous other military and federal agencies, which fly a variety of helicopters and small, light fixed-wing aircraft.