By Brian Livingston
One of the main reasons for supporters of the Air Force Association to come together this week at Northwood County Club was to honor airmen of the 186th Air Refueling Wing.
But the underlying concern of continued air missions for Key Field and the G. V. Montgomery National Guard Center was quite evident as well. Each speaker, from 186th ARW Commander Col. Franklin Chalk to U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, who was the guest speaker, expounded on how the facility and the Mississippi Air National Guard needs to keep flying missions in Meridian especially with the KC-135 tankers due to move out in the next two years.
"The most important issue right now is to find a bridge mission for Meridian," said Harper, to a round of applause from the crowd. "It makes no sense to abandon this facility with the track record it has established over the years."
But the politics had to wait until the five airmen plus a Civil Air Patrol cadet were recognized for outstanding service in the past year. Those winners were: Airman 1st Class Steven N. Robinson, Outstanding Airman of the Year, Staff Sgt. Jeremy S. Stokes, Outstanding Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year, Mstr. Sgt. John J. Maloney, Outstanding Senior Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year, Sr. Mstr. Sgt. Rodger S. Goodwin, First Sergeant of the Year, and Mstr. Sgt. David E. Miller, the recipient of the Charles L. Sullivan Leadership Award Nominee. Also honored was Cadet 2nd Lt. Lindsey Summerlin of the Civil Air Patrol for her accomplishments in 2008.
The AFA's chief role is to educate the public about the missions of the U.S. Air Force and to advocate for a strong national defense. Locally the chapter promotes interest in the missions of the 186th ARW and associated units of the Air National Guard based at Key Field.
"Everywhere we go we hear great things about the 186th and the 172nd based in Jackson," said BG Don Roberts, of the Mississippi Air National Guard.
Harper, who serves on the House Judiciary Committee and the Committee on House Administration, is also a member of the National Guard and Reserve Components Caucus. One of his main messages focused on updating the attendees on efforts to ensure a long-term flying mission is always in Meridian and in the process keeping a $48 million payroll and $88 million economic impact in the area.
"I recognize just how important the military is to Lauderdale County and Meridian," said Harper. "That is why we must fight to keep a flying mission here. I am committed to helping the 186th and its future."
Harper also touched on the fact Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wants to cease the F-22 Raptor program, which the Lockheed Martin facility here in Meridian helps in producing.
"I took a tour of the facility with Joe Mercado and I would hate to see the F-22 project stopped," he said.