Meridian Star

November 16, 2012

Air guard takes to skies for disaster and wartime service

By Brian Livingston /
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     From providing crucial eyes on surveillance in a war zone in Afghanistan to giving a helping airlift for the victims of Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast, the 186th Air Refueling Wing has been busy on a wide range of deployments.

    Lt. Col. Brad Crawford of the 18th ARW says the air guardsmen with the wing have been doing yeoman's work for both the citizens of America and the fighting men and women battling insurgent and terrorist forces in Afghanistan. He says no matter where 186th ARW guardsmen are deployed, they are doing a fantastic job.

    "We have had a lot going on and it has really broken loose since Sandy hit the Northeast," says Crawford. "All of these are important missions and we don't take any of them lightly."

    For five years, crews of the RC-26 aircraft stationed at Key Field and manned by air guardsmen from the 186th have been flying important missions in Afghanistan in support of military operations. Lt. Col. Craig Ziemba has been one of the guardsmen doing tours in Afghanistan as the RC-26 has become the aircraft of choice when it comes to ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance).

    "For 64 straight months from classified locations the 45th Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron has continuously flown 24/7 operations amassing an incredible 42,000 combat hours and 9,400 sorties," says Ziemba. "Beginning with a core group of 66 Guardsmen from 11 states, the 45th took what was a niche counter-drug platform and turned it into an inexpensive and effective success story for manned ISR in theatre."

    These missions have saved countless lives, says Ziemba, and contributed to an equal number of successful operations that have stemmed the tide of insurgent activity.

    The commander of the 45th Expeditionary Special Operations Sqadron, Lt. Col. Scott Ritchie, said, “We press forward day in and out with one purpose; to bring our guys home and ensure the bad guys don’t go home. We love this aircraft and this mission and are willing to pass up other opportunities and promotions to shake the hand of a fellow aviator completing his 300th combat sortie. And we smile at the thought of flying with that brother in all of the hellish corners of the world.”

    Crawford says one group of guardsmen just returned from doing a tour in Afghanistan and that more will probably be deployed in the future as the conflict continues. No matter how long it takes, Crawford says the 186th ARW is ready and willing to make their contribution.

    "We are really proud of the work these guardsmen have done throughout the years," Crawford said. "There are only a few crews across the state and really in the nation that are qualified to operate the RC-26 platform and mission so we believe we are a select few who are doing a great deal for the overall effort."

    Closer to home, Crawford said crews of the C-27 Spartan transported ground equipment and personnel to New York supporting Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.

    "I am very glad for the opportunity to participate in an actual mission instead of just training," says Lt. Col. Kelly Miller, 186th Air Refueling Wing C-27J aircraft commander. "This is our first actual mission with the C-27J Spartan aircraft."

    Air crews from Mississippi, Maryland and Ohio coordinated to perform the very first domestic relief operation by the C-27J. Power generators, HUMVEEs and transportation personnel from the 1484th Transportation Company, Ohio National Guard, were flown to Stewart Air National Guard Base, Newburgh, N.Y. to supplement the concentrated clean-up process.

    "This was a very successful mission," says Miller. "This operation definitely helps us to prepare for similar relief efforts here in Mississippi."

    Crawford says the 186th ARW has been building on a growing reputation that has made upper echelon officers take notice.

    "We have become known as a wing that will take whatever mission is assigned to us and make it a success," says Crawford. "We really love challenges no matter if they are here in the states or overseas."