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123rd Civil Engineer Squadron continues to set new standards with Patriot 2009

VOLK FIELD, Wis. -- The Kentucky Air National Guard's 123rd Civil Engineer Squadron has a reputation for overcoming any challenge, and its deployment here in July for the Patriot '09 joint training exercise only served to underscore that point.

The unit was tasked with setting up a Disaster Relief Bed-down Set so that more than 150 follow-on forces would have quarters during the exercise, a combat simulation involving hundreds of Army and Air National Guard forces, active-duty troops and foreign allies deployed to a simulated forward operating base.

The bed-down set, recently developed to support the Department of Homeland Security's natural and man-made disaster-response efforts, was airlifted from its storage site in Fargo, N.D., for the first time but arrived at the Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center two days late because of maintenance issues with a C-17 assigned to deliver the gear, said Capt. Keith Smith, operations officer for the 123 CES.

Despite the lengthy delay, the squadron's Airmen were still able to plan the bed-down site, inventory the set and complete construction in time for exercise participants to be quartered the following day.

Sixteen billeting tents -- enough to house 168 CBRNE Consequence Management Force personnel -- were completed, powered and air-conditioned within 14 hours.

Patriot director Lt. Col. Tim Maguire said the National Guard Bureau exercise had seen a lot of firsts in its nine years, but the 123rd's achievement ranks as one of the more impressive.

"It was amazing watching what they did in the last day and a half," Colonel Maguire said. "They got some great experience out of this, but I think they could've done this in their sleep. I'm thoroughly impressed."

Excellence is nothing new for the 123 CES, which previously earned two Deneke Awards as the top civil engineering squadron in the Air National Guard and, along with its parent 123rd Airlift Wing, boasts a total of 13 U.S. Air Force Outstanding Unit Awards -- including one with a "V" device for valor.

In recent years, work teams and individuals from the 123 CES have been sent to nearly every continent and contingency mission supported by the U.S. military, including deployments to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Arizona for American border defense.

The unit also began four-day Bivouac training long before it was required by Air Force regulations and was a forerunner in going the extra mile in many other requirements, said Lt. Col. Phil Howard, squadron commander.

That record of achievement continues in 2009 with Patriot and a long list of other training events, all designed to bolster the unit's combat skills and prepare it for an Operational Readiness Inspection in 2010, followed by an anticipated overseas deployment.

For example, 2009 training events have included multiple mobility exercises held during regular drill weekends, as well as a six-day deployed homeland-security exercise called Ardent Sentry -- also staged at Volk Field -- in June that tested the unit's command-and-control functions as well as its ability to survive and operate in a hostile environment.

The 123rd completed its annual bivouac training at the Badin, N.C., Combat Readiness Training Center in October and its combat-skills training weekend in May at the Kentucky National Guard's Wendell H. Ford Regional Training Center in Muhlenburg County.

The combat training was conducted by the Kentucky Army National Guard's Pre-Mobility Training Assistance Element, a group of experienced Army combat veterans who normally test and evaluate Guard units before overseas deployments.

This element combined Air Force training requirements and lesson plans with their real-world experience to give the 123rd a level of combat preparedness that far exceeds typical CE training, said Lt. Col. John Cassel, squadron deputy commander.

"The Combat Skills training itself was excellent," said Senior Master Sgt. J.D. Green, superintendent of the 123rd's Pavements and Equipment Shop. "It's something we really need and could use more of."

The unit also has been engaged in real-world contingencies at home. When a historic ice storm crippled Kentucky in January, leaving more than 700,000 utility customers without heat or power for days on end, dozens of Airmen from the 123 CES deployed across the state to open roadways, clear debris, distribute food and water, and conduct door-to-door wellness checks in conjunction with other Air and Army Guardsmen. Many members reported for duty even though their own homes and families lacked electrical service.

"There were a lot of people without power, and we had an opportunity to help them," said Senior Airman Richard FreeĀ  "It felt great to get out and help. We received a lot of thank-yous."

The unit also has distinguished itself with unique capabilities, such as those offered by its Explosive Ordnance Disposal Flight. The flight is recognized as one of the best in the Air National Guard, having produced the 2007 Kentucky Airman of the Year, Staff Sgt. Matt Meuser, and the current Air National Guard NCO of the Year, Tech. Sgt. Robert Woods.

Among it's many recent achievements, the section has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and provided local EOD support for events such as the annual "Thunder Over Louisville" air show and multiple visits by the president and vice president of the United States.

The squadron's Emergency Management Flight also has had a busy year, starting with the ice storm relief mission. It then participated in joint HAZMAT training and helped prepared the entire wing for a deployed Operational Readiness Exercise. The unit also helped federal health officials respond to the danger posed by the H1N1 Swine Flu epidemic this spring by receiving shipments of anti-viral medications from the National Strategic Stockpile and repacking them for distribution to local health departments across the region.

The 123 CES Fire Protection Flight conducted numerous training events this year, too, providing instruction not only for other firefighters, but also emergency management and EOD Airmen, bringing them up to the HAZMAT technician and HAZMAT operations level.

Most units never achieve this depth of training because of the amount of time it requires, but the 123rd did it by carefully scheduling drill periods and augmenting with annual training days, Colonel Howard said.

Classroom training was conducted at home station, while practical training was conducted in Charlotte, N.C., greatly enhancing unit readiness.

Looking ahead to next year's ORI, the 123rd Airlift Wing will depend on CE for force bed-down planning, CBRNE training and other essential services necessary to a successful outcome.

"We've had a lot of opportunities, a lot of challenges and a lot of successes this year," said Colonel Howard, who credited those achievements to the hard work of the squadron's Airmen. "The Kentucky Air Guard is one of the premier Air Guard units in the country because of dedicated Airmen like ours," he said. "They are traditional Guardsmen and women responding to their country and their state's call to service, while still maintaining and balancing family, civilian employment and community needs.

"In the months and years ahead, the 123 CES will continue looking for new and innovative ways to complete our missions and fulfill our motto, 'Don't worry about it; we can do it!' "