By Capt. Dale Greer, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
/ Published June 06, 2009
KENTUCKY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The 123rd Airlift Wing concluded its second major deployment to Afghanistan today when the final rotation of deployed Airmen returned home to a warm welcome from more than 100 family, friends and co-workers on the base flightline.
Waving flags, posters and homemade banners, the anxious crowd cheered as the Kentucky Air Guard C-130 taxied to a stop on the tarmac in front of the Base Fuel Cell Hangar. The scene that followed was punctuated by kisses, hugs and tears as family members rushed to greet the two-dozen returning Airmen as they stepped off the plane.
The Air Guardsmen were among about 200 wing members who have been in Afghanistan since mid-March to provide airlift services as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. They began returning to the United States in rotations that started two weeks ago.
Today's group marks the final homecoming, said Lt. Col. Mark Heiniger, mission commander for the deployed airlift operation.
The Guardsmen flew more than 1,500 combat sorties during the deployment, delivering approximately 6,000 tons of cargo to forward operating bases or airdropping vital equipment and supplies to U.S. and coalition forces on the ground.
"You name it, and we hauled it," Colonel Heiniger said. "Everything from Howitzers, Strikers and Humvees to food, water and mail."
The Kentucky Airmen also transported more than 20,000 Soldiers across the theater of operations, participated in the aeromedical evacuation on injured coalition forces and completed the first-ever sequential airdrop of heavy equipment in Afghanistan.
Using this process, multiple large items are airdropped in series from the rear cargo door of a C-130, Colonel Heiniger explained. The procedure requires perfect execution to avoid a mishap and ensure precise delivery to friendly forces.
Another unique mission involved the transportation of a United Nations employee who had been held hostage by a terrorist organization in Pakistan for two months.
"We got diplomatic clearance and approach plates to fly into a Pakistan air field, picked up the hostage, and flew him back as the aeromeds provided necessary medical care," Colonel Heiniger said. "He was home on U.S.-controlled soil less than six hours after we were first notified of the mission."
A 25-year veteran of C-130 combat and support operations in Panama, Kuwait, Kosovo, Bosnia and Iraq, Colonel Heiniger described the Afghanistan deployment as "the most intense operational environment I've ever seen in the military," with a 24-hour-a-day ops tempo that demands the highest levels of military readiness.
The men and women of the Kentucky Air National Guard did not disappoint.
The unit's C-130 aircraft maintained a nearly perfect mission-capable rate at all times, Colonel Heiniger said, never missing a single planned sortie due to maintenance issues despite a challenging operational environment that included high-altitude navigation and night-time assault landings on unlit dirt runways.
"That's an incredible achievement," he said. "Our maintenance troops went above and beyond what is normally required to prepare the aircraft before our deployment, and they worked equally hard in Afghanistan. Those accomplishments allowed our mission to happen."
Colonel Heiniger singled out Maj. George Tomica and Chief Master Sgt. William Davis for exceptional leadership of the maintenance section during the deployment. He also praised Master Sgt. John Wardrip for his outstanding performance as first sergeant, calling him "the best first shirt I've seen in my entire career."
"We don't know when the man slept, because he took care of everybody," Colonel Heiniger said. "You don't find people with that level of dedication very often, and I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to have worked with him."
The mission was rewarding in other ways, too, not the least of which was the satisfaction that came from making a tangible contribution to the war effort.
"We provided an essential lifeline to many of the troops on the ground," Colonel Heiniger said. "The terrain is unbelievable, with deep valleys and high mountain peaks, so airdrop often is the only way to deliver food, supplies and equipment effectively.
"Overall, I'm very pleased with our mission performance. We assembled the A-team going over there, maintenance got the aircraft ready and we put our folks into positions in which we knew they would excel. They maximized every mission every time, despite a difficult operational environment."
Col. Greg Nelson, commander of the 123rd Airlift Wing, echoed those sentiments.
"The accomplishments of our deployed Airmen over the past two months demonstrate a tremendous amount of exceptional work under very austere conditions," he said. "They also demonstrate our commitment to do whatever is necessary for our nation's defense -- to deploy at any time, to any place -- and to perform with a level of excellence that is unsurpassed in the U.S. military."
This latest mission marks the 123rd Airlift Wing's second major deployment to Afghanistan since 2007 and its fourth major deployment to the Central Command Area of Responsibility since 2003. Previous missions sent hundreds of Kentucky Air Guard forces to multiple locations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 10,000 members of the Kentucky Army and Air National Guard have deployed worldwide in the Global War on Terror.