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Air National Guard aircrew members utilize a jet-assisted takeoff from Camp Summit in April 2003. The ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules is assigned to the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing. JATO provides a few extra knots of speed to pull the aircraft's nose up from skiways on the Greenland ice sheet. (Courtesy photo by Dr. Todd Valentic/Released)
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 Airmen return home from supporting OEF - 3/19/2014
Antarctica to Afghanistan

Posted 3/13/2014   Updated 3/13/2014 Email story   Print story


by Senior Master Sgt. Gary J. Rihn
455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs Superintendent

3/13/2014 - BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan  -- Afghanistan is a world away from Antarctica.

But for a team of Airmen from the 109th Airlift Wing at Stratton Air National Guard Base in Scotia, N.Y., they are both familiar places.

The group of Airmen from the New York Air National Guard usually is responsible for supporting scientists from the National Science Foundation during their excursions to ice-covered regions, using their ski-equipped C-130 Hercules aircraft. They fly missions to Antarctica during the New York winters, which are summers in the southern hemisphere, and then shift missions to support Greenland during the northern summers.

However, a team of Airmen recently found themselves deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, working at the 455th Expeditionary Aerial Port Squadron.

At Bagram, they covered a wide range of duties at the passenger terminal, in the aerial port yard, at a civilian contract airlift provider, and overseeing hazard materials as part of Special Handling. Unlike at their home station, the team here was busy around the clock supporting the Operation Enduring Freedom mission.

Master Sgt. Patrick Fitzgerald, passenger terminal superintendent, noted that Bagram is the busiest airfield in the region, in both cargo and number of passengers handled.

"Between all of the jobs, we're covering all aspects here. It's extremely busy. If you take your hands off the wheel, your eyes off the road, you're going in the ditch", said Fitzgerald.

"The Greenland season back home gets busy, but nothing like this here", added Technical Sgt. Matthew Pierce.

The passenger terminal was responsible for processing and moving hundreds of passengers every day, traveling to and from every corner of the region.

"We bring troops in, send troops home, and get their replacements here so that they can get back to their families", said Technical Sgt. Shane Long, line supervisor at the terminal.

Besides using large cargo planes to move personnel, they also relied on smaller Short Takeoff and Landing aircraft that are able to fly passengers more efficiently on shorter routes while the larger C-17 and C-130 aircraft could concentrate on routes with heavier cargo loads.

Senior Airman Robert Buehler, here on his first deployment, enjoyed working the STOLS mission.

"I'll always remember the sense of family; definitely everyone is close. We were remote locationwise, but bonds developed, we grew together, and had each other's backs every day", said Buehler.

Besides handling passengers, the team also moved thousands of tons of cargo. The most memorable cargo loads were the ones called for during emergencies, and airdropped as bundles.

"Everything has to be bundled quickly when called for in an emergency, for a serious cause, those guys really need that stuff quick, and we get it to them", said Senior Airman Brittany Foster, who worked the dispatch desk.

Another important cargo, that required special handling, was explosives and ammunition. Technical Sgt. Thomas Houck was responsible for ensuring proper packaging and labeling of hazardous goods.

"I know that I'm supporting the war effort by getting ammo to the guys that need it downrange", said Houck.

Technical Sgt. Matthew Pierce added that while other cargo was important, the most meaningful events for him were Dignified Transfers of fallen warriors on their journey home.

"Human Remains transfers were definitely the most precious cargo we handled, they needed and deserved extra special attention", said Pierce.

Though all of the team members were Air National Guard, that never seemed to matter to them or their leadership.

"We never differentiated between Active, Guard, and Reserve...all were members of the 455 EAPS 'Port Dawg' family", said Lt. Col. Ryan Norman, commander of the 455th EAPS. "All the members were vital to the fight and pushed the mission forward every day. They understood the importance of the mission and made it happen. I could not be more proud of their accomplishments and I hate to see them leave. Their talents will be missed. I hope our paths cross again one day down the road."

For some, this was their first deployments. For others, their last.

Airman 1st Class Stephen Marra was on his first deployment, and happy to be with a familiar group of Airmen. "I'm proud of what we do here, getting people to where they need to be. I couldn't do it without the people around me", he said.

At the other end of the spectrum is Technical Sgt. Thomas Houck, who has spent time in the Navy, the Army, and the Air Force and will be retiring soon. He said that this was his last deployment. "I know this will be my last deployment. I want to get the most out of it, and I know I did", he said.

Houck surprised everybody by actually getting married, by proxy, while deployed. He was engaged before he left New York, planning to marry upon his return. When his fiancé's sister passed away unexpectedly while he was here, he thought about the uncertainty of life and decided to move the marriage to the front of his priority list.

Everybody agreed that their time here was rewarding, even if separated from friends and family at home.

"It's important to remember the families. When one member serves, the entire family gives", said Technical Sgt. Amie Moore, who worked at the passenger terminal.

"When you go home, people will say thanks for your sacrifice. Though maybe not outside the wire any more, you did sacrifice, and you accomplished something; all of those missions, those thousands of people and tons of cargo, you made it happen", concluded Fitzgerald.

The team will return to New York in time to take part in their home station mission of supporting the polar flights. As one team member put it, "Sand to snow, pole to pole, we do it all."

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