Utah Air National Guard fuels fight in Afghanistan

  • Published
  • By Maj. Damien Pickart
  • 376 AEW/PA
The four blue-tailed KC-135 Stratotankers of the Utah Air National Guard's 151st Air Refueling Wing have been a scarce sight on the tarmac at Manas Air Base since deploying here in late June.

Instead, they've spent much of the last few weeks of their first deployment to the Kyrgyz Republic airborne helping the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing keep life saving fuel in the skies over Afghanistan.

More than 130 Guardsmen, based out of Salt Lake City's International Airport, have directly contributed to Manas AB twice breaking its single day fuel offload record and number of aircraft launched. All four 151st ARW KC-135s flew July 8, when the wing launched a total of 15 aircraft and offloaded 975,000 pounds of fuel to a variety of Coalition aircraft operating in the skies over Afghanistan.

"It's incredibly rewarding to contribute to the mission here," said Chief Master Sgt. Joe Mace, the 151st ARW's In-Flight Refueling Program Manager or "Chief Boom." "There's a lot of pride in the face of our Guardsmen knowing that their sweat and effort is having a tangible impact for the troops on the ground," said the Chief, who serves as the 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron first sergeant while here.

Within four hours of arriving June 25, the 151st ARW's first KC-135 on the ground was back in the air carry out the wing's first combat refueling mission over the battlefields of Afghanistan. For some of the Utah Guardsmen, there is a personal element to these missions.

"I'm here to support my little brother," said Lt. Col. Neal Wayment, the 151st Operations Support Flight commander, now serving as the 22nd EARS Director of Operations until August.

A KC-135 pilot on his first deployment to Manas AB, Colonel Wayment is one of three brothers from the same family currently serving in the Armed Forces. The colonel's younger brother, an Army command sergeant major currently serving in Afghanistan, has seen numerous combat engagements, which often rely on air support to affect the outcome. Many combat aircraft operating over Afghanistan rely on tanker support to reach the far flung battlefields and allow enough loiter time to support ground operations.

"My first refueling mission took us over Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan," said Colonel Wayment. "I realized my little brother was down below and it dawned on me that what I was doing might mean all the difference to him and the Soldiers in his unit. That just reinforced why I volunteered to be here."

The 151st ARW is the second ANG tanker unit to deploy to Manas AB, following in the successful footsteps of the 185th ARW from Sioux City, Iowa. The 1,000 Airmen serving at Manas AB epitomize the Total Force concept, in which expeditionary combat wings are comprised of a mixture of Active Duty, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard Airmen, as well as government civilians and contractors.

Many of the Salt Lake City Airmen on this deployment bring to the mission diverse military backgrounds and the maturity necessary to function in a flexible and dynamic expeditionary environment. KC-135 maintainer Tech. Sgt. Steve Martin is just a snapshot of these diverse demographics. His military experience started in the Active Duty Navy aboard a destroyer in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. He has since served in the Army National Guard, followed by 10 years with the 151st ARW as a traditional Guardsman.

"My past service with the Navy and Army has helped me adjust quickly in challenging situations," said Sergeant Martin, who is also a full time Utah State Trooper. "The long days here might be tough for some to adjust to, but I really enjoy the high operations tempo."

With another three weeks remaining in their deployment, the Salt Lake City Guardsmen have adjusted well to life in a deployed setting and are making the most of their time at Manas AB. On top of 12+ hour shifts, many have penciled in time to get off base and volunteer at local orphanages and hospitals and to assist with a variety of community improvement projects.

"The base really takes good care of its Airmen and does a lot to cultivate friendships with the local Kyrgyz residents," said 2nd Lt. Christopher Foote, a KC-135 maintenance officer and 16-year veteran of the 151st ARW. "For many of my Airmen, this is their first deployment ever and they really feel as if they're contributing to the mission in Afghanistan and still finding some time to help the people of Kyrgyzstan."

Inside a two story building in the heart of Manas AB's "Ops Town," Maj. Casey Knowlton manages a blur of controlled activity amid ringing phones and radio chatter. When the Utah Guardsman isn't flying missions, he's manning the communications nerve center that tracks daily refueling operations for the 22nd EARS.

"The mission here is awesome," said Major Knowlton. "On my last flight, we refueled A-10s from the Idaho ANG. These are the very same guys we refuel back home everyday on training missions - only now we were doing in combat what we trained to do. It was incredible to watch them fuel up, break off and strafe enemy positions in the mountains just below us before returning back to our boom to repeat the process. It feels good to directly contribute to lives saved on the ground."

Not far from Ops Town, a tally board on a wall inside the main aircraft maintenance unit facility tracks the previous day's "TICs" or "troops in contact." When troops are in contact for the enemy, air support is often requested, which means tankers at Manas AB and other locations must get airborne to bring fuel to the fight. To many of the Utah ANG maintainers and Airmen deployed here, the daily tally board represents a long chain of events that starts with their efforts on the hot concrete tarmac in the Kyrgyz Republic.

"When we see the TICs on the wall, we know the fuel from our tankers helped put air support overhead to keep our guys safe," said Staff Sgt. Jason Meyerhoff, a KC-135 maintainer with nearly 13 years experience in the Army before joining the 151st ARW. "It really lets us know that what we do everyday really matters."