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Reservists deactivate; some stay on as volunteers

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Families and friends of 291 local Air Force reservists can breathe easier. Members of Air Force Reserve Command’s 445th Airlift Wing here deactivated Feb. 13 after wing members spent most of the past 24 months in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

At one point, the wing had 680 members mobilized. Today about 500 are on active duty. Throughout the Air Force Reserve, some 4,000 activated reservists are on active duty.

Wing C-141 airlifters shuttled nearly 15,000 patients out of the Middle East and many more with their families back to the United States. In addition, the aircrews brought back home more than 200 fallen military heroes.

One high-profile mission involved transporting Thomas Hamill, a civilian contractor who escaped from Iraqi captors last May. Other notable missions included airlifting several Iraqi children for medical care, with one child coming to Ohio for special treatment.

Many of the wing’s activated reservists are returning to their civilian jobs. However, some of them will remain in place as volunteers to help the continuing mission. Air Mobility Command officials at Scott AFB, Ill., have asked the wing to continue flying aeromedical missions out of the Middle East until the end of September. Volunteers will continue the work but on a smaller scale than during activation.

Tech. Sgt. Herb Nicholson and Master Sgt. Sandi Richards of the wing’s 356th Airlift Squadron are among the wing’s 146 volunteers. They have volunteered to continue the mission for another 179 days or more if needed.

“I didn’t go over there and help capture Saddam Hussein but being here at Wright-Patterson was a great honor,” said Sergeant Nicholson, an information management specialist with the squadron.

He temporarily left his civilian job as a State of Ohio parole officer when he was called to active duty two years ago.

“The thing that amazed me -- and this was my first time being activated -- was seeing all the people like puzzle pieces dumped on the floor and watching it all come together and really mean something,” he said. “The wing has taken it to a higher level. This is a big machine, and I was humbled and really proud to be part of it. Without a doubt all the wing members have vital roles in the overall mission.”

Sergeant Richards, who works with Sergeant Nicholson, is also ending two years of active duty.

“We are, in a sense, part of the big picture,” Sergeant Richards said. “After being activated, I was doing a lot of the same things I would do on a normal drill weekend, just at an accelerated pace.”

One of their main duties while active duty was to ensure the pilots and flight engineers in their squadron didn’t get bogged down with administrative issues while flying around the globe. The sergeants plan to continue that job.

“If there was a problem with paperwork or pay, we could at least jump into the middle and help them while they’re off doing a mission,” Sergeant Richards said. “To some extent, we help them so they can keep flying the troops in and the wounded out.”

Wing reservists have volunteered for active-duty tours in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and Noble Eagle. Typically, volunteer tours are 30 to 120 days.

Master Sergeant Edgar Collingwood, 445th Maintenance Squadron inspection section superintendent, is another wing reservist ending two years of active duty.

“We’d been trained so well for so long that when we were activated it wasn’t that difficult of a transition from traditional reservist to active duty,” Sergeant Collingwood said.

Home station maintainers used to complete an inspection on a single C-141 in 42 days but, after 9/11 and all the activations, the inspection time became 10 days. Some work weeks ran seven days, and the hours in a single work day went well passed eight. Many of the squadron maintainers deployed to Iraq, England and Germany.

“Everyone knew why we’re here and understood the mission,” Sergeant Collingwood said. “We saw the wounded. I saw maintenance squadron members giving extra because they knew what was at stake.”

Every time a wing C-141 flies downrange, a maintenance squadron member is aboard.

“They are the insurance policy -- the maintenance guy on the plane -- to keep the plane up and flying,” Sergeant Collingwood said.

He added that the general public might not understand how activation affects reservists.

“People outside the gate don’t really know what we do,” he said. “It’s a tough mission, but we just take it for granted. It’s what we do.”

Tech. Sergeant Kevin Jeager, a deactivated flight engineer with the 356th AS, is used to active duty. He spent 15 years on active duty as a flight engineer and instructor before joining the 445th AW.

“The C-141 is the workhorse of the fleet,” Sergeant Jeager said. “If you see something happening in the world, you can bet we’ll be there.”

Sergeant Jeager said he couldn’t even estimate the number of times he flew into the area of operation during the past 24 months. He said they were “numerous and, thankfully, eventless missions.” During the past two years, he flew to Romania, Kuwait, Italy, England and Spain.

“We supported all branches of the military, all the guys and gals on the ground,” Sergeant Jeager said. “It’s really moving to bring remains back home. I think that will be with me after I leave the 445th. You never forget that. For now, I can relax and go home and be with my wife who went through a lot during this. It’s time.”

Many of the reservists will have a little time off before going back to their regular jobs. For those who have been away from home a lot, flying missions in and out of Germany and Iraq, they have plans for big meals and lots of sleep. But most importantly, they just want to be around their loved ones.