MADISON, Wis. - More than 100 members of the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 128th Air Refueling Wing have been deployed to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam since December, supporting the 506th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron as part of the U.S. Pacific Command.
Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, recently visited the 506th and said the deployed Wisconsin Air National Guard Airmen were making quite an impression.
“It’s clear they are intent on leaving the mission better than they found it,” Knapp said. “They are all in, not content to simply do the minimum effort.”
Lt. Col. Michael Pauls, the officer in charge of the deployed 128th ARW members supporting the 506th EARS, said the deployment has been challenging but successful.
“We have been tasked with dozens of high-priority missions all over the Pacific area of responsibility,” Pauls said. “The aircrews have been enjoying the different mission sets flown these past two months. Within one week, they could be refueling a reconnaissance aircraft over disputed waters, supporting a B-1 bomber on a short-notice recall mission, or being on alert in Alaska.”
The 128th Airmen are part of an effort to provide in-flight refueling for fighter aircraft, airlift assets and bombers to support continuous bomber task force presence and theater security packages in the Pacific region.
The Indo-Pacific Command is one of six U.S. geographic combatant commands, encompassing roughly half the Earth’s surface — stretching from the U.S. west coast to the western border of India and reaching from the North Pole to Antarctica.
“With heightened tensions in today’s world, we have a very important mission,” said Senior Master Sgt. Ryan Branz, aerospace ground support equipment production supervisor on this mission. To cover the busy scheduling demands, they “assembled an A team and a B team, each to work every other day — including weekends and holidays. Those shifts range anywhere from 10 to 14 hours to cover early launches, late recoveries and countless maintenance actions.
“We’ve also been tasked with several forward deployments within the Indo-Pacific Command area of responsibility,“ he said. “During this timeframe, a third of the maintenance crew is gone, leaving us operating with a skeleton crew here. No one complains about the long hours. Everyone is raising their hand to volunteer when asked to step up.”
Lt. Col. Kristin Rebholz, deployed 128th officer in charge of maintenance, said the variety of missions is keeping the refuelers on their toes.
“The forward deployments at the beginning of our trip provided arctic weather training and support,” Rebholz said. “The small teams from maintenance that were sent out learned how to maximize their skills with limited personnel and, at times, limited resources and still made the mission happen — which is great and what we expect to happen.”
Senior Master Sgt. Jeffrey Lampe, an aviation resource manager, said flexibility is key to the deployed Airmen learning to work together and accomplish the mission.
“The individuals on this deployment performed above and beyond expectations,” Lampe said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group to be with.”
While the 506th Expeditionary Air Refueling Group is a permanent resident of the U.S. Air Force’s 36th Operations Group, it is staffed by Air National Guard members from air refueling units across the country. The 506th depends on Air National Guard KC-135 Stratotankers to work alongside active-duty and Air Force Reserve aircraft to provide the aerial refueling and airlift capabilities that support critical U.S. Indo-Pacific Command missions.
Rebholz said learning from their active-duty counterparts has been valuable, and the deployed 128th Airmen are also trying to educate them on what the National Guard brings to the table.
“In Milwaukee, we have better autonomy, relationships built and a hard-working culture that really wants to get the job done,” Rebholz explained. “Being the ‘guest unit,’ you spend a lot of time getting acclimated, trying to explain your importance and existence, and shortly after it’s time to go.”
She said the deployed Airmen have learned quite a bit so far — information they can share with the home unit when they return.
“I loved seeing the increased camaraderie and teamwork the deployment was bringing about among the Airmen,” Knapp said. He presented challenge coins to some of the 128th Airmen and members of the Guam National Guard supporting the visit.
Tech. Sgt. Lavontae Harper, a boom operator, said “flexibility is the key to airpower” has been their motto on this deployment.
“With the ever-changing and growing mission here in the Pacific, our deployers have shown nothing but professionalism and resiliency,” Harper said.
“In 16-plus years, I’ve never had a better trip,” said Master Sgt. Chad Crull, a metals technician. He said seeing service counterparts and international partners participate in Pacific Command exercises has been great.
“This kind of training is especially valuable and salient today as we work to ensure our military is prepared for any conflict, especially in the increasingly strategic Pacific regions,” Knapp said.
This is the first deployment for many of the 128th ARW Airmen, and certainly the first to Guam for others. But the 128th has deployed to Guam in the past.
“The deployments we completed to Guam less than a year ago look completely different,” Pauls said. “The Air Force is moving to the Agile Combat Employment construct in the way we employ airpower. Andersen is the petri dish for that as we learn in the tanker community to develop an expeditionary mindset.”
The 128th ARW Airmen expect to return in late March.