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Alaska Guardsmen return from deployment

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Paul Mann
  • 168th Wing
Thirty-four Airmen from the 168th Wing returned home from a deployment to Qatar on Oct. 16, and if previous deployments are any indication of mission tempo, these Airmen were busy.

Aircrew and maintenance Airmen from the 168th deployed transferred more than 30 million pounds of fuel, and flew more than 1,000 hours in support of the United States and coalition forces, according to Master Sgt. Robert Mercado, assistant noncommissioned officer in charge of the 168th Operations Group aviation resource management, or HARM office,

"Our Alaska Air National Guard Airmen are the absolute best at what they do. Deploying in support of the war on terrorism, taking the fight to the enemy, upholds the finest American and Alaskan traditions of service and sacrifice," said Col. Bryan White, 168th Operations Group commander.

Airmen flew home onboard two of the Interior Alaska unit's KC-135R Stratotankers, and flew in a two-ship formation overhead, flying just above the runway at Eielson Air Force Base, "the culmination of a successful deployment to Southwest Asia," said Lt. Col. Jhonny Polanco, acting commander of the 168th Air Refueling Squadron.

Not only was this the return home for 34 Airmen, it was the final trip home for two members of the operations group, Lt. Col. Buck Smith and Lt. Col. Matthew Mrzena. Smith exited the aircraft and walked into the open arms of his wife Karyn, both knowing that he will be retiring this December from the 168th Wing and from the Air National Guard.

"We owe them a huge debt of gratitude, and are very thankful they are now home safely with their families," said White.

For Mrzena it was a little different welcome, a somewhat wet welcome. This was his final flight, or "fini flight" with the 168th.

The fini flight is a tradition that dates back to World War II and is a celebration for an aviator, their family and friends, and signifies the end of an airman's career or transfer to another air frame. It generally involves the Airman getting sprayed down or drenched with water.

Mrzena was greeted at the base of the aircraft's passenger stairs by Polanco sporting a fire hose, while Mrzena's crew doused him with bottled water from above. The flight marked the last time Mrzena will be a crew member on board an Air National Guard aircraft, and possibly the last in his career. He is transitioning back to the active duty Air Force and will no longer have a flying position.

Luckily for Mrzena, his drenching happened inside the group's hanger, and not outside where temperatures were in the teens. Quite the difference from where these Airmen had just left: Qatar and its average October temperatures of 80 degrees Fahrenheit, or Fairbanks and its average October temperature of 27 degrees.

"Man, it's cold in here," said Lt. Col. Mrzena as the water dripped down his forehead.