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Mon, Aug 09, 2010

An Uncommon Monday -- Fightin' Fifty-Fifth Encounters Historic Milestone

And What Were YOU Doing 20 Years Ago?

Historic, monumental and simply incredible are just a few ways to describe the milestone attained by the men and women of the 55th Wing, of Offutt AFB, NE. Today, August 9th, the Fightin' Fifty-Fifth will surpass 20 years of continuous deployment to U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility by its personnel and RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft.

This almost unfathomable achievement is believed to be the longest single continuous deployment in U.S. Air Force history. "This achievement is truly remarkable," said Brig. Gen. John N.T. Shanahan, 55th WG commander. "I am incredibly proud of the Airmen of the 55th WG who have enthusiastically supported 20 years of continuous deployments to the Middle East. It is a perfect example of how this wing comes together as a team time after time -- active duty, Nebraska Air National Guard, Reservists, civilians and contractors."

As the Air Force's premier airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance wing, the 55th Wing's capabilities have proved indispensable over the past two decades. From being in place at the start of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm to providing valuable intelligence during the Global War on Terror and now as part of Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, the Fightin' Fifty-Fifth has been there.

"It's amazing to think that we have new Airmen assigned to the wing who were born after our first deployment to the region in 1990," General Shanahan said. "Everyone who has ever served in the Fightin' Fifty-Fifth is proud of this achievement and our contributions to the defense of our nation's freedoms."

This milestone's origins go back to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. As U.S. and Coalition moved into Southwest Asia to defend its interests in the region, the 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing was called into action. When those first crews boarded their RC-135s and headed out of Offutt, they had no idea what their final destination would be, what to expect or how long they'd be gone. They initially stopped at Hellenikon Air Base, Greece, while awaiting orders, but once those were in hand they headed straight to the dust and heat of Riyadh Air Base, Saudi Arabia, arriving on Aug. 9, 1990.

"On the way into the AOR, we performed every possible test and operational checkout of our collection and communications systems in order to ensure we had the best system possible for the upcoming missions," said Ronald Schott, a maintenance advisor with L-3 Communications here, who was on the first aircraft into the AOR as a staff sergeant and lead airborne maintenance technician. "I distinctly remember the dust in the air at 30,000 feet; it didn't seem real."

Upon landing the maintenance crews were ushered into a small room in a building near the flightline, which they would use as their staging area. From there they went back to the jet and worked the problems that they found in-flight. Within 48 hours of arriving in theater aircrews began flying combat missions and providing 24-hour coverage.

"I flew the first mission in the AOR," said Tom Lewis, who was also was a lead airborne maintenance technician and staff sergeant in 1990 and is now a contractor here with L-3 Communications. "As the timing went the first plane was to fly in and land shortly after, so it could take the second shift of mission flying. The second aircraft, the one I was on, took off two hours later and then flew a full mission in the AOR before we were relieved by the first aircraft.

"We flew in excess of 16 hours to ensure proper crew rest was met for the first crew," he added. Without proper lodging and support facilities, the unit ensured that there were at least two-to-four RJs airborne at any time for the next few months. Typical missions were roughly 14 hours and make no mistake, the aircrews and maintenance members realized the importance of the mission.

"The bottom line is that during Desert Shield we didn't know what was going to happen when we went up against a dug-in large battle-experienced enemy," said Chief Master Sgt. Steve Hall, a member with the 97th Intelligence Squadron, who was a senior airman at the time and deployed with the first wave of aircraft from the wing into Saudi Arabia. "Everyone knew we were building to a real, no-doubt shooting war. The catch phrase at the time was, 'when the balloon goes up,' for when the war would kick off. I got so tired of hearing that ... I was ready for the darn balloon to go up."

It's a safe bet that those crew members probably didn't feel like descendents of their unit would still be in the AOR 20 years later. "I remember my boss saying, 'we're going to get in there, kick butt and be back home in a week,'" Mr. Schott said. "My response was, 'we'll get our foot in the door there and we'll never leave.'

"Looking back, I'd bet (he) would now agree with my initial assessment," he continued.

"In the years that I would go back over there, I was told so many times that we were going to leave there forever," Mr. Lewis said. "When we fought the last operation, they said that everyone will be home by Christmas - they just forgot to tell us what year.

"I am not surprised that we are still there," he added, "we still add so much to the fight."

"I've spent most of my adult life supporting CENTCOM operations in the Middle East and wish I could see the end in sight," Chief Hall said. "It's been difficult and rewarding, but everyone wants to contribute and be useful to the operations they're involved with and the 55th is certainly all of that and more."

Since that first deployment the members of the 55th WG have kept an impressive operations tempo. After Saddam Hussein's army finally retreated back to Iraq, the wing's support continued with Operations Northern and Southern Watch, which lasted for more than 10 years. Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, America's focus shifted to fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and the old Cold War asset RC-135 was now becoming an effective tool in gaining intelligence on Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations in the region.

"The 55th WG continues to make it happen, regardless of the challenge," said Col. John Hansen, 55th Operations Group commander, who was a first lieutenant and electronic warfare officer on the first 55th WG crew to log combat hours in 1991. "I'm continuously impressed with the work ethic that each one of our Airman displays every day. Many in my group have often heard me say that our mission is simply to fight and win our nation's wars, and I have never been associated with any organization in my 21-plus year career that understands that better than the Fightin' Fifty-Fifth."

The aircrew and maintainers assigned to the 55th WG average 3.1 deployments per year, equating to a 60 days on-60 days off cycle, virtually for their entire military career.

"I've deployed 21 times since that time with this wing and six with Air Force Special Operations Command," said Capt. Albert Gloria, an instructor and TC/C4I flight commander with the 343rd Reconnaissance Squadron, who made it into theater on day 45. "We have always found a way to get the job done."

"We cannot forget our families either," General Shanahan said. "They deserve just as much credit for this incredible milestone. Their unflagging support has been critical to the wing's success."

Today the 763rd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron are the keepers of the flame for the 55th WG. They support theater and national-level consumers with near real-time on-scene intelligence collection analysis and dissemination capabilities across the AOR. Recently this unit flew its 8,000th mission and are proud to be part of this milestone as well.

"It is a tremendous honor to command any unit let alone one with the record of success and achievements belonging to the 763rd ERS and those comprising the RC-135 presence in this AOR for 20 years on a continuous basis," said Lt. Col. Richard M. Rosa, 763rd ERS commander. "We have the best of the best when it comes to our people in both ops and maintenance. They always willingly go the extra mile and never fail to deliver when all the chips are on the table.

"It is truly an honor to be a part of such a remarkable achievement and I am humbled by the experience," he added.

While the personnel, operations and unit names may have changed through the years, one thing that remains constant is the venerable RC-135. While it has gone through upgrades and seen a wide array of technological advances, this airframe continues to answer the call and that's due to the dedication and professionalism of the maintenance personnel.

"Maintenance is the backbone to our operations," Colonel Hansen said. "Without their hard work and dedication our operations would not be possible. 55th Wing maintainers are continuously ready to facilitate mission accomplishment 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and do so in the most professional manner regardless of climate conditions."

"While many things have changed, like the location, the lodging conditions, the areas we operate, one thing is the same - our team of professionals is unsurpassed," said Colonel Rosa, who's currently on his 17th deployment to the CENTCOM AOR. "Without the exceptional maintenance team we have we wouldn't be able to make this mission happen. Their ability to keep our aircraft ready to execute in these challenging conditions is truly miraculous."

In addition to the operators and maintenance personnel from both the 55th Operations Group and 55th Electronic Combat Group (who have been setting records of their own flying the EC-130H Compass Call in support of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom), a whole host of other support elements from the 55th WG have also ensured that the iron is in the fight.

"Every individual from our most experienced pilots, our youngest maintainers, to our tremendous NCOs and civilians running the most hidden back shops are to thank for this success," Colonel Hansen said. "Also, without the incredible support from the communications group, mission support group and medical group none of the successes of the 55th WG would be realized. It is a very large, but very connected team."

Nobody is certain what the next few years will bring as far as operations go or when this incredible streak may end, but there's no doubt that if the 55th WG is being called upon to answer their nation's call, they will be ready. The last 20 years is certainly proof of that.

"I am both humbled and honored to lead such a group of proud professionals," General Shanahan said. "It is true now more than ever that 'the sun never sets on the Fightin' Fifty-Fifth'." [ANN Salutes Ryan Hansen, 55th Wing Public Affairs]



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