ANCHORAGE - All the members of the 176th Wing out of Kulis Air National Guard Base volunteered to serve their country. Some of them can't seem to stop.
The latest group to volunteer for overseas missions left Thursday, when 62 airmen boarded a C-17 headed for Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, where some will remain for up to six months. For the past six years, the deployments, and the volunteer rates, have been relatively constant.
"Over the last few years, the wing has had someone in theater at almost all times," said Brig. Gen. Tony Hart, the wing commander. "We've had volunteers the entire time."
That's one of the reasons the 176th Wing received the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, announced Friday. The competitive award, given annually to only a few units, means the 176th is one of the best in the service, said spokeswoman Kalei Brooks.
Since October 2001, some 1,200 Alaska Air National Guard airmen from the 176th have deployed out of a pool of about 1,280 in the wing, Staff Sgt. Eric Hamilton said. On any given day, about 65 members of the wing are deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Many of the airmen have been to the Middle East twice -- that's the average, he said. Some are working on their third deployment.
Staff Sgt. Matthew Lucas, with security forces, is heading to Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan along with 26 others to provide security for the base. He's already been to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq and compared the experience to "being a prisoner" because there is little else to do other than one's job and work out. Still, he volunteered to go.
"It always stinks when you have to leave (home)," he said. "The hardest part is leaving them. The worst-case scenario is I get a 10-minute phone call once a week."
But the 32-year-old Miami native still volunteered to temporarily leave his wife and two sons for a six-month deployment.
In contrast to the deployments of other branches, the Air National Guard deploys units, but not people, for an extended time. The result is that personnel rotate through deployments quickly, like the nearly 40 who left Thursday bound for Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, where they will remain for two months.
Their unit is already there and has been since December. The detachment at Bagram now will be heading back when they arrive, and they in turn will rotate out in about two months, when the final group of volunteers will finish up the unit's tour, scheduled to end in June.
The pararescuemen and their support teams going to Afghanistan will focus primarily on search and rescue operations, while the security forces - like military police - deployed to Kyrgyzstan will be primarily working on base security when they replace troops from the 168th Wing based out of Eielson Air Force Base who have been in country for eight months.
The base in Kyrgyzstan - a joint venture between NATO and U.S. forces - acts largely as a support hub for missions in Afghanistan, Hart said.
That troops can be swapped out is the result of "plug and play" training that keeps the forces ready to operate at any time with any airmen, he said. The high volunteer rate is, in part, the result of the shorter deployments, which have helped keep morale high, Hart said.
"It's purely voluntary so they are able to fill their deployment rosters with volunteers," Brooks said. "Because the deployments on individuals are shorter, it's more attractive to volunteer."
Master Sgt. Mark Karstetter, for example, volunteered to deploy to the Middle East for his third time.
"To be there to help with the goal of bringing our guys home is why I go," Karstetter said Thursday, awaiting the flight out. "We're like a giant family, so everyone looks out for everyone else."
Karstetter, who is a six-year veteran of the Anchorage Police Department when not serving in the guard, has already spent about 12 months total deployed.
To do that, though, means he's going to spend his 40th birthday there. It also means he's going to spend his first wedding anniversary away from his wife, Rebecca.
He and the others who are deploying to Afghanistan are only going for about 60 days. The airmen headed to Kyrgyzstan are going for six months. Actually, 179 days in country, said Master Sgt. Curtis Brenton. Not that anyone's counting.
Aside from personal hardship, the deployments do stretch the force, which still needs to take care of its primary domestic mission -- assisting with things like disaster relief in Alaska and the Pacific, and search and rescues.
"It does put pressure on us here at home because we've got to keep the mission here going," Hart said.
Apparently the wing has kept up. The Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, for service between August 2005 and September 2007, cites the Middle East deployments along with Operation Jump Start, a border patrol mission the unit carried out in the southwestern U.S.
The unit deployed to Louisiana to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina, saving 1,282 lives and evacuating 11,927 people. During the period, the 176th also intercepted 22 Russian bombers and "escorted" them out of its area of operations, along with a number of other high-profile missions.
Thursday, 62 members left to work on completing another. The airmen, who have been shuffling into harm's way for more than six years running, stepped outside and boarded two blue buses headed out to the C-17 for their flight.
Their families pressed up against the windows, watching as clouds of breath condensed on the glass. Some wiped away tears as the buses pulled away. A baby began to cry.
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