Packed and ready, Alaska Guard waits for action

Posted: Monday, March 17, 2003

FAIRBANKS - Salcha resident Liz Beyer has two sets of bags packed. One contains a uniform in desert browns, the other holds a green camouflage suit.

"I've got my bags packed and I'm waiting for a phone call," Beyer said. "I'm really surprised that we're still here."

That call could come at any minute, sending her and 178 other Alaskans to who knows where, for who knows how long.

Beyer is a master sergeant with the Air National Guard's 210th Rescue Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base. She's also one of the four local Guard members recently activated with others from the 176th Wing out of the Kulis Air National Guard Base in Anchorage.

They're expecting to be dispatched overseas. So far, all they know is they've been activated for a year.

Some, especially crews involved in combat rescue, could face dangerous missions if they end up in the Middle East.

Fairbanksan Steve Fernandez, a gunner for HH-60 Pavehawks that rescue downed pilots, realizes the dangers.

"I think it's something that we need to keep a strong vigilance on. We need to take care of it now, or we'll pay the price later," said Fernandez, a master sergeant with the 210th in Anchorage.

Over the years, the 210th has done several stints in the Middle East in support of no-fly zones over Iraq.

"This time, it's the shooting aspect and doing real combat and search and rescues. It has a different flare to it," Fernandez said.

Nonetheless, it's something that he and others train for.

While Beyer works full-time for the Guard as an operational manager, Fernandez is a traditionalist. That means he usually works one weekend a month and two weeks a year.

Now he's been put on active duty for a year, leaving his job as a control board operator at the Williams Alaska Petroleum refinery in North Pole. The company will offset the pay difference. Otherwise, it would have meant a substantial change for his family.

Fernandez been with the Guard since 1991, but only the last two years as a gunner.

He'll operate a 37-pound, six-barrel minigun on missions. He'll also assist paramedics and other crew members with tasks such as handling radios and providing ground support.

Combat rescue missions are normally planned for nighttime, he said, with the helicopters trying to stick to the valleys and along the tree tops. "We normally would want to sneak in and sneak out unannounced," Fernandez said.

All shots he fires are in self-defense, so "no shots fired means we've been successful," he said. "I am nervous, but not too worried about actually going out and doing it," Fernandez said.

Fernandez will be accompanied by a highly trained and close-knit group of airmen. Many of then have been had repeated visits to the Middle East.

"Nobody's a stranger to the desert here," he said.

Beyer and Fernandez are two of the 12,039 reservists who have been mobilized recently, bringing the total contingent of active-duty Guard and reservists to 188,592.

For Alaska, 309 Guard and reserve troops have been activated, and some already have been deployed overseas. Officials said no one from Juneau is among the activated Guard members awaiting deployment.

Tanker crews from the 168th Air Refueling Wing are somewhere in the Pacific and 33 Alaska Army guardsmen have been activated to help with security at Kulis, said Alaska National Guard spokesman Maj. Mike Haller.

The number of Alaskan Guard members on active duty could grow to about 1,000 guardsmen - roughly a fourth of the Guard force in Alaska, he said.

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