Guard headed to Qatar

Aerial Refueling Wing prepares for shift from cold to warm missions

Posted: Wednesday, December 31, 2008

FAIRBANKS - Nearly 50 members of the Alaska Air National Guard's 168th Aerial Refueling Wing waited patiently Monday afternoon, watching "The Day After Tomorrow."

The apocalyptic film about climate change fit the moment well. In the next 48 hours, these men and women will have left the Arctic temperatures of Alaska far behind for the warm climate of Qatar.

If kept in a hangar prior to takeoff, a KC-135 can take off in temperatures as low as minus 50. It wasn't that cold Monday night, but it came close.

Crews diligently worked around two of the refueling planes for hours before the first Guardsmen started loading their gear on board.

"The 168th is the best out there at what we do," said Maj. Jhonny Polanco, a pilot who is flying part of the way to Qatar. "We're like a well-oiled machine. When we hear the call to action, we all come together."

Col. Mike Rauenhorst, a commander for the unit, said the refueling missions in Qatar will be very similar to Alaska training missions, though in Qatar the planes being refueled will have to do slightly more work to get in position for aerial refueling.

This group of Guardsmen is made up of both full-timers and traditional Guardsmen who are leaving behind careers for the 12-month mission in support of coalition forces currently fighting the war in Iraq.

"I'm really looking forward to the 70-degree weather," said Amy Gaugen, a full-time member of the Guard, though she still had to pack some jackets and heavy pajamas, since the Qatari desert can get cold at night.

Like many in the unit, senior airman Kit Dawson is not only leaving behind family in Alaska, but also a potential career. He is majoring in physics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"I had been planning to take a semester off anyway, so this deployment didn't get in the way too much," he said.

Longtime Guardsman Master Sgt. Erik Stavany said his wife and four children are used to him going on lengthy deployments now, though it's easier for him to stay in contact than it used to be.

"It's rare that we don't have a phone where we are," he said.

Still, he said his wife was especially jealous of his getting away from Fairbanks' latest cold snap.

"I think I owe my wife a trip to Hawaii when I get back," he said.

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