Jan. 11 marks 6,000 consecutive days in Southwest Asia

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Most military units rotate through the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility in cycles ranging from four months to one year. After each deployment, the squadron returns to its home base for training and reconstitution.

But members of the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., called the 763rd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron while deployed, have been on one long deployment -- for more than 16 years.

"This milestone is a real testament to the patriotism and commitment of the aircrews and maintainers of the 55th Wing," said Lt. Col. Doug Sachs, the 763rd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron commander. "Their sacrifice over the years has added valuable intelligence services to our warfighting commanders and nation's leadership."

The intelligence-gathering unit has operated during much of their 6,000 days deployed at an "above max surge" level -- 54 of the last 63 months. Aircrews and maintainers leave for Southwest Asia several times each year for virtually their entire military career. Some officers began as young lieutenants when the RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft first left Nebraska bound for Saudi Arabia Aug. 9, 1990, as Operation Desert Shield began; they're now commanders at the little-known squadron.

The RC-135 squadron, nicknamed "Sundawgs," now operates in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility from an undisclosed location.

"The value of the RC-135 Rivet Joint as an intelligence-gathering platform was proven during Desert Storm," Colonel Sachs said. "Since then, the aircraft has transitioned from a Cold War asset to an important part of our modern terrorist-fighting force."

The RC-135 is an extensively modified C-135 aircraft (a militarized version of the Boeing 707) packed with an on-board sensor suite, allowing the mission crew to detect, identify and trace signals throughout the electromagnetic spectrum. The 25-person mission crew can forward information to a wide range of users via the Rivet Joint's extensive communications suite.

Having been deployed continuously for such a long period has led to several creative solutions to manage manpower and aircraft. Instead of following the standard Air Expeditionary Force rotation schedule used throughout the Air Force, 55th Wing Airmen work a 60 days on/60 days off schedule -- indefinitely.

It's not uncommon for Airmen assigned to the unit to have 15 or more deployments with their squadron; a few have worked through 20-plus deployments so far during their careers. For example, Tech. Sgt. Troy Manges, an RC-135 crew chief, has served on 16 deployments, totaling five years deployed with the Air Force and the 55th Wing.

Master Sgt. Doug Young, an airborne mission supervisor, has lost count of his total number of deployments. Adding together all his rotations and deployments through the years, "it's well over 1,500 days," he said.

"This puts a heavy burden on spouses and children faced with the prospect of constantly having a parent at home only half-time," said Capt. Rabi David, 55th Aircraft Maintenance Unit officer in charge. "The real heroes of this milestone are the families that have endured this grueling schedule throughout these 16-plus years and continue to support our team."

"The dedicated aircrew and aircraft maintainers in these units are committed to this job for one reason: They know they're making a difference every day in the strength of the Air Force by providing real-time intelligence to the warfighter," Captain David said.

"As a vital part of our force structure, the Rivet Joint aircraft and aircrew are always in high demand," said Lt. Gen. Gary L. North, commander of U.S. Central Command Air Forces. "These Airmen and their families are truly the embodiment of 'Service before Self.'"

"Airmen have kept this streak going on the ground and in the air. Airmen continue to make this mission a success. Airmen have made the difference," General North said.

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