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Puerto Rico Airmen support two wars

  • Published
  • By Louis A. Arana-Barradas
  • Air Force Print News
When Tech. Sgt. Jose Melendez volunteered to deploy with his unit on his first combat tour in Afghanistan, he didn't quite know what to expect.

He'd never been to war. But when he got to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, it didn't take the guardsman long to learn what Airmen are doing in support of the war on terrorism, he said.

Sergeant Melendez went to Bagram AB in September when the Puerto Rico Air National Guard's 156th Airlift Wing deployed two C-130 Hercules and Airmen there. From the moment he landed, the C-130 electrical and environmental systems specialist said the work pace was unreal.

"Over there, you fly 30 missions a day," said the sergeant from Guarabo, Puerto Rico. "Our mission was to support the ground troops around the clock."

It wasn't that he wasn't used to hard work. Back at his home base, Muñiz Air National Guard Base, Puerto Rico, the C-130 wing supports U.S. Southern Command in its war on drugs. That mission takes wing aircraft on support missions throughout Latin America.

But Bagram AB was a stark contrast to the way of life the sergeant has at his tropical isle home. At Bagram AB, each day there was a new work plan. The weather could fluctuate 50 degrees from dawn to dusk and took getting used to. And quite often the squadron had to pack up and send a mission readiness team to some forward-operating base to fix a broken aircraft.

"About every other day we had to fix an aircraft down the road," said Sergeant Melendez, of the 156th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. "There aren't many runways there, they use dirt strips."

The sergeant and fellow Airmen got used to the work with no problems. But they had a hard time dealing with the deaths of fellow servicemembers.

"It's really tough when you see the fallen comrade ceremonies -- we don't have that back home," he said.

The Bagram AB deployment was the first time wing Airmen took their C-130s to help fight the war on terrorism. The wing's Air Expeditionary Forces rotation ends in mid January and Col. Jorge Cantres, the 156th AW commander, said his Airmen have done their jobs in Afghanistan and at home.

Because the wing has so many volunteers for deployments, the Air Force has never had to mobilize the wing, said the colonel from Santurce, Puerto Rico. And with the volunteers, the wing can support two wars. The other front being the ongoing war on drugs. For that mission, the wing has two C-130s, three aircrews and maintainers "deployed" across the base for Coronet Oak duty.

Coronet Oak is U.S. Southern Command's airlift arm. Since the late 1970s, it has given the command a quick response force of airlift planes. The Puerto Rico base inherited the mission in 1999, when Howard Air Force Base, Panama, closed. Since then, four Guard C-130s rotate in to pull two-week to one-month tours of duty. This mission continued as the Muñiz wing transitioned from the F-16 Fighting Falcons it was flying to the Hercules.

The wing now has two permanent slots in the Guard rotation, so Coronet Oak support is the wing's bread and butter mission. Wing transports support American embassies and re-supply U.S. forces in Latin America. They rotate troops in and out of the regions. And aircraft are on alert to airlift special forces into any country in Central America, South America and the Caribbean.

One of the four C-130s on Muñiz's small parking ramp is always on alert while the rest of the wing stands ready to fly out when needed, the colonel said.

For example, just before Thanksgiving, the wing had to mobilize aircraft for a last-minute mission. The Air Force diverted some C-17 Globemaster III transports from a mission to fly U.S. troops home from an exercise in South America.

"All four C-17s were pulled for a higher priority mission," Colonel Cantres said. The Air Force asked the guardsmen to take the mission. "We had to fly 18 C-130 missions to fly those people home before Thanksgiving."

But, typically, wing aircraft fly up to 10 missions per week, Chief Master Sgt. Fred Palmer said. The maintenance squadron superintendent, and New York transplant, has been with the wing 21 years. He now calls Carolina, Puerto Rico, home.

"We have a big participation in supporting (Soto Cano Air Base) Honduras," the chief said. "And we do a lot of support of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba."

But to do its mission, the wing must overcome several challenges.

One challenge is mentally preparing for the cargo the aircraft will transport, said Staff Sgt. Victor Vega, a C-130 loadmaster. But the 198th Airlift Squadron sergeant from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, said that is not always possible.

"Sometimes there is so much cargo that is backlogged, that we have to leave behind material and sort out what is most important, what needs to get there first," he said.

That can make for some unhappy customers. But the sergeant said the wing gets the right cargo to the right place. That includes essentials like food, mail, spare parts and passengers.

"We pretty much maintain the supply line in Latin America," Sergeant Vega said.

Another challenge is keeping the wing's 1963 and 1964 vintage aircraft flying, Colonel Cantres said. But wing maintainers have been doing a good job keeping the old transports flying, he said. Hercules number "515," nicknamed the "Bagram Express," has flown to Afghanistan and back three times. At Bagram AB, wing Airmen maintained their two aircraft at a 91 percent mission capable rate.

"We've had no problems at all," the colonel said. "Our maintenance guys have been doing an outstanding job keeping those planes up to speed."

Chief Palmer said his maintainers are doing whatever it takes to keep the old aircraft "flying at full tilt right now." But he would love for the wing to get new aircraft. An aircraft that "will give us longevity for the next 20 to 25 years."

"We're the only completely dual-language unit in the Air Force," the colonel said. "Without notice, they can call us -- and in three hours we'll be airborne going anywhere they need us to go in the (area of responsibility), prepared to do whatever needs to be done."

Sergeant Melendez knows he might return to Afghanistan or Iraq. But he's ready to go. In the meantime, he helps keep his wing's aging fleet flying. Because he knows the C-130s drive the Coronet Oak mission. Without them, there would be no airlift. And he knows a lot of people depend on the wing.

"Every time we land down there (in Latin America), you see those people, and they're like 'thank God you're here,'" he said.

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