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Nebraska Airmen continue overseas contingency operations

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An aerospace medical technician takes the temperature of Tech Sgt. Diana Starbuck, an knowledge operations manager craftsman with the 155th Operations Group, 155th Air Refueling Wing, March 25, 2020, at the Nebraska National Guard air base in Lincoln, Nebraska, prior to her boarding a plane for deployment to the U.S. Central Command area in support of overseas contingency operations. Temperature checks were required of all deploying Airmen as a safety measure due to the COVID-19 outbreak.(U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Master Sgt. Shannon Nielsen

LINCOLN, Nebraska --

            Airmen from the 155th Air Refueling Wing deployed to support overseas contingency operations March 25, 2020, from the Nebraska Air National Guard air base in Lincoln.

            The deployment, scheduled 16 months ago, is part of a normal rotation where 50 Airmen traveled to U. S. Central Command, which is in charge of U.S. military operations in the Middle East.

            “It is the same deployment that we've been supporting for a number of years,” said Col. Robert Hargens, Commander, 155th Air Refueling Wing.  “We are providing aircraft refueling operations, airplanes, aircrews, and maintenance personnel, as well as additional support personnel. It’s really a critical resource in that theatre of operations.”

            Hargens explains the vital roles the Nebraska Air National Guard Airmen provide while deployed.

           “Our aircrew will be flying combat missions and get assigned different types of missions in a variety of different places as our maintainers are refueling, pre-flighting, launching and recovering aircraft, as well as, doing all the day-to-day maintenance activities,” Hargens said. “For the support personnel, they are tracking flight records and providing medical support to the crews and maintainers.”

           The Nebraska National Guard Airmen are replacing crews already overseas who have completed their tours. Since this is a re-occurring tour overseas, the Nebraska Air National Guard prepares for this deployment and is still able to respond to other missions if needed.

           “The National Guard is always ready, so we're always responding,” Hargens said. “We still maintain a very robust capability here in the state to be able to respond even with the challenges that are happening right now.”

            The Airmen are used to answering the call to deployment, as this is something Airmen from the 155th Air Refueling Wing have frequently accomplished, multiple times a year to varying locations, since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

            According to Senior Master Sgt. Matt Ellison, boom operator, 155th Operations Group, 155th Air Refueling Wing, many of the Airman are eager to deploy because it provides them the opportunity to focus strictly on what they are passionate about – their jobs.

           “The deployer has the easy part,” Ellison said. “We get to pack up, fly halfway around the world and do what we love, which is flying and working on airplanes.”

            A 28-year veteran, Ellison is no stranger to answering the call.

           “I am lucky,” Ellison said. “My kids are older and are used to me deploying. My wife has only known me in deployment mode.”

           Even though the 155th Air Refueling Wing is deploying some Airmen, it doesn’t take away from the larger Nebraska Air National Guard force in the state that supports the homeland.

           “It shows that we are a flexible force,” Ellison said. “Everyone in this organization has a job to do and not a single person shied away from that job because of what is going on in the outside world. Luckily this deployment is mainly an operations and maintenance deployment which leaves the organizations that are more heavily involved in our state mission at home.”

            One of the roles of the National Guard is being responsible for the defense of the nation despite the challenges going on with COVID-19, Hargens said, which starts with the safety of our Airmen before leaving the country.

            Before deploying actions were taken to ensure the members welfare was a priority, this looked a little different this year in comparison to the past.

           “Due to these real-world circumstances, we have tested and refined our wing processes,” said Lt. Col. Karl Durek, chief of wing plans, 155th Air Refueling Wing. “These refinements included a new streamlined ‘touch-free’ out processing and deployment line created to reduce face-to-face interactions with our deployers, reducing chances for COVID-19 transmission.”

           The 155th Medical Group staff set up multiple stations upon receiving members to the air passenger terminal on base.  Airman passed through each station and completed the required medical screening before getting on to the plane to deploy. Medical examinations added increased checks for fevers, coughs and other symptoms.

           “We are doing an out-processing line which is something we normally do when we have deployers leaving for CENTCOM, but because of the Coronavirus we have to actually have an alternate screening process to screen members,” said Tech. Sgt. Rebecca Kechley, aerospace medical technician, 155th Medical Group, 155th Air Refueling Wing. 

           These new screening measures help ensure all the Airmen were healthy and able to deploy. If an Airman failed one of the screening measures they would not have been able to board the plane.

           “It’s really just an absolutely amazing testament to the Airmen that we have here in the Nebraska Air National Guard,” Hargens said. “Even despite challenges, many of them have difficult situations with their families going on right now, and yet that doesn't dissuade them from being the first to raise their hand and volunteering to do whatever is asked of them.”

            Hargens said this shows how vital and how relevant the Nebraska Air National Guard is in an ever-changing and evolving world, as the Airmen change and evolve to meet the needs of the state and nation.

            “I could not be more proud of the efforts of all of our Airmen,” Hargens added. “The wing stands ready to provide additional support as needs continue to develop.”

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