300 leave for 6-month deployment

Great Falls Tribune

by Peter Johnson

More than 300 RED HORSE mobile construction specialists from Malmstrom Air Force Base and the Montana Air National Guard flew out Monday morning in chartered planes for two weeks of training at a Wisconsin base before deploying to Southwest Asia.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester were there to see off the airmen at Great Falls International Airport amid fog and light rain.

“I wished them good luck and thanked them for their service and sacrifice,” Tester said.

Col. Greg Rosenmerkel, commander of the First Expeditionary RED HORSE unit that combines construction specialists from Malmstrom and MANG said the airmen will work on several projects in Afghanistan and could do work in Iraq and other countries in Southwest Asia.

They’ll be gone for six months.

Earlier Monday morning, dozens of airmen said farewells to their families in two sprawling rooms of a building at Malmstrom. Some hugged little babies or sat with teary spouses, while single airmen sat against walls next to the heavy backpacks they would tote with them.

Some said they were preparing for mountainous Afghanistan’s winter temperatures that are colder than earlier stints in hot and arid Iraq.

Senior Airman Michael Hicks, 23, a single man from Georgia headed for his second overseas assignment, said he learned a lot of skills on his first deployment to Iraq, “which was fairly easy” despite occasional heat of up to 130 degrees that took a few weeks to got accustomed to.

“We constructed buildings and did anything else we were told,” he said. “We generally worked in secured areas considered fairly safe, so I’m not too worried.”

Tech Sgt. Bryan Calaman, 40, an 18-year Air Force veteran, was heading on his eighth deployment, with five of the first seven to war zones.

The construction engineer said he was part of an Army reconstruction unit that encountered enemy fire and suffered casualties last year in Afghanistan. He said he hopes things will be secure doing RED HORSE projects this year.

Calaman said deployments to Iraq were “hot and dirty.” They stayed in tents in areas where the only wildlife were snakes, wild dogs and spiders.

He said his wife and children, aged 16 and 12, “get used to my deploying regularly and are really supportive.”

Staff Sgt. Thomas Dale, an electrician activated with MANG’s 219th RED HORSE squadron to work alongside Malmstrom’s 819th squadron, said this will be his first tour that will involve work in Afghanistan after two stints in Iraq.

He said he enjoys serving his country but will miss seeing 12year-old daughter Leslie’s “volleyball season and most of her seventh-grade year.”

Dale’s wife, Vicki, also is in the Montana Air National Guard, and they once were deployed at the same time, leaving Leslie to stay with grandparents.

MANG Staff Sgt. Scott Glitten, a Helena native now living in Portland, said he is “a little nervous” going on his first deployment but understands from talking to experienced colleagues that the Army does a good job in protecting the RED HORSE teams as they do building projects.

The 819th and 219th RED HORSE squadrons “are an integral part of Team Malmstrom,” even though they’re technically considered a tenant to the missile wing at the Great Falls base, said Col. Anthony Cotton, commander of Malmstrom’s 341st Missile Wing.

“Any time we send troops off I feel a sense of pride,” he said. “I know these guys will take care of business.

“While I feel a little sad to see airmen say goodbye to their spouses and little loved ones, I’m confident they’ll return safe and sound.”

Rosenmerkel, the RED HORSE commander, said troops will reinforce their training on weapons use, moving in convoys and combat life skills while spending two weeks at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin.

“It never gets any easier to deploy,” he said but the airmen have been training for several months and have had a few days to say farewells to family members.

“Our focus in on construction, from buildings to runways and deep wells,” he said. “We typically do that in relatively safe areas, protected by army units, but travel by road between some assignments. That’s why our troops are taught to protect themselves.”

Rosenmerkel said Malmstrom and MANG have services in place to support the families of troops.

“And there’s no place better than Great Falls to deploy from,” he said, citing friendly relations between military and town folks.

Brig. Gen. Brad Livingston, Helena-based commander of the Montana Air National Guard, said he thanked MANG members for their service to both country and state, since traditional, parttime Guardsmen also can be activated by the Montana governor to help fight floods and forest fires.

Livingston said several of the 110 MANG RED HORSE members are heading on their fourth deployments since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, but one-third are being deployed for the first time.

“We’re equally proud of the (less experienced troops) because they knew when they signed up that they likely would be going overseas at least once or twice during their six-year enlistment periods,” Livingston said.