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Ten Swamp Foxes reflect on thirty years going to the desert

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Carl Clegg
  • 169th Fighter Wing First Sergeant

In April 2021, the South Carolina Air National Guard’s (SCANG) 169th Fighter Wing sent more than 300 Airmen on a three-month deployment to Prince Sultan Air Base (PSAB), Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in support of Operations INHERENT RESOLVE, FREDOM’S SENTINEL and SPARTAN SHIELD. Amazingly, 10 members of the SCANG also deployed there 30 years earlier for Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM.

The world watched it all unfold, glued to their TV screens like they are to social media today. Americans at home were paying attention to combat footage and Americans deployed were leading the fight. Among those Americans at the tip of the spear were members of the SCANG stationed at PSAB in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The SCANG’s F-16 Fighting Falcons struck blow after blow to Saddam Hussein’s military in 1991 to force them out of Kuwait. The SCANG pilots flew 2,000 combat missions and dropped four million pounds of munitions. And as impressive as those statistics are, the SCANG’s maintenance Airmen were not to be outdone. They maintained the highest aircraft mission capable rate in the entire theater of operations.

Aircraft maintainers are a breed all their own—men and women dedicated to safety, the mission and each other. The crew chiefs are the frontline maintainers who interact with the pilots and diagnose and fix issues on the spot. Weapons loaders ensure the bombs, missiles and ammunition are properly mounted to the aircraft and deploy as intended when the pilot employs them. There are a host of other maintenance Airmen in the back shops who diagnose, repair or replace parts in detail to keep the jets in the air. Many of these individuals leave their loved ones at home and deploy every few years to parts unknown for the love of the craft—despite the distance, the hardships and sometimes the heartache. Over the course of a career, an Air National Guardsman can deploy many times. Some in 2021 have deployed 12 and 14 times. In fact, Senior Master Sgt. Chris Talbert has deployed a staggering 15 times, including 12 times just to countries in Southwest Asia.

“Deploying gets easier and harder at the same time,” said Talbert. “As I get older it’s harder to leave my family. But the actual deployment gets easier each time because of the experience I’ve built up over the years.” When Talbert first deployed in support of Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM, he was single and in his 20s. Now in his 50s, he’s married and has four children at home in South Carolina. He keeps deploying because it’s his job—serving his country is what he’s chosen to do full-time. The challenge of being away from home for months at a time is a common theme among the SCANG Airmen.

Senior Master Sgt. Martin Gladden, who also deployed with the SCANG while single in 1991, described how his family came with him on his first deployment. “I was the youngest Airman in the unit who had a father deployed with me,” said Gladden. He added, “There were 13 sets of fathers and sons deployed with the SCANG at the time.” Ask any Guardsman and they’ll tell you that the Guard is like a family but there’s nothing like the family they leave at home and for Gladden, now in his 50s, that family includes a wife and two daughters. In the 30 years since his first deployment to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Gladden says the biggest change has been, “the advent of Wi-Fi and face-to-face video calling.” PSAB has free Wi-Fi available to its U.S. service members. Mostly at night, you’ll see Airmen, Soldiers and Marines walking around with cell phones and computers having conversations with their loved ones at home. Thirty years ago, there were lines of service men and women waiting for pay phones with calling cards in hand and they were usually limited to five or 10 minutes at a time.

“Wow! PSAB or as it was called in Desert Storm, Al Kharj Air Base, doesn’t look the same,” said Chief Master Sgt. Charles Bowen. “The only recognizable landmark for me is the trim pad, or as we called it in 1991, Texas Stadium.” Architectural and geographical changes were not the only changes Bowen recognized. Bowen saw cultural changes too. “[Local] women can drive. I hear techno and American music on the radio, which really surprised me,” he said. “Saudi Arabia has really opened up as far as a cultural shift goes.”

Thinking back to his first deployment at 23, Bowen said, “I didn’t know what to expect. I was notified the day after Christmas in 1990 and I had no idea where we were going.” Bowen explained his expectations further. “I would have based it on what I’d seen in World War II or Vietnam movies—pure, controlled chaos. Jets leaving loaded and empty upon return and some jets from other units not returning at all.” During the six weeks of the Gulf War, the U.S. lost 28 fixed-wing aircraft. But none from South Carolina and none from maintenance-related causes.

“There’s always that ‘one thing’ that can catch us by surprise,” said Bowen about maintaining F-16s in a desert environment. “What I’ve learned, is how I/we react, normally determines how others react or don’t react,” he continued. Deploying this time as a chief, Bowen says he now tries to calmly “throttle back” and watch younger leaders step up and manage issues when they arise. “It’s magical to watch and be a part of an event when the very best in maintenance personnel come out to make big things happen,” said Bowen.

“Trust the training, trust your leadership and trust your maintenance work mates,” Bowen said he’d tell his younger deployed self. He concluded, “You will know what to do when the events start to get tough; live each day to the fullest and in the end, after you get home, you will have memories that will last a lifetime.”