Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Des Moines Air Guard Commander: “We’ll Salute Smartly” If New Mission is Ordered

Brig. Gen. Derek Hill, left, and Col. Drew DeHaes, at a news briefing today at Camp Dodge in Johnston, Iowa
1:08 PM, Mar 7, 2012 | by William Petroski
Iowa National Guard officials – caught in the middle of a budget fight between Pentagon brass and Iowa’s congressional delegation – said today they are standing by let the political process work while the future of the 132nd Fighter Wing is debated in Washington, D.C.

There could be some advantages the U.S. Air Force’s proposal to convert the Des Moines-based F-16 fighter unit to one that controls remotely piloted Predator or Reaper combat aircraft via satellites, said. Col. Drew DeHaes, the wing commander.

“It could be a good thing,” but the plan would require a smaller unit with fewer people, DeHaes told reporters during a briefing at Iowa National Guard headquarters at Camp Dodge in Johnston.

DeHaes and Brig. Gen. Derek Hill, the Iowa Air Guard’s deputy adjutant, also clarified the number of airmen that would be eliminated in Des Moines under the Air Force’s proposal. Under the recommendation announced Tuesday, the 132nd Fighter Wing – which now has 1,002 airmen, would lose 378 airmen, including 81 who are employed full time at the Guard base, officials said.

On Tuesday, members of Iowa’s congressional delegation had said they were told by the Pentagon that 492 positions would be eliminated with the 132nd Fighter Wing, while Tuesday night Guard officials had said that 459 positions would be lost. Guard officials said today that some jobs were double counted in the earlier estimates and the new figure of 378 represents the actual number of people who would be eliminated.

Iowa’s seven-member congressional delegation has unanimously expressed support for the 132nd Fighter Wing, pointing out that the Air Guard provides 35 percent of the Air Force’s capability for 6 percent of the budget. But Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said changes are needed that place a priority on military readiness over force structure with an appropriate balance between full-time Air Force units and Air Guard and Reserve units. A smaller, ready force is preferable to one that is ill-prepared because it lacks adequate resources, he said.

Congress will have the final say in the matter, which is expected to be decided later this summer or fall.

Col. DeHaes said that member of the 132nd Fighter Wing didn’t volunteer for a new mission with remotely piloted aircraft. But if Congress approves the proposal, “we will salute smartly and carry on this mission,” DeHaes said.

Under the proposed downsizing , it’s likely that some airmen would be given an opportunity to retrain for new military occupations, while some others would transfer to other military units, and still others would be discharged or retire, officials said. The changes would take effect during the 2013 federal fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, 2012, under the Air Force proposal, but Congress could direct exactly when a conversion to a new unit would occur, Hill said.

Some airmen serving with the 132nd Fighter Wing said after today’s press briefing that the uncertainty created by the Air Force’s proposal is taking a toll, but they will do their best under the circumstances.

“It feels like you are caught in a whirlwind, but at the same time you have your job to do.and that is what you stay focused on,” said Staff Sgt. Alissa Schell, 26, of Altoona, who loads weapons on F-16 aircraft. She added that she trust’s the Guard’s leadership.

Staff Sgt. Jason Drish, 31, a F-16 mechanic from Altoona, said he has felt “nervous, apprehensive and anxious” about the proposed changes. He has been in the unit for 11 years – the past 10 years on a full-time basis – and he is married with a three-year-old daughter.
 “I would gladly continue to have Des Moines be the best F-16 unit in the country, but I will do a new mission if asked,” Drish said.

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