Thursday, April 26, 2012

Members of Iowa Air National Guard Return to Des Moines


Casey Wiedmaier, a junior at Indianola High School, and her prom date Joe Kotz, also a junior, greet Casey’s father, Master Sgt. Brian Wiedmaier, after attending prom April 21, 2012. Brian Wiedmaier’s Iowa Air National Guard unit return to Des Moines late Saturday. (Grant Rodgers/The Register)
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Col. Drew DeHaes, commander of the 132nd Fighter Wing of the Iowa Air National Guard, was a happy man Saturday night.

DeHaes welcomed 220 airmen back to the United States from their deployment in Afghanistan after they landed in Des Moines about 11:20 p.m.

This welcoming ceremony was different for DeHaes: For the first time in 14 years, he didn’t deploy with his unit.

It was tough for DeHaes to stay behind, he said, but necessary as discussions continue in Washington and Des Moines on whether to remake the 132nd Fighter Wing and in the process eliminate hundreds of jobs.

“It’s like practicing with your football team and they go off and go play a game and you have to stay home and mind the score,” he said. “My wife is glad that they’re coming home because I’ve been in a bad mood for the last three months.”

The members of the unit — about 50 of whom had been deployed since November, the rest since the first week of February — returned home Saturday amidst controversy surrounding a proposal to remove all of the 21 F-16 fighter jets from the Des Moines Air National Guard base as a part of Pentagon budget cuts.

The proposal would also cut 378 positions from the unit, including 81 full-time positions. Currently, there are around 1,000 members of the unit.

Eager families gathered to greet the airmen at the Des Moines Air Base on Saturday night while their expected arrival time was delayed several times. For Diane Waldschmidt, mother of F-16 crew chief Ryan Waldschmidt, who was on his first deployment, each delay was hard to handle.

“It was hard tonight with all the delays,” she said. “It was hard, you wait for this moment for three months.”

While Waldschmidt waited for her son with his wife, Tina Claus. Her husband, Lt. Col. Brian Claus has served with the Iowa Air National Guard since 2003 and was returning from his sixth deployment.

After welcoming her husband home for years, she’s learned to expect the delays and the waiting, she said. The wait to see her husband is worth it for Claus, and especially for the couple’s two children, Jacob, 11, and Jessica, 7.

Coming from their house in Omaha, the kids have been ready all day, she said.

“They would be here at 6 a.m. if I would have dragged them here,” she said. “The homecoming is always really good, and the kids always look forward to it.”

DeHaes said that despite the political conversation surrounding the budget cuts, the unit performed “phenomenally.” During the deployment, the airmen flew 800 combat missions in southern Afghanistan, with one of its main duties being protecting U.S. and Afghan fighting forces fighting or patrolling on the ground.

Additionally, the 132nd Fighter Wing performed a first-ever feat for an Air National Guard unit when it moved all its aircraft, equipment and personnel from a base in Bagram to Kandahar Airfield.

“They’re a bunch of trained professionals,” he said. “In the military, you’re taught to compartmentalize. They did an excellent job of putting that aside and really controlling what they could control.”

U.S. Rep. Tom Latham last week opposed the Des Moines cuts at a House panel hearing. Attending Saturday’s homecoming, Latham reiterated his belief that the 132nd Fighter Wing should continue its mission flying F-16 jets in an interview with the Register.

With its outstanding deployment record, the unit shouldn’t have to face reassignment or possible loss in numbers, he said.

“I think it’s ironic that they’re an award-winning wing, they’re called to active duty because of their outstanding performance,” he said.

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