The Changing of the Guard

Ten years after 9/11, what life is like in an Air National Guard unit.

Staff Sergeant Michelle Torrey, right, with Master Sergeant Brett Kitzman load an AIM-120 missile onto an F-16. (Ed Darack)
Air & Space Magazine

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One of the misconceptions of “alert” is that we just sit there and wait. Our top priority while we’re on alert is making sure that we’re ready to go and the aircraft are ready to go when that klaxon goes off. In order for this to happen, the jets have to be run, maintained, loaded, swapped, and prepped at regular intervals so that they can be ready to go on alert. Our maintainers do a great job of keeping our 25-year-old jets in tip-top shape, but every day that we don’t fly, we have requirements to go out and do checks and prep work on the airplanes ourselves to make sure they’re ready to go when we’re scrambled.

—Major TenEyck LaTourrette

When the horn goes off, we treat it as a real-world situation, even if it’s practice.

Weapons are inventoried daily, even if they don’t move—even the inert ones used for training. Everything has to be accounted for, down to the last round of 20-mm bullets. If there is one missing round, we search every aircraft.

—Master Sergeant Mark Bond, Crew Chief

After 9/11, I was essentially working two full-time jobs, one at United Airlines and one at the Guard. When I was furloughed a year later by United, that meant I had only one job, and my family would again know what I looked like.

For now it’s a good balance, but by the end of 2012, things will get interesting. 9/11 and the economic downturn allowed many of us to put our civilian careers on hold to fill the 9/11 tasking. Employers have been very accommodating, because if their employee came back they would have to lay off someone else, so they would rather let us stay on leave. But there’s a storm brewing. The Air Force had a need for UAV pilots [operators of unpiloted aerial vehicles], so they involuntarily transitioned current fighter pilots, and downplayed the fighter track to new graduates from the academy. They’re now facing a fighter pilot shortage. The airlines are slowly hiring again. When the airlines are hiring, pilots leaving active duty increases. The age-60 [retirement] rule has delayed airline retirements, because the [new] rule allowed pilots to stay for another five years. That five-year period will be over at the end of 2012, and mandatory retirements will skyrocket. That is when the airlines, short on pilots, will make [Guard] pilots come back. And the Guard units will look to fill the empty positions from a fighter pilot pool that does not exist.

—Lieutenant Colonel Scott Van Beek

All but two of us have been to combat in this squadron, and those two will get combat experience in 2012 when we go to Afghanistan. So we’ve dropped bombs and strafed targets—and watched enemy combatants die—and we have also watched friendly troops on the ground die. That’s the hardest thing, watching our guys on the ground die under enemy fire.

Here we know that about every 18 months we’re going to get deployed. I’m going to be deploying with people I’ve flown with for 15 years, so we’re really comfortable with each other. That’s something really unique about the Air National Guard.

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