As the world awaits war in Iraq, the Indiana Air National Guard's 181st Fighter Wing, located at Terre Haute International Airport-Hulman Field, deployed approximately 150 members Thursday night to Incirlik Air Base in Adana, Turkey. An advance party of 54 airmen left more than a week ago.
According to Colonel Gary L Peters, the 181st Fighter Wing Commander, the airmen will support "Operation Northern Watch", a United Nations' mission designed to enforce UN resolutions that established a "No Fly Zone" over northern Iraq in the early 1990s.
The 181st Fighter Wing Racers have supported Operation Northern Watch twice before this mission. This scheduled 30-day deployment will mark the fourth time the Wing has gone overseas to support the U.S. Air Force's Aerospace Expeditionary Force.
The Racers will "rainbow" with Air National Guard Units from South Dakota and Michigan to cover their 30-day commitment of the 90-day rotation in Turkey. The 181st Fighter Wing members will fly and maintain F-16 fighter jets that are already in the region.
"We're a part-time force," said Col. Peters. "We're not active duty. These airmen have families and jobs. We're a volunteer force and the only country in the world to do that. These airmen are proud to volunteer and protect our freedoms. Their values are strong and they understand what American values are about."
Of the 150 members being deployed about 10 are from Clay County. Senior Master Sgt. Robbin Halcomb lives on SR 340 in Brazil. He is part of the 39th Expeditionary Wing and expects to be gone only about 15 days.
"We've known about this for about 15 months," said the 28-year veteran, "so it was no surprise. We've prepared for this and have taken terrorist training so I don't feel any unusual danger."
Halcomb's wife, Karen, agreed that it was no surprise. "But you don't get use to it," she said. "Our kids are older now and they help me take care of things. I think I'm a little more worried about this time, though, than his other trips, just because of the situation of the world today."
Halcomb's two daughters, granddaughter and son-in-law were also there to see him off. He would be leaving with the other airmen on an L 1011 American Trans Air charter plane. The palm trees painted on the tail of the plane contrasted the seriousness of the mission.
It was expected to be a six-hour flight to Shannon, Ireland with a three-hour law over. Then on to Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey to complete the approximate 24 hour trip.
Halcomb said each unit had anticipated time periods for deployment depending on their jobs but there were no guarantees.
"If I have to stay longer I may miss my granddaughter's second birthday and my younger daughter's graduation," Halcomb said.
"I would be very disappointed if that happens but we have to do our jobs. Part of my job is to assure my family that every thing will be OK."
The 181st has several women, also. Airman Briannon Kanavy is a criminology major at Indiana State University. The 20-year-old Terre Haute resident said, "I'm excited. It's an adventure."
Her parents, sadly, said they were very proud of her. Sixteen-year-old brother, Bo Kanavy, hugged his sister and cried just before she boarded.
As the time for boarding neared, the crowd of several hundred gathered near the hanger doors. The closer they got the quieter it became. Occasionally over the subdued sounds of chatter a laugh could be heard. But it seemed more from nerves than anything humorous.
Then the hanger doors were opened and the airmen picked up their baggage and gear and headed for the plane. There were last good-byes and waves. A few high fives and salutes. One dad was heard telling his young son who appeared to be about 10 to "take care of your mom". The youngster nodded with tears spilling down his face.
Outside, as the airmen boarded the plane, no words could be heard over the sounds of the jet's engines but the expressions on the faces of those staying behind spoke volumes. It seemed that leaving was harder than being gone. At approximately 2304 hours (11:04 p.m.) the plane taxied down the runway, ascended into the heavens and the 150 members of the 181 Fighter Wing disappeared into the dark night sky.