PRINCE SULTAN AIR BASE, SAUDI ARABIA –
In April 2021, the South Carolina Air National Guard’s 169th Fighter Wing (SCANG) sent more than 300 Airmen for a three-month deployment to Prince Sultan Air Force Base (PSAB), Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in support of Operations INHERENT RESOLVE, FREDOM’S SENTINEL and SPARTAN SHIELD. Surprisingly, 10 members of SCANG also deployed there 30 years earlier for Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM.
The world watched it all unfold, glued to their television screens as they do today on social media. The Americans at home were paying attention to the combat images and the deployed Americans were leading the fight. Among those spearheaded Americans were members of the SCANG stationed at the PSAB in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. SCANG’s F-16 Fighting Falcons dealt blow after blow to Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991 to force them out of Kuwait. SCANG pilots flew 2,000 combat missions and dropped four million pounds of ordnance. And as impressive as those stats are, SCANG maintenance airmen are no slouch. They maintained the highest aircraft mission capability rate in the entire theater of operations.
Aircraft maintainers are a breed in their own right: men and women dedicated to safety, to the mission and to each other. Team leaders are the front-line maintainers who interact with drivers and diagnose and resolve issues on the spot. Weapon Loaders ensure that bombs, missiles, and ammo are properly mounted on the aircraft and deploy as intended when the pilot uses them. There are a host of other maintenance aviators in the back rooms diagnosing, repairing or replacing detail parts to keep the jets aloft. Many of these people leave their loved ones at home and deploy every few years to unfamiliar regions for the love of the craft, despite the distance, hardship and sometimes heartache. During a career, an Air National Guardsman may deploy multiple times. Some in 2021 deployed 12 and 14 times. Actually, Senior Staff Sgt. Chris Talbert has been deployed 15 times, including 12 times in South West Asian countries alone.
“Deployment becomes both easier and more difficult,” Talbert said. “The older I get, the harder it is to leave my family. But the actual deployment becomes easier each time thanks to the experience I have accumulated over the years. When Talbert first deployed in support of Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM, he was single and in his twenties. Now in his 50s, he is married and has four children at home in South Carolina. He continues to deploy because it is his job – serving his country is what he chooses to do full time. The challenge of being away from home for months at a time is a common theme among SCANG Airmen.
Senior Staff Sgt. Martin Gladden, who also deployed with SCANG when he was single in 1991, described how his family accompanied him on his first deployment. “I was the youngest Airman in the unit who had a father deployed with me,” Gladden said. He added: “There were 13 father and son groups deployed with the SCANG at the time.” Ask any guard and they’ll tell you 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 girls. In the 30 years since its first deployment in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Gladden says the biggest change has been “the advent of Wi-Fi and face-to-face video calling”. The PSAB has free Wi-Fi for its US service members. Especially at night, you’ll see Airmen, Soldiers, and Marines walking around with cellphones and computers and chatting with loved ones back home. Thirty years ago there were lines of service men and women waiting at phone booths with calling cards in hand and they were usually limited to five or 10 minutes at a time.
“Wow! The PSAB or as it was called in Desert Storm, Al Kharj Air Base, looks nothing alike,” said Chief Master Sgt. Charles Bowen. “The only recognizable landmark for me is the topping pad, or as we called it in 1991, Texas Stadium. “Architectural and geographic changes weren’t the only changes Bowen recognized. Bowen also saw cultural changes.”[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 when it comes to cultural change.”
Looking back on his first deployment at age 23, Bowen said, “I didn’t know what to expect. I was notified on Boxing Day in 1990 and had no idea where we were going. Bowen explained his expectations in more detail. “I would have based it on what I had seen in the movies of WWII or Vietnam – pure, controlled chaos. Jets leave charged and empty on the way back and some jets from other units don’t come back from the In the six weeks of the Gulf War, the United States lost 28 fixed-wing aircraft, but none from South Carolina and none to maintenance-related causes.
“There’s always this ‘thing’ that can surprise us,” Bowen said of maintaining F-16s in a desert environment. “What I learned is how I/we react, normally determines how others react or don’t react,” he continued. Deploying as a leader this time, Bowen says he now tries to calmly “wind down” and watch younger leaders step in and deal with problems as they arise. “It’s magical to watch and be part of an event where the best maintenance personnel come out to make things happen,” Bowen said.
“Trust the training, trust your leadership, and trust your fellow maintenance co-workers,” Bowen said he would tell his self-deployed youngster. He concluded: “You will know what to do when the going gets tough; live each day to the fullest and in the end, after you return home, you will have memories that will last a lifetime.