By Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith
Special to American Forces Press Service
March 13, 2009 - Air National Guard civil engineer squadrons comprising hundreds of construction and repair experts will involuntary deploy overseas in historic numbers and scope over the next two years, senior Air Guard officials said. The mobilizations involve nearly one-eighth of the Air Guard's civil engineer squadrons and differ from previous deployments, when citizen-airmen stepped forward as volunteers to man joint expeditionary groups.
"We have large groups being involuntarily mobilized in the beginning and middle of 2009," Air Force Col. John Elwood of the Air Guard Readiness Center's civil engineer office said. He said that notices also are coming for 2010.
Since 9/11, civil engineers have provided ongoing support among the nearly 60,000 Guard soldiers and airmen now supporting operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
These new deployments will put more boots on the ground in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, and where the Air Force's civil engineers operate in theater, Elwood said.
The tons of equipment and acres of command centers that civil engineers manage, improve, move, take home and stand up put them in high demand, Elwood said.
There are 87 Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force, or Prime BEEF, squadrons in the Air National Guard. Prime BEEF airmen include trained electricians, plumbers, carpenters, heavy equipment operators, and heating and air-conditioning specialists who maintain military bases at home and overseas.
"As you take down a base or build one, someone has to manage the electric, the water, the buildings, and the runways and maintain them," Elwood said. "This is all part of that process."
Prime BEEF teams will mobilize almost all of their airmen with the exception of base firefighters.
Air Force Lt. Col. Paul Novello, commander of the New Jersey Air National Guard's 108th Civil Engineer Squadron, broke the news of their involuntary deployment during the February training assembly.
As a Prime BEEF unit, Novello's nearly 90 airmen are recognized as the Air Force's civil engineers of the year for the Guard and Reserve.
His airmen have volunteered for individual combat deployments since 9/11, and the unit has deployed groups of 30 to 40 airmen for training events and exercises.
But their recent orders to involuntarily deploy the squadron are the first he can recall. "Overall, everybody took it very well," he said.
Their notification comes months before their departure, so Novello said they will train and prepare their families and employers until then.
"The two things we don't anticipate worrying about over there is mowing the grass and snow removal," he said joking.
But on a more serious note, Novello said the absence of his entire squadron, which maintains its own infrastructure on McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., will require "strict planning" to keep their base construction and repair projects going. "That's a problem we are addressing," he said.
New Jersey's governor and adjutant general are well prepared to handle any state emergencies in their absence, he added.
"The beautiful part of New Jersey is we have two quick reaction forces, so we have some depth to our state missions," he said.
The airmen soon will head to Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., and its regional training center, where they and other Prime BEEFs will train in their wartime skills, he said. They also plan to attend an Air Force Silver Flag expeditionary exercise at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.
Novello said the advantage of deploying as a hometown unit is that they know and trust each other. Most of his airmen have more than 20 years of service and just as many years working together.
"We are one big team," he said. Another advantage, he added, is that the leadership and unit experience they gain in theater will carry over to their state missions and Air Guard.
But for other squadrons, the involuntary deployments are business as usual. While full squadron mobilizations for Prime BEEF are unusual, RED HORSE -- Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers -- and Army Guard engineers have normally deployed as hometown units.
Lt. Col. Terry Robinson, logistics officer for the Pennsylvania Guard's 201st RED HORSE at Fort Indiantown Gap, said their combat area deployment this year will be their third since 2002. The Air Guard has eight RED HORSE squadrons, and Elwood said three more will deploy into next year.
RED HORSE is a heavy repair and construction element. Two, 200-person squadrons join in deployment as a full RED HORSE that can build bases and operate independently of other organizations.
Their special capabilities include explosive demolition and concrete and asphalt operations, as well as rock quarrying.
The demand for RED HORSE also is growing, Robinson said. "We recently grew by a full RED HORSE in the Guard," he said.
For their mobilization, Robinson said his big concern is to prepare everyone it affects. "We've done it a couple of times, and we understand how it works with our employers and families. The best advice I can give [Prime BEEF] is to train like you intend to go to war.
"It's a simple concept we all try to do, but we all make concessions, and we need to make training as real as possible," he continued. "Keep abreast of what's happening in theater, because that's what you have to train to."
(Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith serves with the National Guard Bureau.)