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Nebraska Air National Guard members are back in Afghanistan, and more will be going

December 26, 2018

For the first time in several years, the men and women of the Nebraska Air National Guard are getting desert sand from Afghanistan in their boots.

About a quarter of the 900-member 155th Air Refueling Wing are now deployed to a country in the south Asia region, said Col. Robert Hargens, the wing commander.

Though he declined to discuss the location, press releases and videos released by the Pentagon show that aerial refuelers are operating out of Kandahar Air Base in southeastern Afghanistan, while security forces are working at Bagram Air Base in the northeast.

Those are the two largest U.S. air bases in Afghanistan. But Nebraska Air Guard members with various jobs are deployed throughout the theater, Hargens said. And the numbers will be increasing, to about one-third of the force.

“As we get into the new year, we’ll have a lot more,” he said.

President Donald Trump last week made a surprise announcement that about half of the 14,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan will return home by the middle of next year, but it wasn’t accompanied by any specific orders returning troops to the States. Hargens said he has no indication yet whether Nebraska Guard members will be part of the redeployment.

For security reasons, the Guard won’t disclose exact numbers of deployed troops, or how many are at particular locations.

The Nebraska Guard’s KC-135 tankers are operating from Kandahar along with those from Iowa, Kansas and five other states. For the Nebraskans, it’s the first time flying out of Afghanistan after years of operating from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

That shortens flights that can stretch for many hours.

“They spend a lot less time transiting to and from the area of operations,” said Col. John Williams, the 155th Wing’s operations chief.

Master Sgt. Mat Ellison, a boom operator from the 155th Wing, told an Air Force journalist last month that the four-engine jets — built in the late 1950s and early 1960s — can get to their stations in 25 minutes instead of 2½ hours.

“We can get to the fight faster, we enable our warfighters to stay in their mission longer and, on top of that, we are burning less gas with each sortie,” Ellison said.

The Air Force started operating the tanker sorties out of Kandahar in 2017. It affected Nebraska aircraft only this fall, when they began deploying as part of a normal deployment cycle that recurs about every five years, Hargens said.

More munitions have been dropped on Afghanistan this year than any year since 2011, according to data from Air Forces Central Command. It’s part of an effort to pressure the Taliban back to the bargaining table to negotiate an end to the 17-year war.

So the National Guard tankers are busier than ever.

“It’s been almost a decade since we’ve seen this kind of operations tempo,” Hargens said.

The tankers are the most visible Nebraska National Guard presence in Afghanistan, but not the only ones. In addition to the security forces working at Bagram, numerous airmen from the Cornhusker State are deployed singly or in small groups, Hargens said, including administrative and medical personnel and chaplains.

Members of the

155th who are still home at the Wing’s base in Lincoln have worked to help the deployed airmen, and their families. So have members of the community.

Last month, workers at St. Elizabeth Regional Medical Center prepared care packages for those who are deployed. Members of Lincoln Southwest High School’s baseball team helped stuff stockings.

When heavy snow hit Lincoln in November, other members of the unit shoveled the driveways of deployed Guard members’ families.

“There’s a lot of additional stress on family members,” Williams said. “We have to be pretty vigilant.”

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