The 106th Rescue Wing wants you!
That was part of the message from Colonel Michael F. Canders, commander of the Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing, who delivered the second annual State of the Base speech last Wednesday, March 26, at the unit’s home base at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton.
The Air National Guard unit, which operates under the umbrella of the U.S. Air Force, is in need of personnel, according to Col. Canders. “The pay is good, the benefits are good, but the job satisfaction is excellent,” he said. The commander urged all those interested who qualify for military service to contact the base.
Gathered in the base’s auditorium last week were nearly 100 unit personnel, veterans of the 106th Rescue Wing, and local government officials including Southampton Town Supervisor Linda Kabot, Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi and Westhampton Beach Village Mayor Conrad Teller.
After the colonel’s 45-minute address—which included a seven minute recruiting film highlighting the rescue unit—Mr. Nuzzi said that while mostly everyone knows that the 106th Rescue Wing is based at Gabreski, few realize just how valuable an asset it is for the community and country. “These men and women are amazing,” Mr. Nuzzi said. “I don’t think people really get just how incredible they are.”
Ms. Kabot said those assigned to the 106th Rescue Wing had the most important job of all—saving lives. “You just don’t get more special than that,” she said.
Mayor Teller, who has served as mayor since 2006 and lived in nearby Westhampton Beach for his entire life, said the Air National Guard adds to the morale of the community. “They’ve always been good neighbors,” he said. “They provide jobs and they service the community. I never want to see them leave.”
The first State of the Base address was given last year in the wake of a series of base closings that nearly grounded the 106th Rescue Wing for good. A periodic review, known as a Base Realignment and Closure process, conducted by the Pentagon in 2005 had the 106th Rescue Wing in its sights.
The fat-trimming process considers the value of domestic military bases throughout the country and is aimed at saving billions of dollars by closing underutilized facilities. Another such review will likely occur when a new President takes office in 2009 and Col. Canders is determined to get the word out as to the necessity of the 106th Rescue Wing.
“We need to get our story out,” he said. “And that story is a good one.”
With a federal, state and local mission, the 106th Rescue Wing has a full plate. But, according to the colonel, the men and women of his outfit are ready to meet any challenge thrown their way. “We train constantly for that moment when, God forbid, we’re called on to save a life or respond to a disaster or an attack,” Col. Canders said.
The two seminal events at the heart of the colonel’s address and the focus of the unit’s state of readiness are 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. “No one dreamed we’d get attacked on our own soil,” Col. Canders said. “Defending our homeland is our number one mission.”
After the terrorist attacks, the Rescue Wing inserted pararescue teams into Ground Zero to help scour through the rubble in search of survivors. The workhorse of the 106th is the Pavehawk helicopter. The six choppers assigned to the base have the capability of being refueled in the air by HC-130 tankers allowing the birds to stay in the air longer, travel farther and save more lives.
After Hurricane Katrina, members of the 106th Rescue Wing flew over devastated New Orleans, plucking 161 people from the rooftops of flooded houses. To date, that rescue marks the single largest life-saving event in the unit’s history. In total, the unit has 610 saved lives to its credit. The Rescue Wing’s motto, “That Others May Live,” is a sentiment that Col. Canders said the men and women of the unit take to heart.
With Long Island prone to hurricanes, Col. Canders said Hurricane Katrina was an eye-opening experience. “It was total chaos down there,” he said. “We just flew down and started picking people up.”
With its 9,000-foot-long runway, the air base can accommodate massive C-5 cargo planes—aircraft so large a full court basketball game could be played inside their bellies—that could bring much needed supplies to the East End should a Katrina-like storm hit. The runway also serves as a back-up emergency landing strip during space shuttle missions.
“I don’t know how we’d ever get it out of here,” Col. Canders said of the space shuttle. “But we can land it here.”
During shuttle launches and re-entries, the 106th stands at the ready to rescue astronauts in the event of an aborted mission.
But the duty of the 106th Rescue Wing often takes them further than New Orleans as the unit has deployed overseas to every operational theater since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. After the Gulf War, 106th Rescue Wing pilots deployed to Turkey to enforce the U.N. mandated Northern No Fly Zone over Iraq and to Kuwait to enforce the southern portion. Since 9/11, the unit has seen action in Iraq and Afghanistan with rescuing downed pilots as one of its primary combat tasks.
Today, with the U.S. military engaged throughout the world, the old tag of “weekend warrior” simply doesn’t apply to those serving in the Air National Guard. “We’re fully integrated now,” Col. Canders said. “This is no longer a one weekend a month job.”
Home to the Air National Guard’s oldest flying squadron, the 102nd, the Rescue Wing can trace its proud history back the “aeronautical corps,” which was formed by aviation enthusiasts in the New York National Guard in 1908.
In October 1991, in events depicted in the movie “The Perfect Storm,” rescue pilots from the 106th were sent to rescue a sailor 60 miles from Gabreski Airport. Unable to refuel in the storm, the helicopter ditched in the Atlantic Ocean and Pararescueman Arden “Rick” Smith was lost.