916th brings home Air Force's Outstanding Unit Award
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on January 7, 2007 2:07 AM
By KENNETH FINE
News-Argus Staff Writer
Some are doctors, lawyers or schoolteachers. Others might prepare your food or cut your hair.
But after the nine to five, when their country comes calling, members of the 916th Air Refueling Wing step onto the grounds at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and become something more - airmen.
Wing Commander Col. Paul Sykes' eyes light up when he talks about the accomplishments his reserve unit has made look easy over the last two years -- ones that just earned them the Air Force's Outstanding Unit Award.
"The individual volunteerism is just extraordinary," he said. "I have tremendous pride in these men and women."
They are weekend warriors, he added -- spending their few moments away from full-time jobs on base instead of in bed and working on aircraft instead of watching the big game.
"You got people from Raleigh who work for Nextel or Red Hat -- these big corporations. They take leave from their jobs to come support our nation," Sykes said. "It's amazing."
Sgt. Bill McKinley agrees.
"There's rarely a weekend when people aren't out here flying or working on the jets," he said. "Those are the guys driving down from Raleigh, bailing us out."
For Sykes and other wing officials, those sacrifices are what make each airman so special. Each is relentless in his or her quest to protect their country and fight for freedom for all mankind.
They work on holidays, birthdays and anniversaries. They never call in sick on the eve of a deployment. It's a testament to their commitment to a job well-done, Sykes said.
"It's just the culture of excellence that's been a part of this wing for a long time -- since its inception," he said. "It''s a kind of pride."
And there's reason to be proud -- this is the seventh time the 916th has received the honor. But in years past, the award was presented to Team Seymour, their efforts combined with those of the 4th Fighter Wing.
Sykes said that is what makes this year so meaningful -- the 916th isn't sharing.
"It was really extraordinary this time, to win completely on our own," he said.
They were recognized for exemplary work during the past two years -- executing training and humanitarian missions out of the country, providing support for President George W. Bush and the aircraft that protect Air Force One and utilizing nearly all the capabilities of the KC-135 Stratotanker to the fullest extent.
And, Sykes said, for supporting both Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.
"Obviously Iraq is an ongoing situation that we're all taking part in, whether you're active duty or reserve it's going to be a focal point," he said. "The expectations will always be there. I tell our new folks, 'This is what we do now.' We're not just a weekend a month or two weeks during the year. We're a force that's available to our government 365 days a year."
Not far away in Cairo, airmen completed yet another daunting challenge. The 916th sent one tanker, three aircrews and maintainers to help train Egyptian pilots. During the two-week trip, hundreds of contacts were made and the wing received praise for their precision in the face of adversity -- physical and mental strain.
"Every launch was on time," Sykes said. "We never had a delay. We got some recognition from our Egyptian counterparts over there."
Lt. Col. Eric Jorgensen was there. Like Sykes, he, too, was amazed at the poise of the reserves under his command.
"Taking them over to Egypt where there is very minimal support at the base, and then being able to fly reliably 100 percent of the time, that was impressive," Jorgensen said. "It's certainly not something every unit that goes over there can do."
Back home, members of the wing have been working hard, too, Sykes said.
In fact, KC-135s are almost always somewhere in the skies over the United States -- in support of Operation Noble Eagle, which sends Seymour Johnson tankers across the country in support of fighter jets patrolling U.S. airspace.
"Anywhere in the United States," Sykes said. "We're providing air refueling capabilities to our fighters wherever Homeland Security sees the need."
At the end of the day, these recently named "best of the best reservists," the men and women completing these "extraordinary missions," pack it up and go back to life as civilians, he added. They go back to the classroom, courthouse, restaurant or hospital. But for Sykes and other top Air Force officials, they are still some of America's finest, the weekend warriors of the what is now, officially, the best reserve unit in the Air Force.
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