177th joins mix in Afghanistan

U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Jeffrey Montemurro does last minute checks on an F-16C Fighting Falcon piloted by Lt. Col. Bradford Everman on Feb 5, 2012 at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.  Everman is the commander of the 119th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, and Montemurro is assigned to the 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.  Both are deployed from the 177th Fighter Wing, New Jersey Air National Guard, which is located at Atlantic City International Airport, NJ.  The 177th is deployed to provide close air support to coalition forces.  U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht

U.S. Air Force Airman First Class Jeffrey Montemurro does last minute checks on an F-16C Fighting Falcon piloted by Lt. Col. Bradford Everman on Feb 5, 2012 at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. Everman is the commander of the 119th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, and Montemurro is assigned to the 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. Both are deployed from the 177th Fighter Wing, New Jersey Air National Guard, which is located at Atlantic City International Airport, NJ. The 177th is deployed to provide close air support to coalition forces. U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Bradford Everman, an F-16C Fighting Falcon pilot, does a pre-flight briefing with Airman First Class Jeffrey Montemurro, an F-16C crew chief, on Feb 5, 2012 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.  Everman is the commander of the 119th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, and Montemurro is assigned to the 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.  Both are deployed from the 177th Fighter Wing, New Jersey Air National Guard, which is located at Atlantic City International Airport, NJ.  The 177th is deployed to provide close air support to coalition forces.  U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Bradford Everman, an F-16C Fighting Falcon pilot, does a pre-flight briefing with Airman First Class Jeffrey Montemurro, an F-16C crew chief, on Feb 5, 2012 at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Everman is the commander of the 119th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, and Montemurro is assigned to the 455th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. Both are deployed from the 177th Fighter Wing, New Jersey Air National Guard, which is located at Atlantic City International Airport, NJ. The 177th is deployed to provide close air support to coalition forces. U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht

An F-16C Fighting Falcon with the 177th Fighter Wing, New Jersey Air National Guard, on a mission in Afghanistan on Oct. 23, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo)

An F-16C Fighting Falcon with the 177th Fighter Wing, New Jersey Air National Guard, on a mission in Afghanistan on Oct. 23, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Egg Harbor Township -- Preparing for and going through all those inspections was stressful for the 177th Fighter Wing, but when it came time to deploy to Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan in December 2011 all that preparation really paid off.

"Having been through a UCI (unit compliance inspection), a Phase I and Phase II ORI (operational readiness inspection), we fit the Air Force mold perfectly," said Lt. Col. Bradford R. Everman, deputy commander, 177th Maintenance group. "Our preparation for those inspections ensured we were on our game."

This was important, because unlike Iraq where the Guard has always been a part of the deployment mix, Afghanistan was just the opposite - only active duty fighter units had been deployed to this theater. This was the first F-16 Air National Guard deployment to Bagram.

"It was an opportunity to show that the Air National Guard could integrate with active duty and coalition forces," said Everman.

That meant assuming new roles and responsibilities.

"My supervisor wasn't there, so I had to go to the meetings and report the shop's status," said aircraft electrician Tech. Sgt. Jamie A. Tonkinson.

"As supervisors we had to communicate better with the younger troops," said weapons loader Tech. Sgt. Bradley Rivera-Reynoso. "It was important to insuring mission success."

The numbers speak for themselves, 662 sorties for 1,828 hours while setting a new standard for highest fully mission capable rates for the oldest F-16 airframes in the Air Force and Air National Guard inventory.

"F-16s make a real difference at that location," said Everman. "With fewer resources we can cover greater ground."

The 177th executed dozens of attacks, including using laser and satellite guided bombs, as well as strafing runs and shows of force.

"The mere fact that we were putting bombs on target - that was a new experience for the younger Airmen," said Rivera-Reynoso. "We took pride in the lives we were saving."

"Just the presence of an F-16 and the enemy would slink away," said Everman.

"I had a cousin in the Army over here and he said he slept better knowing there was air support protecting him," said Rivera-Reynoso.

It wasn't an easy deployment. While New Jersey was experiencing one of the warmest winters on record with virtually no snowfall, the 177th Airmen were being punished with sub-zero temperatures and snowfall that measured in the inches per hour. Combined with going from an elevation of 66 feet above sea level - what they were used to in New Jersey - to 4,895 in the mountains of Afghanistan, there were some serious adjustment issues to contend with.

"It felt like we were getting 'feets' of snow," said Tonkinson.

"Normally there was only five to nine inches of snow," said Everman. "We got more than 50 inches and the season wasn't over by the time we left."

The snow had a bigger effect other than forcing everyone to bundle up and trying to avoid slipping on the ice, the ramps had to be kept clear because the aircraft had to be mission ready at all times.

"We were out shoveling snow 12 hours a day," said Tonkinson. "It was cold manual labor, but nobody complained. Everybody pulled the gumption to get it done out from their center."

The phrase "war does not take a holiday" was certainly true at Bagram.

"On Christmas eve the insurgents mortared the base," said Everman.

The key to the deployment's success was the ingredient that is found everywhere in the military: Teamwork.

"I am amazed at how hard people will work in austere conditions to get the job done," said Everman.

Tonkinson amplified that sentiment: " We were all in the same box. Everybody tried to make it fun, we were all working together."

"It wasn't different shops over there, it was one shop," concluded Rivera-Reynoso. "It was my most fulfilling deployment."