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California and the West

Mum's the Word for State's 1st NATO-Bound Reserves

Military: Security is tight as 'weekend warriors' of 940th Air Refueling Wing bid loved ones goodbye.

May 10, 1999|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MARYSVILLE, Calif. — With the roar of a jet engine and a touch of Mother's Day melancholy, a squad of military reservists left Beale Air Force Base on Sunday to join the first wave of citizen soldiers called up to help NATO's fight against Yugoslavia.

The two dozen airmen and women of the 940th Air Refueling Wing, the first California reserve unit formally deployed in the battle, departed to an undisclosed European base on one of the group's hulking KC-135 stratotanker jet aircraft.

Amid hugs and tears, the reservists said goodbye to family, their workaday jobs and civilian life in general, answering a call to arms that could keep them in uniform--and away from home--for up to nine months.

"It's not the best day to pick, but duty calls," said Col. Mike Tyler, operation's group commander for the 950-person air wing. "There were a lot of tearful goodbyes."

Secrecy was kept tight up to the time of departure at Beale, which is also home to America's fleet of U-2 spy planes. The air wing allowed journalists onto the base, located about 50 miles north of Sacramento, only an hour before the plane took off. Reporters were kept away from the families and flight crew, none of whom volunteered to be interviewed.

The tight lid stems from concerns over threats that the families of some military personnel received in the early days of the Balkan conflict after their names appeared in the media.

The squad from Beale will be deploying about a total of 169 airmen and six tankers to various NATO bases in Europe during the coming week.

So far, about 5,000 "weekend warriors" nationwide have been mobilized for duty in the Balkans conflict, but few have yet to make the trip overseas as the Pentagon brass cements final plans for the deployment. Military leaders have been authorized to call up more than 30,000 reservists, the largest deployment since the Gulf War in 1991.

Most of the reserves called into action across the country are those who fly and maintain the KC-135, a military version of the Boeing 707 that is essentially a flying gas station. This backbone of the nation's air refueling fleet is sorely needed at the war front to keep about 900 allied aircraft aloft, Pentagon officials say. About 55% of the Air Force's refueling chores are handled by reservists.

Col. Vik Malling, the air wing's commander, piloted the drab gray plane at takeoff, kicking up a cloud of dust as the KC-135 roared down the runway and lifted slowly into a cloudless sky.

Before departing, Malling said his crew was well-prepared for their mission, but conceded that it will present hardships for all involved. He declined to predict how long they will be gone, saying only "I've never packed so many bags myself."

The volunteer airmen of the 940th are scattered throughout the state, though the bulk live in Sacramento and other Central Valley communities around the rural air base. Most maintain full-time civilian jobs while also keeping a foot in the military.

While the reservists are away, their spouses face a tough transition on the home front, from juggling new day-care arrangements to dealing with the financial strain of having a civilian paycheck replaced by lower military pay.

Those sorts of difficulties became a serious issue in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Some reserves called into the fight returned to find their lives disrupted by strained marriages, overwhelming debts and irate employers.

The military has tried to address such worries by creating family readiness units that help with home-front problems. At Beale, the unit offers help with car repairs, toll-free telephone and video links with loved ones overseas, financial help and support groups.

"It's hard on the families," said Sgt. Debra Jackson, the air wing's family readiness chief. "We'll try to help them through every crisis."

In addition, the air wing has an ombudsman who works with civilian employers irked by the departure of workers called into duty. It is illegal for employers to fire a reservist on active duty.

"My employer is not happy at all," said one 25-year-old airman with a wife and two young children who is expecting to leave during the coming week. "My family understands I have to do this, but hopes I come home soon."

An overseas deployment is not unusual for the air wing at Beale. The 940th was the first air reserve unit deployed in the Gulf War and has aided in relief efforts to Honduras and Somalia.

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