Thursday, November 22, 2001

Guard unit headed to Kuwait

Action in Afghanistan changes usual 30-day rotation to 90 days

By Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BLUE ASH — The U.S. military maintains more missions than the one in Afghanistan.

        Senior Airman Scott O'Neal and Airman First Class Chris Price of the 123rd Air Control Squadron, Ohio Air National Guard, know that.

        A few days from now, they will find themselves in the middle of a military action that has nothing to do with probing caves for Osama Bin Laden.

        “We are kind of going to the backwater this time,” said Airman O'Neal, 25, from Pickerington, Ohio, as he and his 19-year-old comrade from Batavia prepared this week at the Blue Ash Air Station for a three-month tour of duty in Kuwait.

        Airmen O'Neal and Price, along with six of their fellow guardsmen from the 123rd Air Control Squadron, will be on the ground in Kuwait. They will monitor the skies above southern Iraq as part of Southern Watch, the operation aimed at making sure Saddam Hussein respects the United Nations-imposed no-fly rule there.

        U.S. military operations in southern and northern Iraq, Bosnia, and Kosovo have continued apace, with thousands of Guard and reserve troops cycling in and out.

        Now, it is the 123rd Air Control Squadron's turn — again.

        A large contingent of airmen from the 123rd did a five-month stint in Kuwait early last year as part of Southern Watch.

        The airmen in Blue Ash know that what they are doing may take on extra significance in the weeks and months ahead.

        Many in Congress and some in the defense establishment in Washington are urging the Bush administration to target the regime of Saddam Hussein next.

        “If that happens,” said Airman O'Neal, “we could be right in the middle of it.”

        Col. Norman Poklar, commander of the 123rd, said that if the events of Sept. 11 had not occurred, the rotation for Southern Watch would have been 30 days, not 90.

        “But with the strain on military resources elsewhere, we're being asked to do 90 days, so that's what our people will do.”

        Airman Price, a college student who lives with his parents in Batavia, said 90 days is a little more daunting an idea than a month-long shift, but he is still “kind of looking forward to it.”

        “My mom was manageable with 30 days,” the young airman said, “but when she found out it was 90, she kind of lost it.”

        Neither airman is married, but both are facing a Christmas in the desert, half a world away from their parents, siblings and girlfriends.

        “Once we get through the holidays, I think I'll be all right with this three-month thing,” Airman Price said. “It's just that I've never been away for the holidays before. My family always goes down to West Virginia to see my grandparents. I'll miss that.”

        The eight members of the 123rd fly to Germany Saturday; they will likely go on to Kuwait some time next week.

        None of the 123rd's sophisticated radar and communications equipment will have to go with them; all that they need to track the air space over southern Iraq is already in place in Kuwait.

        They will pull 12-hour shifts — four days on duty followed by two days off.

        Airman O'Neal said he is looking forward to reuniting with some of the Kuwaiti friends he made when he did a tour there several years ago as an active duty airman.

        One of his Kuwaiti friends visited him in Pickerington two years ago, he said.


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