By Mary L. Crider
Posted: Wednesday, December 22, 2010 9:40 am | Updated: 9:51 am, Wed Dec 22, 2010
Editor's Note: Each year, the Times Record newsroom staff votes on the Top 10 local stories of the year. The March deployment of more than 200 members of the 188th Fighter Wing to Afghanistan ranks as the No. 10 story of 2010.
As many area residents were focused on preparing for spring in March, the thoughts of the families of the Air National Guard's 188th Fighter Wing were on the coming deployment of more than 200 airmen to Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.
The Aerospace Expeditionary Force deployment was the 188th's first combat deployment since it traded its F-16 fighter jets for A-10C Thunderbolt II "Warthogs" in April 2007. The change in mission to close air support resulted in large part from a rally of community support for the 188th when word spread that the Base Closure and Realignment Commission planned to strip it of its flying mission. The wing's previous combat deployment had been in 2005 when 267 airmen and 10 F-16 Flying Falcons went to Balad Air Base in Iraq for a three month rotation.
The more than 200 who left on March 8 joined about 50 other airmen from the 188th who'd previously deployed in January. The 200 faced more than a two-month rotation and would be attached in Kandahar to the 451st Expeditionary Wing.
According to a news release by Capt. Heath Allen of public affairs, the 188th had already deployed pilots, maintenance and support personnel beginning in late February to bolster continuity between the 188th and the 175th Fighter Wing, an A-10 unit out of Baltimore with whom they shared the deployment.
More than 200 airmen returned to Fort Smith just before midnight May 17, and more than 1,000 people were present at their homecoming gathering at the Fort Smith base.
On May 23, 10 pilots and their A-10C "Warthogs" returned from their Aerospace Expeditionary Force deployment where they provided close air support for ground troops in contact with the enemy and escorted convoys through particularly hostile territory, according to a 188th news release. When not supporting ground troops, they patrolled designated sectors and provided aerial reconnaissance for ground commanders. They worked round the clock, according to the news release.
"If we saved one ground troop's life, we did our job over there," said 1st Lt. Wade Hendrickson.
Hendrickson missed some big moments in his family's life. His May 23 return to Fort Smith marked his reunion with his wife Malea and their then 5-month-old daughter Rylin.
On May 25, a final group of 50 airmen, completing the Aerospace Expeditionary Force 2010 deployment.
At the time, Col. Tom Anderson, the wing's commander, said: "We worked very hard to prepare for this deployment, and many sacrifices were made not just by the airmen but by their families as well. It was a group effort, and all of our guardsmen performed admirably while deployed to Kandahar. It was an important mission, and we accomplished it with pride. Most importantly, however, we're glad to have everyone home safe."
Not all area service people returned safely this year.
Army Sgt. David S. "Scott" Robinson, 25, formerly of Fort Smith died Nov. 20 in a noncombat accident in Qualat, Afghanistan. He was serving with the A Troop, 2nd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, V Corps in Zabul Province, Afghanistan. It was the gunner's third overseas tour.
Sgt. Vincent L.C. Owens, 21, of Fort Smith, formerly of Spiro died March 1 of wounds suffered in Yosuf Khel, Afghanistan, when his unit came under fire. The motor transport operator was assigned to Forward Support Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team. He'd joined the Army in August 2007, and was posthumously promoted from specialist to sergeant.
Lance Cpl. Irvin M Ceniceros, also 21, a Marine from Knoxville and a graduate of Clarksville schools, died Oct. 14 in Afghanistan's Helmand province, according to the Department of Defense. Ceniceros was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif.