The past four months demonstrate how the Mississippi National Guard (MSNG) continues to evolve and adapt to missions and requirements.
A busy second quarter for the MSNG saw the 58th Presidential Inauguration, disaster relief in Southern Mississippi, Airmen providing air-refueling support to F-16 Fighting Falcons protecting Super Bowl LI, and the transformation of Gulfport’s Combat Readiness Training Center (CRTC) to a Battlefield Airmen Center (BAC).
In January, approximately 150 Mississippi Guardsmen boarded a C-17 Globemaster at the 172nd Airlift Wing in Flowood, and flew to Washington D.C. to assist local authorities with traffic control, crowd management, communications, and chaplain support operations.
“It was very honoring and very humbling,” said Senior Airman Lauren Salazar, 186th Security Forces Squadron, as she described being sworn in as a special police officer during a ceremony with D.C. policemen. “I’ve never sworn into anything besides the military.”
The MSNG has participated in previous presidential inaugurations most recently. Historically the military has been a part of every ceremony since George Washington in 1798.
While MSNG military police and security forces were in D.C., Guardsmen at home answered the call to assist the state when a deadly tornado swept across Southern Mississippi on Jan. 21. The severe weather damaged more than 1,200 homes in eight counties and left four people dead, according to the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
“It’s devastating,” said Sgt. Christian Cowler, a Soldier assigned to the 3656th Maintenance Company, 184th Sustainment Command (SC). “Hattiesburg and Petal are my home.”
The 3656th Maintenance Company was conducting drill the weekend the EF3 tornado struck and were one of the first units out of the 184th SC to respond. Staff Sgt. Michael Clark, Detachment 1, 3656th Maintenance Co., squad leader, said his team was shocked to see the devastation they encountered when tasked to assist Hattiesburg.
“It was awful,” Clark recalled. “You’d have one house standing, and then at the next door neighbor’s house there would be nothing but a slab left. It’s hard to fathom how we only lost four lives.”
Clark’s unit spent the first day assisting law enforcement with roving patrols and security check points. They ensured only essential personnel such as emergency and search crews were allowed through disaster areas.
“Whatever the police department needed, we were there for,” said Clark.
The tornado’s aftermath was not foreign to Clark, having witnessed and assisted during MSNG recovery operations during Hurricane Katrina. He said he could relate with the victims, remembering when his family’s home suffered $56,000 in damages from the catastrophe in 2005.
He said what made this disaster unique was the manner in which it came.
“This struck like a thief in the night,” said Clark. “No one knew it was coming until it was here.”
To make it worse, those living next to the railroad tracks in Hattiesburg thought the tornado was just the coal train coming through, but when the house started to shake they knew it wasn’t, he said.
Many residents did not have a home to come back to, but they said having the National Guard around to assist helps them look forward with hope as they pick up the pieces.
“We just want to give thanks to all of y’all,” said Jimmy Welch, a Hattiesburg resident who lost his home, “it means a lot.”
Apart from responding to disasters, others supported other missions - such as protecting America’s largest sporting event, the Super Bowl, from threats in the skies. Members of Meridian’s 186th Air Refueling Wing teamed with F-16 pilots during "Falcon Virgo," a training exercise replicating how they would respond if an errant pilot flew into the restricted area over NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas.
“(WAITING FOR AIRMAN QUOTE ON WESNEDSY),” said Airman ( ), 186th Air Refueling Wing.
The drill gave F-16 pilots the chance to play out the scenario from start to finish. They were able to identify and intercept an aircraft and escort it to safety, all while staying in the skies for as long as needed thanks to in-flight refueling from the 186th.
Meanwhile, the Mississippi Air National Guard made a significant change.
Mississippi’s Gulfport Combat Readiness Training Center is now known as the Battlefield Airman Center. The name change came with the U.S. Air National Guard’s new mission focus for the training center.
The BAC’s primary mission is to ensure that Battlefield Airmen are “always ready” to support both global contingency operations and stateside domestic responses. It will provide a unique, realistic, cross-domain training venue where Battlefield Airmen can enhance their combat skills prior to embarking anywhere in the world. They serve in a career field that integrates with operational ground forces.
“When Battlefield Airmen deploy, they integrate with conventional forces and Special Operations Forces. We never want that partnership to be initially forged while in combat,” said Col. Paul Drake, Battlefield Airmen Center commander. “It should be done before going into harm’s way. We in Gulfport want to provide the venue where these operators train like they fight, so they can fight like they train.”
Air National Guard leaders say the BAC will produce trained and ready operational forces through increased training opportunities with joint and international partners in South Mississippi.
Career fields that may see significant training at the BAC are: pararescue airmen, combat rescue officers, combat control airmen, special tactics officers, tactical air control party airmen, air liaison officers, and special operations weather team airmen.