Colchester airmen deploy

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Airmen from the 158th Fighter Wing line up to board a plane on deployment day, December 7. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Airmen from the 158th Fighter Wing line up to board a plane on deployment day, December 7. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

By MICHAELA HALNON and COURTNEY LAMDIN

Three hundred airmen and multiple F-16 Fighting Falcons from the Vermont Air National Guard arrived in an undisclosed destination on Saturday on a mission to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, a press release said.

According to VTANG Master Sgt. Benjamin Wilson, members of the 158th Fighter Wing will comprise the 134th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron and will fly strike missions as part of the 407th Air Expeditionary Group.

“The capability these total force airmen provide through the use of precision airstrikes will aid in denying ISIL safe haven and provide ground forces in Iraq and Syria the opportunity to conduct localized counter attacks,” Col. David C. Lyons, 407th AEG commander said in the release.

Deployment day was a lot of “hurry up and wait” for those 300 guardsmen, who said goodbye to family members last Wednesday before heading to a hangar at the South Burlington base.

That afternoon, they boarded a commercial plane for Operation Inherent Resolve.

The Guard considers this operation “short-notice,” a non-technical term generally meaning the assignment came less than 30-days before the send-off. Airmen from the 158th Fighter Wing should expect to be home in a few months, according to Maj. Gen. Steven Cray.

Up until last Thursday morning, officials wouldn’t say where the group was headed, only that airmen would be in the United States Central Command area, which includes Northern Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. A press release last Thursday clarified the wing will be flying combat missions, including “precision air-to-ground attack capabilities” in Iraq and Syria.

Officials would not specify the total number of Colchester airmen deploying but confirmed at least one resident would be sent on this mission. In 2014, 56 of the 1,100 VTANG airmen called Colchester home, the second highest total in any town in Vermont or New York.

Airmen with the Vermont Air National Guard's 158th Fighter Wing  prepare to deploy on Operation Inherent Resolve on Wednesday, Dec. 7. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Airmen with the Vermont Air National Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing prepare to deploy on Operation Inherent Resolve on Wednesday, Dec. 7. (Photo by Courtney Lamdin)

Gov.-elect Phil Scott bid the airmen goodbye last Wednesday and told the crowd all of Vermont was looking forward to their safe return. Cray framed the deployment as an opportunity to affect change in a region most Americans will never visit.

“Be proud of that,” Cray said. “Be proud that you’re a Green Mountain Boy.”

The mood inside the hangar was upbeat despite the hours of waiting. Several of the airmen packed snacks for the long plane ride ahead, all provided by Jolley convenience stores.

Eventually, an alarm signaled it was time to go. Many quickly made phone calls before boarding.

Several airmen exchanged high-fives and handshakes with high-ranking officials as they walked down the tarmac to an awaiting plane. It took time to load the few hundred men and women onto the aircraft, and the line snaked around buildings as the sun set overhead.

In a nearby parking lot, a woman stood with two small children, their tiny hands pressed against a chain-link fence.  They were, undoubtedly, saying goodbye from afar as a loved one prepared to fly away.