Tabuk Plus Twenty

  • Published
  • By Mr. Mitch Topal
  • 142d Airlift Squadron

A testament to the resiliency of our Airman, and especially the resourcefulness of those in the Air National Guard, the Tabuk deployment in support of OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM which began in March 2003 was one of the most difficult the 166th Airlift Wing had experienced. Not just one of the largest groupings of C-130s ever (46 total from nearly ten bases), they were part of the 485th Air Expeditionary Wing that included 24 F-15C Eagle fighters and various other support aircraft. All of it was accomplished under woeful desert conditions.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of that deployment, 166th Airlift Wing Public Affairs interviewed three of the 12 remaining Delaware Air National Guard Airman who took part in that operation and are still attached to the DANG. Here is the transcript of that interview.

The Airmen interviewed are:
Lt Col Eric Young, Chief of Aircrew Standards and Evaluations, 166th Operations Group
SMSgt Christopher Coarse, Loadmaster Senior Enlisted Leader, 142d Airlift Squadron
SMSgt Brian Hardy, Flight Engineer, 142d Airlift Squadron

CC: So, I was a new Loadmaster. My seasoning training ended right before we were activated. Our orders started the 3rd of March, and we left on the 9th.

EY: I was prior enlisted and had just become a navigator. I was on seasoning days when September 11th hit. I was like, ‘Wow the timing was either just right or terrible. I was a part-time guard bum. I knew it was going to be busy.’ So, then we left in March 2003. We left as fast as we could, didn’t really know where we were going, and didn’t have all the gear we needed. As a brand-new navigator – a lieutenant – we didn’t even know where Tabuk, Saudi Arabia was. We flew overnight, stopped in Lajes in the Azores for refueling, then again at Sigonella, Italy. From there we flew right in to Tabuk. I remember landing there and it was just a field. Nothing but sand. So bright it hurt your eyes. Later, when you saw something green – green grass or something – it was so offensive it also hurt your eyes because the color was so bright. There were a lot of shocked faces. We expected billeting, a commissary maybe. There was nothing.

BH: At the time we deployed I was with the AMXS. I was a crew chief full-time here. We kept getting told we’re not going anywhere. There’s nothing going on. About a week later we got told we’re taking six airplanes and as many crews as they had, and just enough maintenance people to start up in Tabuk. The rest of the maintenance crews would come over on a C-5 or some sort of transport a little later. We left at the beginning of March, flew into Lajes, got gas and flew into Tabuk. And prior to us leaving, they told us, ‘Look, this is a bare bones base. There’s no BX, nothing. You had to take everything you need take at least 3 to 4 months of shaving cream, and all your supplies – medications and everything.’

CC: We arrived and had to dodge signs on the sides of the taxiways. It was set up for fighters, not Herks. If you see the official photos, 84-0210 was first in line. That was us. Lt. Col Timmons, Maj. Castaldi, Maj. Wesley, MSgt Scott, MSgt Springsteen, MSgt Dillon, SSgt Loveless and I think MSgt Fritz. I think there was an ADVON airplane that had left a day or two prior, but they were parked elsewhere on the field. 

EY: So, you build your tent, find some plywood, find some water and bring it back to your hootch and grab some MREs. At the beginning there something like 15 people to a tent. I was practically sleeping outside. Later, that went down to 12 people. We had to put up the bathroom tents and they never got cleaned. It was always dirty. We used to brag about how long we could go without using them. You always had sand in your eyes and ears. Then we just sat there waiting for the kick-off of this thing. 

CC: You’d go in to take a shower and as soon as you walked out you got hit with a dust storm and think, ‘Well, that was pointless.’ 

BH: We got there a little after some other units, so there were a few spots of tents being built. It was like, ‘Hey, if anyone isn’t doing anything today, you need to go over and start building tents for the people that are coming in.’ 

All: There were six other units: the Niagara New York reserve, Tennessee, Oklahoma, St. Joseph,  Missouri, Charleston, West Virginia, and Kentucky. We got to fly all these different airplanes. Ironically, many of the airplanes we got from Kentucky were there.

BH: They didn’t have room for us so they took a taxiway and said, ‘We’re going to park all your airplanes here.’ Then our maintenance crews kept getting bumped. They had problems with the C-5, and for whatever other reasons, they didn’t get there until the end of March. This thing kicked off and we didn’t have our maintenance people. We had 20 or 25 people there to maintain six aircraft, which was nowhere near what we needed. So, they told us we had to pair up with Oklahoma City. Pair up with them, you help them out and they’ll help you out and we’ll get the job done. We split the crews up, this many on day shift and this many on night shift. We just kept the regeneration of aircraft up for these sorties. Once the rest of our crews showed up, we got more established. We could take care of our own aircraft without borrowing our brethren from other units. But then every time an aircrew flew, they said you have to take along a crew chief in case anything breaks and needs to get fixed. That took away one or two of use during each shift. They took a whole bunch of guard units and dropped us in the middle of the desert onto a bare-bones base and said, ‘Alright. Function. Together.’ It was a big tasking for us. I remember the one general came in and told us, ‘This was my idea to put all the guard people here just to see how it went.’ And it went!

CC: It went very well.

BH: He was very impressed. He showed up to Al Udeid when we got there and told us how impressed with how much cargo and how many missions we flew out of there. They considered the guard as a bunch of part-timers who had regular jobs on the outside. But we executed the mission excellently, and he recognized that.

CC: There’s a lot of talk about the ACE (Agile Combat Environment) and MCA (Multi-Capable Airman) concepts. We employed a lot of that in Tabuk. The Red Horse unit was 1/3 manned, so we put up tents, built floors for them, all kinds of things we wouldn’t normally do. I remember a St. Joe (MO ANG) loadmaster was running a bulldozer, spreading crushed rock for the road.  

EY: We started flying into Baghdad and some other places, landing on taxiways because the runways had been bombed out. There were so many “rainbow” crews- crews made up of members of two or more units. We flew with Oklahoma City and a few others. It a constant flying. There something like 27 lines a day, around the clock. It was rare that we were off for any more than 16 hours. And the food. If you got really tired of eating MREs, you had to find someone else’s chow hall. It could be anywhere – Jordan or whatever. You tried to find the army mess or something. 

CC: The word got out pretty quick that our base had nothing. You’d go all dirty into the chow hall at one of these other bases. As soon as you told them you were from Tabuk, they started throwing food at you and say, ‘Hey, bring this back to your people.” We felt like a bunch of beggars. 

BH: Eventually, we got a chow hall. They had something called a URE, a unit MRE that they prepared in the chow hall. So now everyone’s lining up to eat an MRE. Pretty funny.

EY: I think they also baked some bread and had some fruit so we could at least get something fresh.

BH: The mail started to flow and that really upped morale.

CC: The mail was coming in but it wasn’t getting distributed. So, what a bunch of us did one afternoon was we went in and there was a stack of mail half the size of this [Loadmaster section conference] room. So we went in and just took care of it. The fighters had already gone home, so we sectioned out their mail and figured out what was for the rest of the units and distributed it out. It was one of those deals where the postmaster was so overwhelmed, she just couldn’t deal with it.

EY: We worked in Tabuk up until Cinco De Mayo. At the mission’s peak, Tabuk held 3,500 personnel and over 70 aircraft. By 3-May, shortly before operations ended, the C-130s had flown 1,199 missions, 3,354 sorties, 7,451 hours, hauled 9,382 tons of cargo and 8,800 passengers. All of this was accomplished at a tiny base in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert with little infrastructure or facilities and was subject to constant sandstorms.

BH: And they said, ‘Hey, we’re getting everybody out of Tabuk. The Saudis want us out of here.’ So, some of the units went to Al Udeid. Some units went to other places. 

CC: They had just taken all of the stealth fighters out of “The ‘Deid”. They didn’t need them anymore, so they sent them back home. We got their billeting.

BH: Yeah, they put us next to the Aussies – the Australians.

EY: Going to Al Udeid was like going to Disneyland because they had three chow halls, a tent movie theater, and a tent coffee shop.

BH: The big thing was there was no go home date. Everything was, ‘Two weeks.’ We didn’t get out of there until the 12th of July.  
And one big take-away from the deployment was that the Air National Guard finally garnered the respect it deserved from big air force.

Today, approximately one dozen 166th Airlift Wing members that served in Tabuk are still in the Delaware Air National Guard.