Thirty-seven Utah Air National Guard members flew out of Salt Lake City Tuesday morning for a monthlong tour of duty in Saudi Arabia.
The deployment - in support of Operation Desert Shield - is the second trip to the Middle East for some of the Guard members, who fly and provide ground support for KC-135 aerial refueling tankers.The wife of one of the Guard members said through her tears that it was easier to see her husband go the second time. She and her children joined several dozen of the soldiers' family members who watched the plane roll down the runway just before dawn Tuesday.
Utah Air National Guard soldiers first began flying their Salt Lake-based tankers to the Middle East on Aug. 6, just four days after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Just under 40 Guard members had been involved in the earlier deployments, which returned to Salt Lake City the last week of August.
Col. Gordon Hill, commander of the 151st Aerial Refueling Group in Salt Lake City, said the soldiers will be working in Saudi Arabia for about one month. One or two Utah tankers are expected to be in the Middle East through December according to a rotation schedule set up by the Air Force's Strategic Air Command, or SAC.
Brig. Gen. Gary Nelson, chief of staff for the Utah Air National Guard, said the Guard members are filling voluntary assignments that are entirely under federal control. Hill said SAC sent its request for additional tanker crews three weeks ago.
Not all of the Utah soldiers who would be needed for the later deployments have been identified, but it took only several days to fill all of the volunteer slots for Tuesday's deployment once the SAC plan was announced. Hill said the later deployments should be shorter than the tour the group that left Tuesday will face.
Work the crews perform in the Middle East will replace some or all of the soldier's annual training. The tanker is scheduled to stop for fuel at a base near Moron, Spain, which is one of the tanker group's occasional training locations.
The in-flight refueling work in the Middle East is currently being run by National Guard soldiers, said Hill, who may be assigned as the Tanker Task Commander on arrival in Saudi Arabia. "The person who's doing it now has been there for a long time. He may need a break - a trip home."
Hill said he has been in the Middle East before, but this is his first trip as part of Operation Desert Shield.
Hill's wife, Donna, was among the spouses who saw the soldiers off Tuesday morning. "I have kind of mixed emotions," she said. "Right now it just seems like another trip for him" with no hostilities reported since the U.S. military buildup began.