The first group of Utah Air National Guard soldiers ordered to active duty since the Korean War left Salt Lake City Tuesday afternoon for Castle Air Force Base in California.
Twelve of the 36 members of the 151st Civil Engineering Squadron were scheduled to begin duty assignments on arrival in California later Tuesday, replacing soldiers who have been sent to the Middle East. The balance of the firefighting squadron's members have not been called up and will continue to staff the Air Guard's fire station adjacent to where the Guard's eight aerial refueling tanker aircraft are maintained at the international airport, said Chief Master Sgt. Larry Hall.Among the dozen firefighters called up are five men who also have civilian careers as firefighters: one each with the West Valley City, Salt Lake County, Tooele Army Depot, Dugway Proving Ground and Hill Air Force Base fire departments.
A staff sergeant named Kevin said his absence will create a hardship for the Tooele depot's fire department. His family is also feeling the impact both at home and at work. Kevin said his wife, a nurse at University Hospital, works on a floor of the hospital where 11 nurses are away from their jobs because of call-ups with the two military hospitals taken from Salt Lake for Operation Desert Shield. The departures translate to more work for those who remain. "She also lost a brother in Vietnam so she's a little bit thankful we're going to California instead of Saudi Arabia," he said.
Several members of the squadron said the cut in pay they will experience while on the federal payroll will keep them from having their families travel to California to be with them for Christmas.
Guard and Reserve members have re-employment rights that protect their civilian jobs when they return from active duty, but the level of support varies from one employer to the next.
A tech sergeant named Mike, a firefighter for Salt Lake County, said the department has treated him well after learning of his call-up. "They told me my job is secure - don't worry about it."
A staff sergeant named Jerry said he is also relieved the group is going to a stateside assignment instead of the Middle East.
The last names of the soldiers who are leaving are withheld at the National Guard's request.
The firefighting squadron has had a low turnover rate with some members being in the unit at least 14 years, said Jerry, who guessed the level of experience in the group is much greater than that of the active-duty firefighters the squadron will replace in California.
The unit's primary mission is to provide fire and rescue protection to Air Force personnel and aircraft.
Utah Air National Guard crews have been volunteering to participate in Operation Desert Shield since Aug. 6. But the Tuesday activation is the Utah Air Guard's first since 1951, during the Korean War.
The squadron members' departure kept a low profile: the dozen fire-fighters left in civilian clothes on a commercial flight Tuesday afternoon instead of traveling in uniform. Presidential authority over the group allows them to be called for a maximum of 180 days.