YUMA, Ariz. (WCCO) — In a nation struggling with war fatigue, it’s important to pause on Memorial Day and recognize the Minnesotans still answering their country’s call: men and women who leave their jobs and families to put on a military uniform.
Few military units have seen more activations and deployments since 9/11 than Minnesota’s 133rd Airlift Wing — its 1,200 members are essential to moving supplies and soldiers to wherever they’re needed.READ MORE: What To Do When Severe Weather Strikes While Boating
On part of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport where few civilian passengers step, families feel the anxiety of separation as they say goodbye again to air crew flying far, far away.
In the 14 years since 9/11, members of the 133rd Airlift Wing have shouldered a heavy load — answering countless deployments to the Middle East and southwest Asia. They fly the C-130 Hercules: the backbone to our military’s cargo needs. The people in the cockpit and those performing maintenance are many of our neighbors — firefighters, police officers, school teachers — right here in Minnesota.
They’ve sacrificed time from jobs and families to serve in the Guard. Loadmasters Paige Tokarczyk and Laura Shipman say it’s hard living in two worlds.
“Juggling jobs and civilian life to military life… That can also make it pretty tough,” TSgt. Tokarczyk said.
To stay sharp, four planes along with 162 air and ground crew fly to Yuma, Arizona for a week of training.
Maj. Jason Christensen is mission commander. In civilian life, he’s a commercial airline pilot.
“In a real life scenario, we’d be delivering the air drop loads to the people in need, whether they be refugees, humanitarian or military,” Maj. Christensen said.
They practice by dropping heavy pallets of water onto the desert floor, but first, there are parachutes to pack, planes to maintain and cargo to load.
“It’s a desert climate with mountainous terrain, similar to what we see when we deploy to the Middle East,” Maj. Christensen said.READ MORE: Feds Investigating Hepatitis A Outbreak Linked To Organic Strawberries; Cases Reported In Minnesota
It’s Capt. Victor Wunderlich’s job to get the payload on target, with landing zones painted by smoke flares. He calls it part science, part art – determining the exact release point in the sky.
“When the cargo comes out of the airplane, it’s deployed under a parachute,” Capt. Wunderlich said. “The wind will then have it drift to the intended point of landing.”
Flying low and slow, loadmasters get the word and cut the cargo loose. This may be tough, but the 133rd is often required to perform the drop at night, over dark and treacherous terrain.
Using night vision goggles, Lt. Col. Ted Biro pilots one of the planes during a night training mission. In civilian life, Lt. Col. Biro’s an architect.
“We not only have to slow the plane down and avoid the terrain, but also descend to a significant altitude in a short amount of time,” Lt. Col. Biro said.
With lives on the line, precision is important. Most of the time, they put the cargo within 40 yards of the target.
“The Army’s our biggest customer and they require this in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Lt. Col. Nate Kazek said. “To precisely drop ammunition, water and supplies to them in a very small area.”
It’s from the kind of training they received in Yuma that the 133rd can answer the world’s call anytime, anywhere.
Last summer, they did just that when 40,000 Kurds were trapped atop Iraq’s Mt. Sinjar by ISIL rebels. It was Minnesota’s 133rd — and people like Minneapolis firefighter Joe Schulz — who answered without hesitation.
“We were air dropping food and supplies to stranded Kurds who were on Mount Sinjar in early August,” MSgt. Schulz said.MORE NEWS: Witt Jr. Hits 3 Doubles, Ups Extra-Base Count, KC Tops Twins, 7-3
Saving lives and preserving freedoms, Minnesota’s 133rd lets us all can rest easier at day’s end.