25 years on the hunt

On Aug. 9, the 55th Wing’s personnel and its RC-135V/W Rivet Joint aircraft hit 25 straight years of continuous deployment to U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility.

What started out as a single ship response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, has now turned into what is believed to be the longest single continuous deployment in U.S. Air Force history.

“On behalf of the men and women of Air Combat Command, I’d like to personally extend my deepest gratitude to the warriors of the 55th Wing for their amazing record,” said U.S. Air Force Gen. Hawk Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command. “What started over 25 years ago and continues today is truly a benchmark for service and symbolizes the unwavering dedication to the mission that best represents ACC.

“Not only do the outstanding Airmen of the 55th Wing ‘Provide for Today,’ but they are experts in ‘Preparing for the Future’ as exemplified by their uninterrupted stretch of combat action from Operation Desert Shield to the current fight against violent extremism in Operation Inherent Resolve,” he added. “As I routinely highlight our Airmen as ACC’s asymmetrical advantage, it is your Airmen, whose average age is equal to the number of years you’ve been deployed, that set the standard.”

On Aug. 8, 1990, a 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing crew deployed a Rivet Joint from Hellenikon Air Base, Greece, to Riyadh Air Base, Saudi Arabia. After its initial flight over the AOR on Aug. 9, two more RJs arrived at Riyadh and 24-hour coverage commenced on Aug. 11.

“We were not ready for a tactical, bare-base environment when we arrived, but we did it,” said retired Col. David Wolfe, who deployed from Offutt on Aug. 8, to serve as commander of the first RJ unit at Riyadah.

Upon arrival in Saudi Arabia, Wolfe said his team of about 65 maintainers and support staff had no provisions, no transportation, no place to stay and incredibly, no way of communicating with the aircraft that was about 10 hours away from returning from its first mission.

“To say the least, it was a little stressful,” he said. “However, I’m proud to say our troops stepped-up and carried the load. It was a super effort on everyone’s part to make the mission happen.”

As things smoothed out and launching missions out of the desert became commonplace, the Fightin’ Fifty-Fifth remained on the hunt after Iraq accepted the terms of a United Nations ceasefire on April 6, 1991, supporting Operation Southern Watch with valuable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities for more than 10 years.

All operational 55th Wing personnel and assets transitioned from Riyadh Air Base to Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, in 1996, while also continuing support of Vigilant Sentinel, Desert Strike, Desert Thunder I, Desert Thunder II and Desert Fox among others.

“It’s safe to say the men and women of the 55th Wing have been involved in every major operation in the CENTCOM AOR over the past 25 years,” said Col. Marty Reynolds, 55th Wing commander. “Their ability to continually answer our nation’s call is inspiring.”

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the 55th Wing’s mission in the CENTCOM AOR increased even more as they became key players in Operation Enduring Freedom, which started in October 2001. They also played a major role in Operation Iraqi Freedom, which commenced in March 2003.

For the majority of aircrew and maintenance personnel assigned to the wing over the past 25 years, the standard deployment cycle has been 3.1 deployments per year with an average of 60 days on and 60 days off. That means that if someone spent their entire career with the Fightin’ Fifty-Fifth, they would have been deployed roughly 2,400 days.

“The ops tempo here is just a fact of life and it’s truly humbling watching our Airmen execute our mission downrange,” Reynolds said. “They’re always willing to step up to the challenge as they know the important role our mission plays in the fight.”

And while OIF and OEF ended in 2011 and 2014, the Fightin’ Fifty-Fifth has continued to be called upon to support Operations New Dawn, Freedom’s Sentinel and Inherent Resolve moving forward.

“The idea that as we reduce the footprint on the ground in Afghanistan, there would be a measurable reduction in the operations tempo is not really the reality,” said Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Cody, during a visit to Offutt in March. “That region has been extremely critical to us and is going to remain critical. To have our ISR assets and Airmen engaged there is essential for the security of our nation and our partners.”

So for a brief moment, the 55th Wing will pause to reflect on 25 years in the desert. However, they do so knowing full well there’s no clear end in sight as the nation’s decision makers continue to thirst for the intel that only they can provide.

“I had no idea that when I took the unit over there 25 years ago that we’d still be there today,” Wolfe said. “But this wing always steps up and gets the job done as needed.”

“It is most impressive to witness your historic efforts,” Carlisle said. “The 55th Wing has my deepest heartfelt appreciation for its continued sacrifice to our nation’s calling.”

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