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The last 100: PJs survive closure to continue presence in Portland.

For the last 50 years, the Air Force has maintained a rescue presence in Portland, Ore. That streak was in serious jeopardy for members of the 304th Rescue Squadron during the most recent Base Realignment and Closure actions.

The BRAC commission targeted the squadron's host unit, the 939th Air Refueling Wing, for closure. However, the 304th managed to survive. Over the next year or so, the Reserve's presence at Portland will dwindle from nearly 1,100 Airmen to about 100, all members of the rescue squadron.

It appears that the 304th is destined to remain in Portland. The BRAC closure marked the second time in three years that the rescue Airmen had managed to survive a drastic change. In 2003, the 939th, then a rescue wing, converted to KC-135 tanker aircraft and became an air refueling wing. Though the wing changed missions, the 304th RQS remained in place, becoming a part of the 920th Rescue Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.

"It's very much like a family, especially since rescue folks have been here since 1957," said Chief Master Sgt. Richard Konopka. 304th RQS chief enlisted manager. "So, the closure is very hard on everyone. All the people in finance, the military personnel flight and the clinic are the same friends we've always had. so it's very difficult losing them."

Even positive events for the 304th RQS, like moving into a new building, come with negative consequences.

"Coming here to our new building (a facility previously used for maintenance) was difficult. It's like we're vultures," said Master Sgt. Patrick Tillmann, NCO in charge of aircrew life support. "1 told my guys to be very polite. They've been very supportive of us.

"These people are our friends. They're going away, moving their families, and we're staying. We still have a mission and are busy while they're here without aircraft."

Although the 939th ARW is going away, some members were able to secure positions within the 304th.

"We've been able to pick up a few people from the support side of the house, and that's a good thing," Chief Konopka said. "It was like rescuing our own family from what was going on across the street."

While the BRAC commission decided Portland could do without a refueling mission, the rescue mission was deemed more essential. The decision to keep this mission in Portland was based, in large part, on the unit's level of experienced pararoscuemen, also known as PJs. The unit has approximately 50 pararescuemen, 11 combat rescue officers and 48 support people.

"For the Air Force (as a whole) we provide the largest pool of seven-level trained PJs--period," Chief Konopka said. "This is a very good recruiting area for the type of people who are motivated to be in rescue. Currently, we have the highest percentage of new recruits in pararescue in Air Force Reserve Command."

By the time a PJs gets through all the training to attain his three-level. Chief Konopka said, it takes an average of 30 months.

In addition to being highly trained, members of the 304th RQS have a lot of very important deployment experience, having spent time in Kosovo, the Horn of Africa. Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, they deployed in support of relief efforts after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

"We have a tremendous amount of wartime, deployment, and civilian search and rescue experience," said Capt. Chris Bernard, 304th RQS combat rescue officer.

In addition to a valuable pool of trained resources and a good recruiting base, another advantage of maintaining a rescue presence in Portland is the availability of various training environments within a few hours of the base.

"The area here is conducive to training," Captain Bernard said. "All major environments are represented here in Oregon. Within two hours you can be at the ocean, major rivers, forests, mountains, glaciers or the desert. You have any environment you want in which to train."

With the upcoming departure of the 939th ARW, finding a way to continue supporting the 304th is a priority.

"As the 939th goes away, our concern is that the Reservists who stay get the adequate support they need," said Lt. Col. Paul Dechirico. Performance manager with the 920th RQW at Patrick AFB. "The good news is that we have some breathing room because the 939th is. not leaving right away."

Colonel Dechirico was part of a site activation task force that studied the future manpower needs required for the 304th RQS. He said AFRC is working closely with the host Air National Guard unit at Portland to provide many of the support requirements.

"As things begin to go away, such as support functions, it just gets a little bit more difficult, but it's not insurmountable by any stretch of the imagination, It's just the new reality," Chief Konopka said. "We have good relationships with other assets, both locally and regionally."

"We have no problem getting Air Force Reserve or Guard aircraft in here," Captain Bernard said. "They tike to come up and train here. We also train with the Army and Coast Guard. By doing so, they get to sign off on some of their training. This (the BRAC closure) has actually forced us to become more focused on joint operations.

"One of the advantages working with our sister agencies is taking some of the good things they have to offer and implementing them to what we do," the captain said. "I know working with the Coast Guard, those guys are the experts at water rescue. So we've definitely learned some good things from them and adapted them to our training."

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While current members of the squadron are going to have to adapt to being the Reserve's lone presence at Portland, this situation is really nothing new in the big scheme of things.

"We were a geographical!) separated unit from 1957 until 1985," Chief Konopka said. "So, in a sense, we are going back to our roots."

(Sergeant Babin is a traditional Reservist assigned to the 920th RQW public affairs office at Patrick APB.)

Command accelerates wing realignment

A second reduction, in force at Portland International Airport, Ore., will accelerate the closure of the Air Force Reserve's 939th Air Refueling Wing.

The RIF, which moves up the scheduled closure of the wing from September 2010 to June 2008, allows about 244 traditional Reservists, 47 air reserve technicians and 48 civilian employees to evaluate incentive benefits and use job placement support now.

ARTs are civilian civil service employees who also serve in the Air Force Reserve as Reservists.

"Our goal is to speed up this transition so we can take better care of our people," said Maj. Gen. Allan R. Poulin, AFRC vice commander, Robins Air Force Base, Ga. "We're working to help all out Reservists and civilians transition to new jobs as our Air Force is going through many significant changes in the next few years. The 939th Air Refueling Wing has an outstanding performance record but is being realigned so the Air Force can consolidate to be more efficient and effective."

In 2006, the 939th relocated all eight of its KC-135 refueling aircraft, sending four to March Air Reserve Base, Calif., and the other four to Tinker AFB, Okla. The move was directed by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission in November 2005.

The Reserve will continue to operate the 304th Rescue Squadron at the Portland airport. The reduction of Reserve people at Portland is expected to be offset by growth in the Oregon Air National Guard mission.

"Air Force Reservists and civilians assigned to the unit will be eligible for full-time personnel benefits under civil service placement programs," said Steve Mann, AFRC director of manpower and personnel, Robins AFB. "The Portland Reservists may now enter the AFRC clearinghouse database to help them find new federal jobs. Also, some people may volunteer for special early retirement programs or separation pay Options."

Reservists and civil servants can learn more about the job-placement clearinghouse and other special separation programs by accessing the following Web site from a military computer: https://wwwmil.al.afrc.of.mil/brac. This virtual job fair takes into account personal career and location preferences and works to match displaced people with new opportunities.

(Air Force Reserve Command News Service)

By Master Sgt, Chance C. Babin
COPYRIGHT 2007 Air Force Reserves
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Babin, Chance C.
Publication:Citizen Airman
Date:Apr 1, 2007
Words:1382
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