Air Force pilot Lt. Col. Nathan Campbell saw a sign of the times last week when he looked out at a Joint Base Lewis-McChord runway crowded with more than 20 cargo jets.
Until recently, JBLM crews were so busy flying those C-17 Globemaster III jets around the world that he’d rarely see so many of the aircraft parked at McChord Air Field at the same time. With a slower schedule, JBLM airmen now get to spend more time at home between flights.
“To me, this is what the drawdown looks like,” said Campbell, who leads the 10th Airlift Squadron in JBLM’s 62nd Airlift Wing.
Like the jets on the runway, the Air Force’s plans for Campbell’s squadron are another marker in the U.S. military’s slow drawdown from its Iraq War peak strength.
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Next year, the Air Force intends to inactivate the 10th Airlift Squadron. The move will eliminate 400 positions for airmen at JBLM and send eight C-17 jets to a reserve status.
It’s a significant cut, but it mostly stings for sentimental reasons among the airmen who’ve flown with the squadron since it launched at JBLM in 2003.
They call themselves “Pathfinders,” and they celebrate their traditions in a trophy room that features a plaque for each of their large overseas deployments. The room includes a couple of beer taps and a glass case where airmen leave their name tags when they move on to new bases.
Finding a home for mementos like those is one of the concerns airmen have expressed to Campbell since the Air Force announced its plan last month. They don’t want to see their unit’s legacy fade away.
“Once a Pathfinder, always a Pathfinder,” he said.
Today, JBLM has the Air Force’s second-largest fleet of C-17 jets, with 47 aircraft assigned to McChord Air Field’s 62nd Airlift Wing. The wing, one of the Air Force’s two C-17 “superwings,” contains four airlift squadrons. Three more squadrons are assigned to the wing’s sister unit, the 446th Reserve Airlift Wing.
About 2,900 airmen are assigned to the active-duty wing, and another 2,300 reservists are based at McChord Air Field.
Losing the squadron won’t change McChord’s status as one of the Air Force’s primary airlift hubs, Campbell said. The base still will have six active and reserve squadrons, and it’ll have about one-fifth of the Air Force’s fleet of 213 C-17 jets.
President Barack Obama’s 2014 defense budget called on the Air Force to put 16 C-17s into backup inventory, taking eight from JBLM and eight from Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina. To meet the budget, the Air Force chose to strike an airlift squadron from each base, aiming to save $110 million in annual personnel and maintenance costs.
In 1999, McChord Air Field started receiving C-17 aircraft to replace the C-141 cargo planes that had been based there. Built by Boeing, the $200 million C-17 is considered the Air Force’s most versatile cargo jet. Its 174-foot-long frame can be seen making flights over Tacoma and other parts of Pierce County several times a week.
“It just performs,” Campbell said simply.
Over the past 11 years, airmen in the 10th Airlift Squadron have delivered troops and supplies to the Iraq War. Sometimes, they brought home the wounded on medical flights. They’ve dropped fuel and ammunition to soldiers serving in remote corners of Afghanistan. They brought humanitarian assistance to West Africa and delivered scientific equipment to Antarctica.
“When you’re dropping fuel and ammo to somebody, you know you’re making a difference,” said Master Sgt. Nate Gershon, a longtime member of the 10th Airlift Squadron who participated in Afghanistan airdrops four years ago.
In 2008, when the military had more than 130,000 troops in Iraq and a smaller numbers soldiers fighting a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, Gershon spent 289 days “on the road” for training and real-world missions.
“We would get back, have three days at home, and then you’re back on the road,” he said.
Airmen from the 10th have made stops in Qatar, Kuwait and Kyrgyzstan. They’ve put in time for domestic missions, too, delivering supplies to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and to New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy.
That’s why the inactivation is “sad for me, even as one of the newer Pathfinders,” said Campbell, who joined the squadron last year. “You invest yourself entirely in the unit.”
The Air Force built three other squadrons in the 62nd Airlift Wing before developing the 10th Airlift Squadron in 2003. It took airmen from the first three squadrons to staff up the new unit, Gershon remembered.
The unit had an inauspicious start at JBLM. At a dinner celebrating its activation, servers mistakenly brought Air Force families salads with small worms on them, Gershon said. The rotten salads had to be thrown away.
That night lived on in the unit’s collective memory, he said. For a time, airmen jokingly referred to themselves as “wormeaters” instead of “pathfinders.”
Over the next year, the Air Force likely will reverse the process it began a dozen years ago. All of McChord’s airlift squadrons are expected to continue deploying overseas, but their rosters will thin out below normal staffing levels. The cut will hit 140 airmen from the 10th Airlift Squadron and about 260 from the wing’s maintenance group.
Sometime in the summer of 2016, the Air Force will inactivate the squadron and assign its remaining airmen to sister squadrons at JBLM.
“We’ll all get a little bit smaller, and then we’ll break apart,” Campbell said.