50th & 56th Aerial Port Squadrons support OIF and OEF during sister

Members of the March Air Reserve Base 56th Aerial Port Squadron, deployed to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, use a 60K Aircraft Loader to load a Russian IL-76 aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Reservists from March Air Reserve Base, Calif., use a 60K aircraft loader to load a Russian IL-76 aircraft. This year was the first time March’s 56th Aerial Port Squadron deployed a group of reservists to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo)

MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, CALIF. -- The halfway point is near for March's two Aerial Port Squadrons (APSs) that deployed in waves beginning in April. The 50th APS is deployed to Kirkuk Air Base in Iraq and the 56th APS, in their first deployment as a unit, is deployed to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. 

"This is bigger than just a small little contingent going out and doing a mission; this deployment is actually a part of the AEF [Air and Space Expeditionary Force] cycle for the first time ever in our history," said Major Mark Saragosa, commander of the 56th APS. 

Out of the 201 personnel in the 56th APS, 90 Airmen volunteered for the 60-70 deployment positions. By the end of deployment training, Major Saragosa had the exact number he needed, plus five alternates. Saragosa estimates that only three or four of these Airmen have ever been part of an AEF. 

"Our mission is anything that has to do with airlift and getting that aircraft out of there," Saragosa said. "Personnel, munitions, bread, butter, bullets--it doesn't matter, we take care of it. But it all has to be load plan certified and everyone has to be trained to do it." 

Preparing the group for deployment was a rigorous process that involved long hours outside of Unit Training Assemblies (UTAs). "I couldn't ask for a better unit, where people are sacrificing that much time and their own money and time to come out and support the mission in the desert," Saragosa said. 

"We had people coming in on their time off. We had people coming in on RMPs, which is half the pay and half the points," he said. In addition, the Airmen often had to do computer based training at home. 

After initial deployment preparations, the 50th and 56th APS commanders joined a nationwide conference call with other APS commanders to compete for deployment locations. "We went in right away and said 'We want Bagram.' The 50th went in and said they wanted Kirkuk and we both got what we asked for," Saragosa said. 

The 50th and 56th squadrons share a building on March ARB and have always chosen to work as one large unit. "Everything we do, we do together," said Chief Master Sgt. Ehlers, Air Transportation Manager for the 56th APS. "You can't tell who's in which unit, we're just the 106th," he said. 

Thanks to satellite phones and e-mail, the 50th and 56th squadrons have been able to continue to work together, just like they did in garrison. "We work as a team. If you take the two units together, we're 400 people. That's a sizeable unit," Saragosa said. 

When the squadrons arrived in their respective countries, they worked together to solve initial problems, such as the uniform shift from ABUs to BDUs and a shortage of malaria medication. 

The biggest challenge for the 56th APS has been the drastic change in the operational tempo. "Gone are the days where you come in here [March ARB] for forty-eight hours and do eight missions. Over there, you're getting 50th & 56th Aerial Port Squadrons support OIF and OEF during sister The 56th's deployment to Bagram is their first ever Deployment as a unit three missions in eight hours," Saragosa said. "You either sink or swim. " 

"They're learning at an astronomical rate," Saragosa said. The Airmen will be able to use their new skills in the future, as the squadron has a 70-person mobilization scheduled for 2011. 

The 50th and 56th Airmen are rewarded for their hard work as they observe their impact on the mission. "It's self satisfaction that they're supporting their country in a time of war. They realize, 'wow, I really am making a difference out here.'" 

Although Saragosa had to remain in the United States, he contacts his deployed Airmen at least every other day through DSN calls patched to his cell phone or through e-mail. "They were attacked five days ago and I knew instantaneously that everybody was safe. Accountability is huge," Saragosa said. 

"I want these guys to be extremely proud of what they do and, just by the volunteerism alone, they've achieved that," Saragosa said.