Vermont Air Guardsmen Return, Reflect on Deployment

  • Published
  • By Julie M. Paroline
  • 158th Fighter Wing

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt., (October 26, 2021) -- Marking the safe return for these Green Mountain Boys, more than 70 Airmen from the 158th Fighter Wing, Vermont Air National Guard, have officially arrived back home from their overseas deployments.

The Vermont Air National Guardsmen began their rotation of deployments during the fall of 2020, and all returned by late summer 2021. A common response from deployers upon their return was their willingness and desire to do it all over again.

“You know, the thing is, I would go back there tomorrow if I could,” said Master Sgt. John Bezon, noncommissioned officer in charge of air transportation assigned to the 158th Logistics Readiness Squadron. “It was an absolutely awesome bonding experience between the people that work for me and myself. I felt like their dad. It was a great experience.”

Working alongside New York Air National Guardsmen from the 109th Airlift Wing in Scotia, New York, Bezon was the only Green Mountain Boy assigned to al-Asad Air Base in Iraq, approximately 140 miles west of Baghdad. Mobilizing in June 2020, Bezon was in theater from October 2020 to April 2021. In March of 2021, Bezon said he experienced a milestone moment and was cited as a proven leader under fire, evacuating nine military and two foreign nationals during an enemy rocket attack.

“I supervised 14 personnel in Iraq’s busiest port, airlifted 8,500 tons of cargo in 1,206 missions, enabling 2,000 combat sorties… We got rocketed,” said Bezon. “We had times where we had to get into the bunkers. We had to deal with [human remains] when we were over there. It was definitely not your average deployment.”

Missions such as Bezon’s averaged 6 months, with Airmen from the 158th Fighter Wing deployed in small groups to multiple locations across the globe in support of U.S. Air Force Central Command, U.S. Air Force Africa Command and U.S. Air Force European Command.

“Three of us from base went to AFRICOM at Airbase 201 in Niger, Africa,” said Master Sgt. Andrea Senecal, services superintendent, 158th Force Support Fight. “I was gone for about seven and a half months.”

A member of the Vermont Air National Guard since 1992, when Senecal joined after graduating college, this was her first-ever deployment in 29 years of service.

“All of our food, which we were responsible for, came to port which was over three days' travel to us,” reflected Senecal on the differences between working in Niger versus Vermont. “We could not leave base unless we went with armed guards. Luckily, we went off base three times. It was humbling.”

Senecal reminisced about the hot climate, visiting a local orphanage, and the widespread pollution of burning trash. Despite the conditions, she also recalled how great the morale remained throughout her time in theater.

“Command was amazing. Whatever we needed, we just asked and they tried to accommodate, so that was amazing,” said Senecal.

Accustomed to the routine F-35A Lightning II mission back home, all deployed Airmen were tasked with different missions, to include cargo transportation and unmanned aircraft support.

“We don’t necessarily deploy with an aviation package. We deploy based on the requirements of the combatant commanders that are out there and supply what they need,” explained Col. Brian Lepine, 158th Mission Support Group commander.

Senecal was one of the Green Mountain Boys assigned to an unmanned aircraft base, where there were three different units, rather than the single unit footprint she is familiar with in Vermont.

“About half of us at that deployment were Guard, so there were a lot of different trades there,” said Senecal about her experience.

An added benefit of cross-training in different missions around the world is the ability to practice skills used less frequently at home station.

“I accomplished my mission on a daily basis,” said Bezon about his specialized material handling equipment training. “Of course, [in Vermont] we don't have cargo planes. But in Iraq, we do that job every single day.”

These deployment cycles are part of the Air National Guard’s Reserve Component Period, known as the RCP cycle of deployments.

“About 80 folks deployed and they went everywhere,” said Lepine. “Mostly they were in the areas of responsibility around Kuwait, Qatar, and those areas. We had folks that went to Africa and Europe.”

According to Lepine, our Airmen “were sparsely spread out, because...we can employ one or two individuals to a certain location, whereas the Army will send a majority of their forces that are being deployed. That’s in the uniqueness of how we deploy in the Air Force with us as the Guard.”

Upon their return from their overseas assignments, the Green Mountain Boys responded with what intangible skills and experiences they were bringing back home.

“It helped train us for what's to come,” said Bezon. “I think getting out there and actually doing the job on a daily basis is actually one of the best things we can do. I’m making people aware that there’s more out there than just Vermont.”

For other Green Mountain Boys, an important product of their deployment cycle was self-growth.

“I’m bringing back a new mindset. The stuff I thought was important isn't really important. You know, kind of like don't sweat the small stuff,” reflected Senecal.

Hundreds of miles away from where Senecal and Bezon were stationed, another Green Mountain Boy was deployed to the CENTCOM area of responsibility. Tech. Sgt. Gladimir Sanon returned from an undisclosed location overseas, where he worked as a readiness NCOIC within the 158th Civil Engineer Squadron.

“When we first got there, the general said if you come here and you leave here the exact same person, you've done something wrong,” said Sanon. “So, I took that time to work on myself and took that mindset back home with me to Vermont. I try to take that mentality back here and try different things.”

In total, deployed Airmen of the Vermont Air National Guard represented logistics, civil engineering, communications, comptrollers, first sergeants, personnel, services, contracting, supply, ground transportation, air transportation and medical services.

“When you deploy, you have the basic fundamentals,” continued Sanon. “But it's very hard to say you're ever 100% ready for deployment unless you've done it numerous times before.”

All Airmen have returned safely, and local resources through the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program continue to be offered to all deployed Airmen and Soldiers, as well as their spouses and children, through any stage of their deployment cycle, with emphasis on preparedness and reintegration.

“I met a bunch of people at the perfect time for personal growth and had a bunch of experiences. We got to see what we could do,” said Sanon.

According to Lepine, this deployment experience was overwhelmingly well-received by the Airmen who participated. Further, feedback from their supervisors in theater has affirmed that the contributions of these Green Mountain Boys elevated the level of performance and support in their respective areas of responsibility.

“I am very proud, especially to represent such a diverse group of women and men... When I speak with them and ask what their experiences were like, and to see how proud they are of what they’ve done. That makes me proud of them. That is why we do what we do,” said Lepine.