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The Oregonian May 18, 2005

Portland base gains top-flight squadron

The Air Force's new 125th special tactics team helps offset the loss of traditional forces and signals a shift in military strategy

By Mike Francis

The Oregon National Guard is expected to announce today that an elite, new U.S. Air Force special operations unit has begun to operate out of the Portland International Airport Air Guard Station. The news comes just days after the Department of Defense announced plans to remove all of the F-15 fighter jets and hundreds of civilian and military personnel from the base.

Oregon National Guard officials confirmed Tuesday that Portland has become home base for 79 airmen with the Air Force's 125th Special Tactics Squadron.

Not as well known as Navy SEALs or Army Green Berets, Air Force commandos parachute or scuba dive into hostile territory to seize airfields, call in airstrikes and conduct other specialized missions. Closer to home, the squadron might be called upon to help with natural disasters and rescue efforts.

The 125th becomes the nation's second Air National Guard Special Tactics Squadron, and one of six such squadrons in the country.

The unit's arrival comes on the heels of the Defense department's announcement last Friday that it wants to close 180 military installations, including the Umatilla Chemical Weapons Depot in Eastern Oregon. Under the plan, the Portland Air National Guard base would lose the 939th Air Refueling Wing and see a significant reduction in its 142nd Fighter Wing.

The replacement of more traditional military units at the Portland base with the new, special operations unit reflects a broader shift within the military. The Pentagon is reorienting itself from a world dominated by two superpowers to one where governments are threatened by smaller, nimble insurgencies.

Several years ago, the Oregon Air National Guard surveyed its fleet of aging aircraft and Cold War-oriented missions and asked itself, "What relevant missions are available out there?" explained retired Brig. Gen. Bill Doctor, former Oregon Guard commander.

It began laying the groundwork for a new, special operations unit by hiring retired Air Force Special Operations Command combat controller Capt. Dan Schilling, a planner and participant in the 1993 Somalian operation now known as "Black Hawk Down," as well as in a variety of other campaigns in Iraq, the Caribbean and Central America. Schilling, who will commute to Portland from his home in Utah, will command the new Portland-based squadron.

"In Oregon, they were looking at a larger transformation," said Schilling, who has worked for three years to get the Air Force to establish the new Oregon-based unit. As the military considered ways to make its forces lighter, quicker and more lethal, Oregon's Air Guard was "looking for missions that would allow them to be applicable," he said.

"I think it's a very welcome development," said retired Gen. Merrill McPeak of Lake Oswego, former chief of staff of the Air Force. McPeak laments the 2003 conversion of the Air Force Reserve's 939th Rescue Wing at the airbase. Putting a special tactics squadron with those skills at the airbase, he said, "is a very good move."

When it's called upon in wartime, the new squadron usually will operate under a veil of secrecy. But it's no secret that the base will be home to a new unit of 79 people who will report to the governor of Oregon in peacetime and to the Air Force Special Operations Command at others. Schilling has made at least two public appearances in Oregon at which he has mentioned the imminent formation of the new unit.

The airmen of the 125th include 44 who will be the actual combat operators, Schilling said. The remaining men and women will fill support functions, from intelligence to maintenance.

The squadron will bring some specialized equipment, although no new aircraft, to Portland. It's unclear what planes or helicopters will remain after a reorganization at the base is complete.

The typical airman is a 25-year-old, athletic, "Type A" person, Schilling said. He probably doesn't have the build of a weightlifter, but is wiry and outdoorsy. To become combat controllers, applicants must complete a series of demanding courses in disciplines ranging from scuba diving to air traffic control. Globalsecurity.org, a respected online reference site for military issues, said only about 1 percent of the Air Force's recruits qualify to apply to become combat controllers, and only about 20 percent of the trainees complete the training.

"It's a very, very difficult job," Schilling said. "They are really in the minority. They are just special people."

About once a week, Schilling, 42, makes a 45-minute hike to the top of a sheer, 500-foot cliff in his backyard in Utah and parachutes to the ground. He said he never forgets to pack the parachute.

 


Copyright 2005, The Oregonian