EASTOVER, S.C. - National Guard installations around the country are bemoaning shutdowns and cutbacks under the Pentagon's base closure plans, yet veteran pilots and crew chiefs at a small Air National Guard unit in central South Carolina are celebrating.
Instead of being closed or wrapped into an active duty base, the Air Force's so-called weekend warriors at McEntire Joint National Guard Base are set to train young, full-time service members under the Pentagon's Base Realignment and Closure plan.
"This is new," said Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. "But under this BRAC, everything that was done was new. This allows the active duty to be deployed and the Guard to stay back and be used as a training force."
Mr. Korb, a senior fellow with the Washington, D.C., think tank Center for American Progress, called the proposal "a very creative idea."
Brig. Gen. George Patrick, the head of the South Carolina Air National Guard, said he was able to convince Gen. Michael Moseley, confirmed as Air Force chief of staff this week and a former commander at nearby Shaw Air Force Base, that the McEntire crews had a lot to offer full-time, active duty military men and women.
"We told the Air Force, 'Send us your inexperienced people, and we can season them,'" Brig. Gen. Patrick said. "We hope they will come straight out of technical schools, straight out of pilot training."
Part-time National Guard and Reserve forces provide nearly half of the U.S. force in Iraq and most of the U.S. peacekeeping contingent in Kosovo.
While most senior active duty pilots and crew chiefs are moved frequently and usually are promoted to deskbound, managerial jobs, the Guardsmen are able to live in the community and forge longtime bonds with a particular unit.
Tech Sgt. Tony Heidenreich, 43, said he knows active duty crews that come to work at McEntire will be loath to leave "because we treat people well. They know it's a partnership."
"The one downside to all of this is that everyone who comes here to train will be sad to leave. And I guarantee it, some of them will leave active duty and come back to the Guard," he said.
Col. Mike Hudson, a squadron commander with a 2,000-hour flight patch, agreed.
"We fish together. We hunt together. I know when I walk out on the flight line and Tony has handled my plane, I know it's good to go if he says so," he said.
"We are a part of the community. We know one another," he said.
Of the unit's three dozen Guard pilots, their average age is 39. Nine are graduates of the Air Force's fighter weapons school. The average McEntire Guard pilot has 2,269 hours in a jet fighter, 1,838 hours in an F-16 and 207 hours in combat, Brig. Gen. Patrick said.
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