MADISON, Wis. ó In Afghanistan, their job was to safely ferry very important people ó brigadier generals and higher ó across an austere landscape in a small airplane.
But for the families and friends gathered Dec. 16 at a hangar in Madison, Wisconsin, each of the seven members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's Detachment 52 returning from a nine-month deployment was a VIP.
"It feels good to be back home," said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Alan Massman, one of six C26 two-engine airplane pilots.
The pilots already had more than 50,000 flying hours between them, and tallied an additional 950 flying hours during their deployment. They flew more than 260 distinguished visitor operations missions, carrying NATO dignitaries from more than 14 different nations to destinations in Afghanistan and surrounding countries in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
"Our guys didn't make the headlines," said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Arthur Hebblewhite, Detachment 52 commander for the deployment. "It was the people they flew that made the headlines."
Hebblewhite praised his team, and explained the difficulties of the mission.
"Afghanistan is an austere environment," he said. "The C26 is not built for that. The terrain, the high elevation, the temperature, the wind and the climate ó we were always flying the aircraft at the very edge of its limits. These guys did an awesome job doing that.
"What our unit had that a lot of other units did not have was these guys right here ó experienced aviators," Hebblewhite continued, noting that Detachment 52 cancelled very few flights. "On a daily basis they could assess all the different variables and know if they could make it or couldn't make it. Better yet, if they took off, that invisible line that you can't see for when you go too far ó they knew where that was at."
Sgt. Travis Brimmer, the sole enlisted member of the detachment, served as the flight operations noncommissioned officer in charge and worked with a multi-national group to coordinate the VIP flights.
"I was the primary flight scheduler for all the missions we got in country ó I scheduled and coordinated crews," Brimmer said. "It was pretty much what I expected ó a little different from the helicopter side of things with a fixed-wing unit, but it's been a great experience."
Hebblewhite told the families and friends at the unit's welcome home ceremony how the deputy commander of the joint task force to which they were assigned came to Brimmer for assistance in getting his own flight records in order.
"That's a compliment to the Wisconsin National Guard," Hebblewhite said. "When we go somewhere, they know we're bringing experience."
Chief Warrant Officer 5 John Freeman, the Wisconsin Army National Guard's command chief warrant officer, agreed. He noted that a three-star general emailed him after each flight he took with Detachment 52.
"When a three-star general takes the time to send a note to the state to recognize excellence, you truly are the excellence," Freeman said. "Art, you and your folks continued the excellence of the Wisconsin National Guard, while upholding the great traditions of the warrant officer corps. I thank you for that."
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan also thanked Detachment 52.
"Your service in Afghanistan, helping support the mission on the ground, was of great importance," Pocan said, "and it really showed what the Wisconsin National Guard can do."
Maj. Gen. Dunbar congratulated the detachment for an "extraordinary job."
"The discipline of aviation professionals going overseas to get a job done is a hallmark of the Wisconsin National Guard," he said. Dunbar also encouraged the returning Soldiers to make the most of the holidays with their families.
"We're proud of you," said Gov. Scott Walker. "We're so proud to have you back home, safe and sound ó mission accomplished."
At the March 6 sendoff ceremony, Walker presented Hebblewhite with a state flag. At the Dec. 16 welcome home ceremony, Hebblewhite returned that flag to the governor.
"Everyone who walked under that flag got excellent service," Hebblewhite said.