172nd Airlift Wing
Jun. 15, 2022
Source: Hometown Rankin Magazine by Melanie McMillan
Longtime Rankin Countians are familiar with the sight of a large gray airplane circling the airspace around Jackson. Like the commercial aircraft that take off and land every day, the impressive C-17 Globemaster III is part of the landscape. Perhaps not as familiar are the stories of the men and women behind the C-17, those who serve in the 177nd Airlift Wing of the Mississippi Air National Guard.
Based at Allen C. Thompson Field in Jackson, the 172nd Airlift Wing began in 1953 as the 183rd Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron. Just past the gate, visitors to the base are greeted by one of the original RB-26 planes, beautifully restored by the 172nd's own maintenance group. In the almost 70 years since the unit's inception, there have been several aircraft to come and go, but in 2003 the 17 and became the first Air National Guard unit to be assigned the C-17 Globemaster III.
Typically, National Guard units receive planes that have already been in service, but eight of the nine C-17s sent to the 172nd were brand new, which speaks highly of the confidence placed in the unit's top notch maintenance team. The C-17 is an amazing aircraft, capable of carrying massive amounts of cargo and transforming into a hospital, while still being able to land on a small airfield. The 172nd crews fly missions all over the world, delivering much needed supplies and transporting injured personnel. "During the Vietnam War, it was typical for it to take up to 30 days to get the injured out of the battlefield and to a military hospital for treatment," says Wing Commander Col. Britt Watson. "It was down to ten days during Desert Storm, but today, we can get a patient out in three days or less."
Col. Teri Neely is the commander for the 183rd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron and the civilian chief of staff. She has flown countless medical missions and has seen firsthand the amazing work the 172nd does taking care of the wounded. "The first hour after an injury is referred to as the golden hour," she says. "If we can get someone from the point of injury to a hardened facility with a heartbeat, that person has a 99.2% survival rate. Our goal is always to save life, limb, and eyesight. We have actually been able to transport wounded patients from Afghanistan to the US in 24 hours.”
While the capabilities of the C-17 can't be overstated, the greatest asset of the 172nd is its people, and the reputation of the unit is recognized worldwide. While approximately 400 of the unit's enlisted personnel are full time, most serve as a drill status guardsman (DSG), which means they serve one weekend per month and approximately two weeks in the summer. They also must be ready at a moment's notice to be deployed should the need arise. Chief Master Sgt. John Myers, who serves as the wing command chief, notes that there are many DSGs who live out of state, some as far as the northeastern and western parts of the United States. "They pay out of their pocket to come to the 172nd. When asked why they don't serve at the guard unit in their state, 99% of the time their response is, 'I just want to be part of the 172nd! It's that special to them!'"
When a guardsman in uniform goes out in the community, it's not uncommon for someone to thank them for their service or ask about what they do. "Just recently, I heard a little boy say, Look Daddy, it's a soldier" says Chief Master Sgt. Myers. "Those one-on-one conversations out in the community are some of our most powerful recruiting tools!"
One such encounter had a profound impact on 1st Lt. Kiara Spann, public affairs officer for the 172nd. "I was a student at The University of Southern Mississippi and was home for the summer, working at a local Subway," recalls 1st Lt. Spann. "Sgt. Chris Ward came in and we struck up a conversation. I had been interested in the Guard but wasn't quite sure where to start" Tech. Sgt. Ward gave her contact information for the local recruiter and the rest is history. 1st Lt. Spann enlisted in 2014 and was commissioned in 2019.
The 172nd may be known for flying medical and humanitarian missions overseas, but with a staff of close to 1,300, clearly not everyone is a pilot or aircraft crew member. People from all walks of life, careers, and skill sets serve in the unit. "It's really a win-win situation," says Col. Watson. "DSGs bring expertise and experience from their jobs in the community to the base, and vice versa." The wide range of training and careers available in the Air National Guard are also powerful recruiting tools. "While most people join the Guard out of a desire to serve, there are tangible benefits as well. A tuition-free college or trade school education, along with workforce training in a chosen field makes the Guard a great option" says Col. Watson. Col. Neely adds, "Some of the fields are very lucrative. There are so many areas to work in - IT, law, public affairs, engineering, even hotel, restaurant, and fitness management. Not everyone carries a weapon."
The number of humanitarian missions the 172nd has undertaken would take pages to recount. From transporting injured servicemen after the USS Cole attack, to safely delivering Guatemalan children to Texas for life-saving treatment following the volcanic eruption in 2018, to rescuing Americans stranded in Afghanistan, the 172nd can be counted on in times of crisis.
Closer to home, Rankin Countians witnessed the Guard's response during Hurricane Katrina and more recently, the organization and staffing of COVID-19 testing sites throughout the area. Stories like these tend to make headlines, but the impact the men and women of the 172nd have on their communities goes beyond high-profile missions. Volunteers from the wing have managed event parking at the Brandon Amphitheater and helped with field day at Flowood Elementary. In lieu of a more "exotic" assignment, members of the 172nd Civil Engineer Squadron chose to spend their two-week summer stint assisting with construction at Camp Kamassa, a camp for children with special needs. The 172nd has also partnered with Shower Power and Stewpot, collecting thousands of donated items for these organizations.
The leadership of the 172nd is hopeful for the future. "It's easy to point to this younger generation and say they need a lot more attention, and some would even say they're not as committed" says Chief Master Sgt. Myers, "but I participated in an enlistment in this building on the day that Russia invaded Ukraine. I asked one of the young men if he realized he was committing to serve his country in a non-peacetime military. His response was, "Yes sir. That's what I want to do.'”
Indeed, most of the enlisted men and women of the 172nd joined after 9/11, a testament to the ongoing desire to serve. "Most of our guardsmen are from this area," says Chief Master Sgt. Myers. "They're invested in the community and want it to be successful. When I ask our men and women why they re-enlist, the number one answer is relationships The 172nd is a special place.”
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