Thursday, December 02, 1999

Area guardsmen headed to Kuwait

73 will spend holidays helping protect no-fly zone

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BLUE ASH — They will head out in less than two weeks, saying goodbye to family, friends, even employers, as they spend the holidays and the next four months of their lives in the Middle East.

        The 123rd Air Control Squadron of the Ohio Air National Guard, based here, will head to Ali Al Salem, Kuwait, on assignment to protect the southern no-fly zone over Iraq.

        Col. Norman Poklar, commander of the unit, said the 73 members of his squadron will be joined by 27 personnel from a Salt Lake City unit on the assignment. They are expected to be in Kuwait until early April, he said.

        “Our responsibility is to ensure that all NATO assets in that region are protected. Our mission is radar surveillance, communications, and data link (operations),” Col. Poklar said.

        About 25 of the 73 guardsmen going are full-time guard; the rest are traditional guardsmen who commit to duty one weekend a month and 15 additional days a year.

        “We have everything from students to policemen to teachers,” said Major Ann Coghlin.

        Those who are being deployed have known since September that the holidays would have to come early in December. And while the timing might be regretable, many look forward to the “real world” experience.

        Master Sgt. Dennis Koeninger, who has been a full-time guardsman since 1977, is married with two children and lives in Villa Hills, Ky.

        “They're not happy about it, but my wife understands,” said Sgt. Koeninger, 41. “Being full time, she understands. But my children, they don't want daddy being gone for Christmas. Nobody really wants to leave family. But this is a real world mission. It's what we train for, and we're as ready as we'll ever be.”

        He and his family — wife Beverly and children Elyse, 11, and Kristen, 8 — have the Christmas tree up and will celebrate the holiday the morning he takes off for Kuwait, Dec. 12.

        Master Sgt. Tom Hoferer, a traditional guardsman who works at General Electric in Evendale, will leave behind a wife, Chris, and two small children, Jacob, 4, and Rachel, 1, in Cleves. The tree is up; their house decorated. They will celebrate Christmas this Sunday.

        “It's one of those things that you don't think will happen, but it can,” said Sgt. Hoferer, 32. “It could happen (being deployed this time of year). It's also what we're trained to do.”

        His employer has been supportive, and family and friends have been generous in offering help while he's away.

        The deployment is not without some risks, even without a war going on. The guardsmen will be stationed just a couple of hundred miles from Iraq's border. Sgt. Hoferer will be working with radar operations.

        “We'll be watching the skies for hostile aircraft, missiles,” he said.

        Airman Christina Valentino is 21, lives in Harrison and has been with the guard for just more than a year. She is single.

        “It's an adventure,” she said. “When I joined it was what I always wanted to do. The timing is difficult, over the holidays. But once the holidays get by you get settled. I'm nervous — I don't know what to expect.”

        Airman Valentino, a traditional guardsman, is a patient care assistant at Bethesda Oak hospital. She hopes to enter nursing school when she returns in April.

        Staff Sgt. Bukari Miles is 25, a full-time guardsman who attends the University of Cincinnati, lives in Springdale and leaves behind a fiance and family.

        “They don't want me to go,” Sgt. Miles said. “But it's a chance to go out of the country, to get some real world experience. This is something I trained for.”

        Ohio Gov. Bob Taft will be at the unit's headquarters on McKinley Road near Blue Ash Airport on Tuesday for ceremonies for the squadron.

        Col. Poklar said the unit will provide radar and other data to the various armed services and operating aircraft providing protection over southern Iraq and to the NATO command. The unit will monitor and provide information to commanders about any offensive actions that may be taken by Iraq and to NATO air defense operations, including Patriot missile sites protecting the area, the colonel said.


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