Air National Guard 142nd serves nation, neighborhoods
Being local is "One of our strengths, one of our benefits, part of our charm as I like to say," said Oregon Air National Guard Col. Aaron Mathena. "As Col. (Todd A.) Hofford, our wing commander is fond of saying, we are the hometown air force."
Being a guardsman, I have responsibilities monthly and annually but when I'm not under those responsibilities," Mathena said. "I support my local community, I support the community that I'm in, or I pursue my overseas job that may be paying the bills all those other days, right, so, we've got a lot of opportunity and what that affords us is the ability to grab talent and capability and volunteerism from all over. So, we benefit in that regard."
The Air National Guard has several advantages. It is a fixed location. It draws from the near population of the metro area and many traditional drill status guardsmen have vocations that are highly technical and highly professional and have likely, in many cases, already spent some time in the active-duty Air Force.
What the Air National Guard offers is a way to continue serving in a professional way while pursuing other objectives either professionally or personally. What that often means, according to Mathena, is a higher experience quotient. "We're able to keep an operational reserve force that's relevant and meaningful to the active component predominantly because we've got folks who've been there done that."
It's also possible for someone to spend their entire career in the guard having never served before.
"It happens less often," said Conklin, referring to the number of people who make a career of the guard with no prior service, "I couldn't tell you what the exact percentage is, just because I don't know. I myself came from active duty and I was in Iraq and I happened to be in the same office with the commander of the Oregon Air National Guard."
Senior Master Sgt. Grant Roper, a 23-year veteran, 100% of that with the guard, knows a thing or two about hometown service. Born and raised in Happy Valley, Roper moved away just after joining the military but returned around 2015 with his wife, also from Happy Valley, to purchase their second house. He chairs the city's Traffic and Public Safety Committee and sits on the Happy Valley Budget Committee.
Roper often tells people that volunteering is the way to get to know a city. "Happy Valley gives you that opportunity," he said.
Roper said he likes to hear people's concerns. Being senior enlisted leader, he gets to hear the concerns of enlisted members and even some officers.
"I'm able to up channel those to our operations group commander or the wing commander or the command chief and let them know," Roper said.
In Happy Valley, he's likewise able to help people by putting their concerns in front of the people who can address them, "and now I'm able to up channel those things to city council, city staff," he said. "Every community has their problems, and you have to be their voice."
When asked about the benefits of serving in the Guard and serving his community Roper said, "It's really helped me in both ways. In the military it's really helped me be a different kind of a leader and really being able to listen to my enlisted people. And in the community, I've been able to get myself out there and meet a lot more of the community that I wouldn't have been able to meet. It's kind of tenfold, it's pretty cool."
An active-duty service member is lucky to get stationed near, let alone in, their hometown. For a guardsman, it's standard procedure.
His local connections extend beyond his hometown. The guard also gets to serve alongside state partners. "Fire departments, when we go out on fires. Civil unrest, we get to go downtown and serve next to our police officers," Roper said.
Besides waiting for hostile aircraft to invade U.S. airspace and giving tours to interested community members and prospective guard candidates the guard has some responsibilities to the state as well, under title 32 of the U.S. Code which covers the National Guard.
According to Mathena, a guardsman has three roles: war fighting reserve and operational reserve; state mission, or domestic operations; and partnerships and coalition building.
Operation "O Plan Smokey," in which guard members augment Oregon Department of Forestry fighting fires, sets aside a cadre of reserve volunteers with the appropriate training and resources to mobilize quickly when the governor calls.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the 142nd was mobilized as part of a joint task force. Their mission: To send guardsmen into local hospitals to fill staffing shortages experienced by many hospitals during the height of the pandemic.
"It was pretty short notice," Conklin said, "and it was a huge movement. We had hundreds from the wing alone."
Their first COVID deployment ran from August to December 2021.
"Then a few weeks later we got called back up again," Conklin said, "because that's when omicron started really hitting the hospitals hard.
Conklin said it would be reasonable — but wrong — to expect guardsmen to be upset at being thrown into harm's way during a pandemic. "The vast majority of folks were — this is what we signed up for," Conklin said. Because signing up means, "…not just, 'I'm going to be part of the military,' I'm going to be supporting my community."
"Being able to actually go out there and do that and see the appreciation from the hospitals, all the hospitals were so appreciative, the nurses, everybody, so happy that we were there," Conklin said.
They sent chaplains to Washington D.C. to support law enforcement in the aftermath of Jan. 6, 2021, when police protected civilians during the violent breach of the Capitol.
They've brought water, blankets and health checks to communities cut off during storms.
They fight forest fires.
"Yes, if and when flooding does happen," Mathena said, "it is not uncommon for us to be out filling sandbags."
If that wasn't enough to earn them the title of hometown hero, a lot of guardsmen also are active in their communities.
Beyond national defense and domestic support something Mathena is proud of is the guard wing's partnerships, both local and worldwide.
"We have two state partnership program partners that we are formally attached to," Mathena said, "one is Bangladesh and the other is Vietnam."
A delegation from Vietnam will visit in the coming weeks.
The 142nd teamed up with Bangladesh a few years back and helped their border patrol.
"It's a lot of partnership and collaboration," Mathena said, "In a hundred different ways that are not just militarily affiliated."
"Not every country has a reserve or an Air National Guard; that can be kind of a foreign concept in some states," Mathena said. "They'll come in and ask those questions, organizationally, how we create that kind of thing."
But it isn't just partner states that benefit from partnership and coalition building.
The 142nd does joint exercises with different countries, in multiple sates and conducts exercises with other service branches like the Navy and Marine Corps as well as coalition partners.
The 142nd's last international excursion was hosted by the Netherlands. The joint exercise allowed fighter squadron and OSF members to fly and work with Dutch coalition partners.
If protecting the skies, helping out during times of domestic trouble and building friendly partnerships around the world isn't quite enough — most of the federal funding, including payroll, ends up back in the local community.
Or, as Master Sgt. Conklin put it, "We're a great value asset to the state of Oregon."
"We appreciate everybody supporting us and what we do and, hopefully, they feel the jet noises are here to help," Roper said.
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