Guardsmen back from Bosnia

January 17, 1994|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Staff Writer

They were like watchdogs in the sky.

As NATO relief teams tried to deliver food, medicine and other supplies to the sick, hungry and dying residents of war-torn Bosnia, fighter pilots from the Maryland Air National Guard's 175th Fighter Group provided cover.

During 30 days of flying support missions they never fired a shot, said Capt. Mike Theisen, 35, who returned to Martin State Airport yesterday. But "it was rewarding, in that we knew we were doing something good."

Captain Theisen and fellow fighter pilot, Capt. Jeff Bucher, 35, said the relief convoys on the ground would encounter opposition and call for help from the fighter pilots.

"We'd fly over, and they [the hostile forces] wouldn't shoot at them," Captain Theisen said. "We were acting as a deterrent."

Captains Theisen and Bucher touched down at 1:50 p.m. yesterday, after a 9 1/2 -hour flight home in their A-10 Thunderbolts.

They were greeted by fellow Air National Guard members, including Capt. Billy Smith, who also flew support missions over Bosnia.

In all, about 42 guardsmen have served in Bosnia since Nov. 15 as part of Operation Deny Flight and Operation Provide Promise, said Technical Sgt. Jeffrey S. Legeer, a National Guard spokesman.

The Maryland guardsmen served with units from around the country, providing relief to regular U.S. Air Force pilots who have been providing air protection to NATO relief convoys since April.

Working out of Aviano Air Base in Italy, the fighter pilots and ground crews often started their days before dawn and were still flying after dark, said Captain Smith, 33.

"It's probably some of the best flying experience I've had in my career," Captain Smith of Millersville said.

Captain Theisen of Columbia and Captain Bucher of White Marsh said they flew 14 missions each during their 30 days. They carried 11 bombs and missiles on their jet fighters.

"We were ready to go," said Captain Theisen. But "it was good that we didn't have to employ our weapons."

They didn't even mind missing Christmas at home, knowing they were helping people in Bosnia, as well as allowing regular Air Force pilots and ground crews to be at home for the holidays, they said.

Captain Smith said he was planning to celebrate the holiday last night with his family.

"My family is all meeting at my parents' house for dinner," he said. "And I'm going to get all my presents."

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