Members of the Maryland Air National Guard and their A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft -- no strangers to the skies over Bosnia-Herzegovina -- have been tapped to join the NATO peacekeeping mission there, officials said yesterday.
As part of a two-month rotation, the first contingent of the guard's 600 members will leave their base at Martin State Airport next Saturday and will operate out of Aviano, Italy -- a 45-minute flight from Bosnia.
The deployment of the 175th marks the second time the unit has served in and over Bosnia. In August 1994, while the Maryland wing served under the command of the United Nations, two A-10 pilots from Maryland's unit wiped out a Bosnian Serb anti-tank emplacement.
"It seems a little brighter this time because the [factions] are talking to each other," said Col. Charles A. Morgan, vice wing commander of the 175th. "The last time I visited, they were shooting at each other."
The 175th will join two other Maryland military units committed to the NATO mission: the 55th Signal Company, known as Combat Camera, an army unit from Fort Meade; and the 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Maryland National Guard journalists
and public affairs specialists headquartered in Baltimore.
The 175th will be part of a NATO force conducting Operation Decisive Edge.
"This time it seems a little more upbeat because we will have U.S. troops on the ground," said Colonel Morgan. The colonel, who lives in Laurel, flew eight combat missions over Bosnia during Operation Deny Flight in 1994.
Colonel Morgan is a traditional guardsman, a so-called weekend warrior, who flies commercial airliners for USAir. He will leave his wife and three children for 22 days when he departs for Bosnia duty in February.
Although harsh weather and flooding in Bosnia have hampered some NATO troop movements, and indigenous forces have fired on NATO aircraft with small arms, there have been promising signs since a peace agreement was signed in Paris Dec. 14, said Col. Walter T. Thilly, commander of the Air Guard's 175th Wing.
Rival forces withdrew this week from around Sarajevo, and all sides in the nearly 4-year war have cooperated with NATO ground troops in pinpointing land mines.
While the wing commander is optimistic about "peace breaking out," he said his pilots and other personnel are prepared for "whatever contingency arises."
"My first concern is that my people will have proper equipment for the cold weather because the Italian air base is at high altitude," Colonel Thilly said. "Staying warm while working very long hours is important."
The two-month rotating assignment marks the first time the unit will use night-vision devices in combat conditions while flying their A-10s, versatile jet aircraft loaded with missiles, rockets, and a 30mm anti-tank gun that fires 70 rounds a second.
The A-10, nicknamed Warthog, played a key role in Operation Desert Storm. It has sophisticated electronic radar jamming and detection devices.
Two of the 175th's C-130 cargo planes will be used to transport support personnel and equipment to Europe.
"As important as the pilots are," said Colonel Thilly, "they are no more important than the men and women who maintain the aircraft, monitor the weather, keep the paperwork."
Another key concern of the wing commander is the family support group that keeps close contact with the spouses, children and relatives of Guard members who are overseas.
"For the person left at home, it might be more difficult than going where we are going," the colonel said. "They have to assume new roles, manage the household and not get too concerned about their loved ones in possible harm's way."
Christine Zurkowski, wife of A-10 pilot Capt. Paul Zurkowski, expects to be extremely busy in the couple's Bel Air home with their three children -- all below the age of 6.
"I've become somewhat used to it," she said. "Family and friends whose husbands are also away keep things together. While Paul is away, I tend to pay attention to the newspaper every day, read everything."
Captain Zurkowski, an aeronautical engineer with the Department of Defense, went overseas with the 175th last year. Bosnia, with its rugged mountains, is a beautiful sight from 20,000 feet, he said.
"But when flying at a lower altitude, the damage to the towns becomes very evident," he added. He leaves Jan. 27.
Colonel Thilly said "valuable" support for families has come from the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce and community associations in Bowleys Quarters, Wilson Point and the Back River Neck Peninsula.
175th Air Wing
Who: The Maryland Air National Guard's 175th Air Wing's 600 members join Operation Decisive Edge in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
When: Members depart from Martin State Airport in Middle River beginning next Saturday.
Where: To Aviano, Italy -- a 45-minute flight to Bosnia, where they will provide air cover for NATO ground forces.
How long: Members of the 175th will be deployed for approximately two months on a rotating schedule. The unit last flew over Bosnia in the summer of 1994.