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If history is any sign, the on again, off again 603rd might soon be back

Airman 1st Class Ryan Pierce, of the 603rd Air Control Squadron, guides an AN/TPS-75 radar down to the ground. The radar is being packed up and shipped out because the 603rd is being inactivated later this year.

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy — At some point in its history, the 603rd Air Control Squadron adopted the scorpion as its mascot.

With all of its forays into southwest Asia during the last decade in support of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the name seems appropriate.

But in light of the Air Force’s decision to inactivate the unit as the service reduces its footprint in Europe, the boomerang might be a more fitting choice. Just when you think the unit is gone for good, it returns.

“Who knows? In 10 years it could be back,” said Master Sgt. Aaron Daigle, who works in radio maintenance but also serves as the unit’s historian.

The 603rd’s history dates to the months following World War II. It activated in December 1945 in Neustadt/Aisch, Germany, then inactivated less than two years later. Less than a year after its inactivation, it returned, this time in Bad Kissingen, Germany, and moved to several other locations before inactivating again in 1965.

In 1973, it was stood up again — mostly at Sembach Air Base, Germany — and lasted until 1986. In 1991, it was revived at Sembach, then moved to Aviano when the 31st Fighter Wing was formed in 1994.

“We’ve all made jokes that it’s just going to come back,” said Maj. Ricardo Camel, the unit’s director of operations.

“But it probably won’t be while I’m still serving,” said Chief Master Sgt. John Maldonado, in his second stint in the unit. “It’s sad to see it go.”

The 603rd hasn’t set an inactivation date. But it’ll be sometime around the start of September. By then, only a handful of Scorpions will be left on base. Just about all of the unit’s equipment will be gone as well.

At its height, the unit numbered more than 300 airmen at Aviano. Along with the two F-16 fighter Squadrons — the 510th and 555th — it was considered one of the three deployable tactical units on base.

And deploy it did, with some elements downrange in almost every year since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Unlike many airmen who often deploy individually, members of the 603rd went in small teams or virtually the entire squadron. Also unlike most Air Force units, they were largely self-supportive while in the theater.

“We’re kind of like a mini-wing,” Maldonado said, citing airmen with more than two dozen occupational specialties.

The 603rd had its own fleet of trucks to carry both personnel and equipment. Until recently, that equipment included a large radar system mounted on top of a tower on base, or wherever it was needed during a deployment. That’s been shipped to Spangdahlem, which is host to one of only three ACSs left in the active-duty force.

Airmen do most of their “controlling” on deployment from small trailers that contain an array of equipment. The small trailers can be mounted on larger trailers and transported as well.

“We’re a self-sustained organization that can deploy anywhere, control aircraft and put bombs on target,” Daigle said in a quick summary.

And because of its trucks, it was able to move quickly when needed. During a 2004 deployment in Iraq, the 603rd packed its equipment from Baghdad International Airport and convoyed by itself to Balad.

Airman 1st Class Antoine Holt became the unit’s only fatality in Iraq as the result of a mortar attack in Balad a few months later.

Senior Master Sgt. Joseph Adams, who had never served in an air control squadron before joining the 603rd in Aviano, said communication work “is in his blood.” But he said working in such a squadron is different from working at a similar job in another organization.

“We’ve always gone as a team,” he said. “And that’s how we operate on deployment.”

Adams is one of the few who plan to still be in Aviano when the unit inactivates. After that, Daigle said, the unit’s flag and other memorabilia will be boxed and sent to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

harris.kent@stripes.com

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