To the staff at Pinky’s Westside Grill, the uniformed airmen are regulars – so much so that the unit presented the restaurant a flag from itsmost recent tour in Afghanistan.
But to much of the region, the work of the Charlotte-based N.C. Air National Guard 145th Airlift Wing happens away from public view as its 1,500 members help fight overseas wars and aid during domestic disasters.
That changed last week when the unit’s specially outfitted C-130 firefighting plane crashed Sunday over the burning Black Hills of South Dakota, killing four airmen and injuring two.
The crash thrust the unit into the spotlight as friends, neighbors and strangers sent what Guard officials called an “unbelievable” show of support to the surviving families. People have offered meals, gift cards, lawn maintenance and donations to memorial funds.
Killed were Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal of Mooresville, Senior Master Sgt. Robert Cannon of Charlotte, Maj. Joe McCormick of Belmont and Maj. Ryan Scott David of Boone. Sgt. Josh Marlowe, who lives near Boiling Springs, was hospitalized in Rapid City. A second survivor, as yet unidentified, was flown to the Jaycee Burn Center at North Carolina Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill.
At least three men on the plane – Mikeal, Cannon and Marlowe – were Pinky’s regulars.
Server Molly Dunning recalls Cannon presenting the American flag in March. She grew emotional when fellow guardsmen arrived after the crash.
“As soon as they walked in, my heart dropped,” she said.
The 145th operates transport aircraft around the world.
Like the rest of the National Guard, it has faced increasing pressures and frequent deployments over the past decade. They’ve been called on to supplement the regular military in Iraq and Afghanistan, two of the country’s longest wars, which have placed an unprecedented strain on the all-volunteer armed forces.
Technical Sergeant Brian E. Christiansen, an airman who works as a photographer for the unit, said people in Charlotte often assume that airmen out and about in their uniforms aren’t local.
“People will say, ‘What base are you from? Are you from Pope?’ Nope. We’re down the street,” Christiansen said. “We certainly are the best-kept secret in Charlotte, and we don’t mean to be, but it’s always kind of been that way.”
Like a ‘full base’
Though the Guard is based at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, it’s possible to use the airport and never know the wing is there. The facilities are tucked around the back, off Morris Field Drive.
In addition to the aerial firefighting unit, the 145th has airlift missions to transport supplies and people, a medical evacuation squadron, combat communications, air traffic controllers, and a close air support unit that calls in airstrikes for ground units.
“Basically anything that’s on a full base, we have here,” said Lt. Col. Rose Dunlap.
About 25 percent of the 145th’s airmen are full-time guardsmen, while the rest have civilian jobs and careers outside the military, Dunlap said. Those on the crashed C-130 were a mix.
The pilots who died were full-time guardsmen, while Marlowe was an X-ray technician at a medical office. David, a navigator on the flight was an analyst for a government contractor in Virginia.
A typical workday for full-timer Mikeal involved leaving home between 6:30 and 7 a.m. and coming home around 5 p.m., said his wife, Marlo Mikeal. At least once a week, he’d do night flying and wouldn’t be home until late.
“They’re always doing training and smaller missions that nobody ever hears about,” she said. “He looked forward to flying, and he looked forward to these missions.”
Demands on the National Guard have increased since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have pushed the force from being a reserve to more fully integrated with active duty units.
“One weekend a month, two weeks a year,” the old unofficial Guard motto, is a thing of the past. Many units have been deployed to combat zones multiple times.
Dunlap said there are currently about 18 members of the unit deployed overseas. “That’s probably the lowest number in a long time,” she said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a time since 9/11 we’ve not had someone deployed.”
Deployment lengths can vary, Dunlap said, from 60 days to about six months. The number of airmen who are sent changes, too. “You may have 10 people leave at a time, you may have 100 people leave at a time,” Dunlap said.
About 130 members of the unit, including many of the men on the firefighting plane that crashed, returned from a months-long deployment to Afghanistan in March. They held their annual airborne firefighting training in May in South Carolina.
Last Saturday, they deployed to fight the fires in the west.
Strain of duty
The double duty for many in the National Guard – military deployments overseas and assisting with national disasters – can add to the strain on families of guardsmen.
Candace Wheeler of the National Military Family Association said that such assignments can cut down on the amount of “dwell time,” or time Guardsmen get to spend at home with their families.
“Even when they have more dwell time from federal service, the National Guard is called up by the states to fight fires and such,” she said. “They’re still being tasked by both entities.”
She said the problems of multiple and lengthy deployments for Guardsmen was a more acute concern several years ago, when the length of time they would be called to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan was unclear.
“In the beginning of the war, that was true,” Wheeler said. “Since the war we have had many join knowing that this is going to be part of what they’re going to do.”
The generals in charge of the National Guard acknowledged the tension in their 2012 annual report. “We must find a sustainable balance between operational utilization and overuse” of Guardsmen, they wrote.
Flying from home
Mikeal served in the Air Force for a decade before joining the N.C. Air National Guard in 2001, said his mother, Connie Mikeal. For him, the Guard was a way to keep flying without quite so many deployments.
“He absolutely loved it,” his mother said of the Guard. “It was like his second family. People have no idea how close-knit they are and what wonderful things they do on a daily basis.”
All four who died in Sunday’s crash were married with children and have been characterized as family men and loyal friends.
McCormick left behind a wife and four children.
“We find comfort in knowing that he died doing what he loved and that he was serving and protecting others,” the family said in a statement.
David joined the N.C. Air National Guard last October. He, too, had switched from the Air Force to spend more time with his wife, Jenny Ellerbe, and their 6-month-old son.
David, who lived in Boone, commuted to Winchester, Va., to work for a government contractor. He was a part-time master navigator for the Guard in Charlotte.
“He wanted to be full-time so badly, but they just didn’t have any positions open,” Ellerbe said. “He was always saying, ‘If you have anything for me to do, I’ll be there anytime.’ He loved serving his country.”
Even though he just joined the Guard in the fall, David had already done plenty of service, including missions in North Carolina, South Carolina and England, Ellerbe said.
Jim Kiehna, Cannon’s close friend , said he got a civilian’s perspective of an airman’s life through their friendship.
He said that Cannon once invited him and another friend to visit the base and tour his plane.
“He showed us around and how the whole firefighting system worked, and you could see how proud he was of what he did and that he was an incredibly skilled airman,” Kiehna said. “He knew that plane inside out.”
He said Cannon loved his work for the Guard and often talked about it. He had served in the Guard for 29 years.
“Three weeks ago, as the fire season started up, he said, ‘This is the most dangerous stuff we do, flying over into these canyons in the mountains,’?” Kiehna said.
But talking about the dangers of his job wasn’t something Cannon usually did, Kiehna said.
“I don’t think he wanted anyone to be scared for him or worried for him,” he said. “He was just that kind of guy.”