News: A heritage of service: The 133rd Airlift Wing Fire Department closes its doors
By Master Sgt. Mark Legvold
ST. PAUL, Minn. - On a Minnesota fall afternoon amid a backdrop of memorial plaques and helmets honoring their members, firefighters past and present were able to reflect not only on their heritage of service, but on the human aspect of the cuts the military has faced in 2013. The disbanding of the 133rd Airlift Wing Fire Department has made a significant impact on members throughout the Wing, past and present.
In Feb. 2012, the National Guard Bureau gave the news that the 133rd Airlift Wing Fire Department was to close. At that time, over half of the 27 member department was deployed to Southwest Asia. Those left in Minnesota were all very busy preparing for an upcoming compliance inspection. Despite the distance, the commander felt a commitment to make sure the news was delivered to the fire department by him first.
“I wanted to let them know personally, and right away,” explained Lt. Col. James Wentzlaff, deputy commander for the 133rd Mission Support Group and former 133rd Civil Engineer Squadron commander. “I called Chief Tom McDonough overseas and asked him to relay the news to the rest of the department with my deepest regrets.”
The call was one that no leader or airmen who loves their job wants to get – that the department members will be forced to hang up their helmets for the last time. The history of togetherness, family, deployments and training would soon come to a close.
“When we got the call, it was like someone punched us in the gut,” stated Senior Master Sgt. Tom McDonough, 133rd fire chief and member of the department since 1988. Around a year and a half later, during September drill, the closing ceremony officially marked their transition to new positions and to celebrate their proud heritage dating back to the early 1970s.
The first fire chief of the 133rd Fire Department, Don Nelson, who is in his 70’s, was joined by all living, retired fire chiefs during the closing ceremony. They still spoke with strong emotion and vigorous enthusiasm when it came to the department, even during the final moments.
“We started in 1971 while the active duty was drawing down,” said Nelson about his beginnings at the 133rd Fire Department. “I came over from the 934th Air Force Reserve and there were a bunch of Staff Sergeants and I was a technical sergeant, which made me the chief.”
Each year the 133rd Fire Department deployed for training, starting in 1972 to Puerto Rico. The firefighters filled countless missions, providing airfield fire coverage at Camp Ripley, Minn. and the downtown St. Paul, Minn. airfield during the Republican National Convention in 2008.
Domestically the fire department deployed during state wild fires and sent a large crew to Mississippi immediately following Hurricane Katrina. Even in 2013, they were requested to provide coverage for the Texas ANG during their exercise at Volk Field, Wis.
Both the final deployment and the wing compliance Inspection ended on the same day, and both had excellent results: No write-ups, excellent performance and outstanding attitude and energy. The performance of the department was further recognized by the awarding of the ‘ANG Small Fire Department of the Year for 2012’, which was presented by ANG Fire Chief Association Representative, Senior Master Sgt. Matt Davies, at the closing ceremony.
“We’re definitely going out on top,” said Chief McDonough, who is currently an assistant chief with St. Paul Fire Department and retired from the ANG on the department’s last drill weekend.
Not everyone on the 27-person team was able to retire at closing, however, and finding good opportunities for all in the unit was an invigorating and rewarding challenge for leadership within the fire department. Many are moving to new occupations within the wing; such as carpentry, loadmaster, maintenance, safety and security forces. Several have found use for their firefighting skills in emergency medicine and advanced search and rescue within the 133rd Medical Group as part of the Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive Enhanced Response Force team. Two of the firefighters are commissioning into new occupations and other members found new homes in other ANG fire departments from Duluth, Minn., to St. Joseph, Mo.
“You’ve already had the best job in the Air Force. Now you are moving on to exciting new opportunities… embrace it and make a difference,” said Chief McDonough to the rest of the members during the closing ceremony.
The fire department has definitely left its mark on the 133rd Airlift Wing and the Air Force in its 42-year history, leaving a heritage of excellence. Most importantly, they have been an example of the togetherness and teamwork that has personified the mission ready family and embodies the values the ANG strives for.