Cajun Sunet: New Orleans bids farewell to 926th Fighter Wing

Air crews gather beneath the tail of one of the 926th Tactical Airlift Group's C-130s in the early 1970s.

Air crews gather beneath the tail of one of the 926th Tactical Airlift Group's C-130s in the early 1970s.

Medical technicians practice their skills during an exercise at New Orleans in the early 1980s.

Medical technicians practice their skills during an exercise at New Orleans in the early 1980s.

A 926th FW pilot is ready for action during a recent Hawgsmoke competition. Hawgsmoke  is a bombing and tactical gunnery competition in which A-10 units from around the world come together to compete for the honor of the "Best of the Best" in ground attack and target destruction. (Master Sgt. Chance C. Babin)

A 926th FW pilot is ready for action during a recent Hawgsmoke competition. Hawgsmoke is a bombing and tactical gunnery competition in which A-10 units from around the world come together to compete for the honor of the "Best of the Best" in ground attack and target destruction. (Master Sgt. Chance C. Babin)

ROBINS AFB, Ga. -- In 1755, British troops, with the help of New England militia, forcibly removed 8,000 Acadians from their land and homes in what was known as the Great Expulsion, le Grand Dérangement. The area in Canada, once known as Acadia, became Nova Scotia. Their homes burned and their lands confiscated, the French-speaking Acadians were forced to pick up their lives and families and start anew elsewhere. A resilient group, the Acadians established new lives, predominantly in south Louisiana, where they became known as Cajuns.

Some 251 years later, members of the 926th Fighter Wing, Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans, La., a unit known as the "Fighting Cajuns," faced their own version of expulsion, this time at the hands of the latest Base Realignment and Closure Commission. In September, the 926th became the first Air Force Reserve Command unit to be closed by the lastest BRAC.

Although not as tragic as the Great Expulsion, the closure is nevertheless forcing people, who proudly embody the spirit of the Cajuns, to once again pick up their lives and start anew. For many, their lives were just getting back to normal after the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

While the original Cajuns brought their skills for farming and fishing to Louisiana, 926th FW Airmen will bring their vast skills and experiences, along with a piece of the unit's rich heritage -- a heritage that stretched from World War II to the Global War on Terrorism, with a presence in New Orleans since 1958 -- to other Reserve units throughout the country.

To commemorate the closing of the unit, in the true spirit of New Orleans, the 926th FW hosted a farewell banquet and deactivation party Aug. 12, 2006, at the downtown Sheraton. The party, held a month before the unit's official closure, was named Operation Cajun Sunset.

A distinguished aspect of New Orleans culture is the jazz funeral. In 1819, architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe said New Orleans jazz funerals were "peculiar to New Orleans alone among all American cities." In his book "Bourbon Street Black," the late jazzman Danny Barker noted the funeral is seen as "a major celebration." The roots of the jazz funeral date back to Africa.

And it was with a similar approach that the Cajuns bid farewell. Although the unit was closing, the Reservists treated the occasion as a celebration of the past as well as the present.

"This party is a way to bring closure," said Col. Larry Merington, 926th FW commander. "It's a celebration, not a funeral, that goes back to the people we've worked with and for, who helped make a difference on this planet; a celebration of members who served over the last 50 years in this wing. We are closing a chapter of this book, so someone else will open a new chapter in our history."

"The significance really for tonight is to relish the relationships and friendships we've made over the years and to highlight the history of this unit, which goes a long way back," said Lt. Gen. John A. Bradley, AFRC commander. "We've got a lot of folks from many decades ago who are here with us tonight. This unit has had a long and proud history, and I'm just glad we've put together a first-class event so that people currently in the unit and those who were in the unit before can come together and celebrate the 926th Fighter Wing."

A year ago, far from being in a celebratory mood, members of the 926th were trying to get through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, all the while dealing with the upcoming BRAC.

Of the slightly more than 1,000 people in the wing, 66 percent were negatively impacted by Katrina, with 34 percent either completely losing or being displaced from their homes, Colonel Merington said. While recovering from that terrible blow to their personal lives, they were faced with turmoil in their professional lives created by the wing's closure.

"All of these life-changing events in 12 months," Colonel Merington said. "Most people don't go through that much in 20 years. These are some resilient people, as courageous as any people I've seen."

No matter how resilient or courageous the folks of the 926th FW appeared to be on the outside, Colonel Merington said the wing's leadership was concerned about the members' mental state. The unit was recommended for closure before Katrina, but after the natural disaster, the process was expedited, causing increased stress.

"After Katrina hit, we went from (a closure timeline of) 2 1/2 years to nine months," Colonel Merington said. "It was a unique situation. People suffered disparaging harm from the hurricane, and then they had to go through BRAC. We became very concerned about what to do."

Wing leadership tapped into available Air Force and AFRC programs and brought in some counselors to help members cope with all the issues going on in their lives.

"We decided to go above and beyond to conduct what many called 'feel-good sessions,'" Colonel Merington said. "It was to let people know we cared about them deeply, never forgetting our obligation to take care of the physical and mental health of our people. We wanted them to know there was a lifeline."

Part of the stress came from the fact that the unit closure was sped up due to the hurricane. There are varying opinions of whether this was a good or bad thing. For Col. Steve Arthur, who was 926th FW commander at the time of the BRAC announcement and during Hurricane Katrina, speeding up the closure was a good thing. The colonel knows something about base closures as he was at Bergstrom Air Force Base, Texas, when it was closed in the early 1990s.

"Having been through one before, you know where the pitfalls are," Colonel Arthur said. "I knew two of the things that would be good about closing sooner rather than later would be the availability of lots of jobs and lots of money. These really helped us out and proved to be an advantage."

Once the A-10s left New Orleans for Whiteman AFB, Mo., and Barksdale AFB, La., Colonel Arthur moved on to Whiteman as commander, and Colonel Merington took the reigns in July for the wing's final months.

"There will be debates about how fast you should close a unit under BRAC," Colonel Merington said. "From my seat, the faster the better. No lingering death, and no hacking off bits and pieces. The acceleration was a blessing as far as helping our people out was concerned."

Not everyone shares the two commanders' opinions about closing the wing early.

"Had we closed a year later, it would have been easier on everybody because so many people's houses were not back in order from Katrina, which made BRAC much harder," said Tech. Sgt. Richard Smith. "Everyone was just getting their lives back in order, and then they had to sell their houses due to BRAC."

Sergeant Smith, an air reserve technician and New Orleans native, took a job at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla.

"I'm glad to have a job," Sergeant Smith said, "but I hate leaving my family and friends and uprooting my kids from their school, friends and family. But we are in the Air Force, and we know situations like this can happen. We make the best of it. It's not the end of the world, just a major inconvenience."

For units on the closure list, AFRC set up several programs, including a BRAC guide, member tracking codes, two clearinghouses, e-mail boxes and an archive, all designed to assist those affected.

"For me being a DOD (Department of Defense) civilian employee, placement was good," said Master Sgt. Norman Bailey, a member of the 926th Security Forces Squadron. "I was glad we were the first ones in the system. I applied the first week we could and had a hit in the first week.

"As far as my Reserve job was concerned, I wasn't as fortunate. I went through the clearinghouse, which showed me some hits, but there were some problems. We were told the units had to take us, but they said they didn't."

Another person who experienced some difficulties with the clearinghouse was Chief Master Sgt. Gary Hornosky, 926th FW command chief master sergeant. He ended up retiring in August.

"They made it sound like the clearinghouse was the answer, which was not the case for everyone," Chief Hornosky said. "I put my name in the clearinghouse and got no response whatsoever. I don't know if they received it or not. We started having supervisors call other units to help find jobs. That proved to be the most effective way."

Despite the problems, Colonel Merington said AFRC should maintain the clearinghouse.

"We are the first unit to use the traditional Reservist clearinghouse," Colonel Merington said. "With all new programs, there are always glitches, but it is a valuable tool, and we need to continue using it."

Although it's now closed, the wing's history book includes a stellar record during wartime. Dating back to the D-Day invasion of Normandy and continuing through the peacekeeping mission over Bosnia, Desert Storm and now the Global War on Terrorism, the unit has carved out an impressive record.

"This wing has always risen to the challenge of war and peacekeeping," Colonel Merington said. "I'd rather go to war with them than anyone else. The Cajun mentality is if there is no danger, let's party; but if there's danger, they are warriors and do their job very well."

As the first Reserve fighter unit recalled to active duty during Operation Desert Storm, the Cajuns became the most decorated unit during the war.

"They (active-duty people) were looking at us as if to say, 'What are you doing here?' We proved to them that we belonged," said Master Sgt. Ron Steib, an aircraft hydraulic technician, who recently retired. "All of our training paid off, and we rose to the occasion.

"After that it was like a drug to me. Anytime the unit deployed, I needed to go. They were my family."

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the Cajuns were once again called to duty, as the unit deployed to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.

"I was a little nervous because everyone's emotions were real high right after 9/11, and I'm thinking, 'Geez, am I up to the task here? Can we go over and do what needs to be done?'" said retired Lt. Col. Neil McAskill, former commander of the 706th Fighter Squadron. The colonel led the Cajuns in Bagram during Operation Enduring Freedom.

"The team was so fantastic," he said. "The guys were so motivated. We flew an enormous amount of sorties and didn't lose any to maintenance or logistics problems. They pretty much put the Air Force A-10 community on track for doing night operations with NVGs (night-vision goggles). For me it was the most special time in my military career, those four months at Bagram."

A lasting memory of the Cajuns is on display for the entire world to see. An A-10 Thunderbolt II known as "Chopper Popper" lives on at the Air Force Academy. The "Warthog," flown by then Capt. Bob Swain, now a colonel, was part of the first air-to-air kill during Operation Desert Storm.

Colonel Swain, an academy graduate and former 926th FW commander, is currently 22nd Air Force vice commander. And although he has moved on to bigger and better things, he will always be linked to the 926th FW.

"I owe a lot to New Orleans," he said. "I showed up as a captain and learned a lot about core values and got to work with some great personalities there."

But it was during Desert Storm in 1991 that the Cajuns made their mark by setting the bar for total-force integration. Colonel Swain's shooting down of an Iraqi helicopter was just lagniappe, a Cajun term that means something extra.

"It was just another mission, but the first is always a good thing," Colonel Swain said. "That airplane will be there long after we leave the Earth. It reinforces total force and is a great honor for the unit to have it on display at a great institution where we train future leaders."

For all members past and present who have served in the 926th FW, the colonel said the aircraft serves as a reminder that "when called, we served."

(Sergeant Babin is a traditional Reservist who served in the public affairs office of the 926th FW. He wrote this article while on a temporary duty assignment with Citizen Airman.)

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