For those serving in the military, 2003 will go down as the year America went to war.
Day after day in late 2002 and early 2003, television screens and newspaper front pages were filled with scenes of spouses, parents, and sometimes children waving goodbye to departing service members. More often than not, those troops headed toward a massive buildup of forces in the Middle East confronting Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Cannon Air Force Base went to its highest possible security level within hours of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. National Guard troops were mobilized to help protect the base, and some of the base’s fighter jets were deployed to Operation Noble Eagle, defending homeland security around the United States.
Taliban leaders of Afghanistan quickly fled before American military power and that attack didn’t require massive numbers of American troops.
But Iraq was different.
In November 2002, Cannon Air Force Base’s 524th Fighter Wing was already scheduled for a regular rotation to enforce the “no-fly zones” that kept Iraqi air power from pummeling the all-but-independent Kurds in the north and restive Shiites in the south. That mission had been ongoing since shortly after the end of Gulf War I.
Soon, the 524th Fighter Squadron found itself flying many of the 250 sorties against Baghdad targets on the first night of the “shock and awe” campaign, and more in following days.
While Cannon pilots dumped lethal firepower on key Iraqi military and governmental targets, nearly a fifth of the base personnel were deployed in support units stationed in various nearby countries and a separate group of pilots, the 522nd Fighter Wing, were deployed to Washington State for homeland security. Even with those large-scale deployments, the 27th Services Squadron and the 27th Maintenance Group managed to win top awards from Air Combat Command for their performance back at the base.
When most of the planes, pilots, and support staff came back in May, they returned to gleeful shouts from families and later a series of celebrations scheduled by the Clovis and Portales communities. The 522nd Fighter Wing — the one deployed for homeland security, not to Iraq — received a new set of F-16 Block 50 planes from Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina carrying a special High Speed Anti-Radiation (HARM) missile used to lock on and destroy enemy radar. That equipment should make the wing more deployable in future conflicts, officials said.
Even though most of Cannon’s personnel returned by the end of the summer as the Air Force brought its missions to a close, not all of the sons and daughters in the service from area families wear the blue Air Force uniform.
One of those local sons, Marine Pfc. Chad Bales, was killed in a non-combat accident in Iraq on April 3 when his convoy smashed into another during a sandstorm. Nearly 1,000 turned out for a memorial service 10 days later at the Muleshoe High School football stadium. So far, Bales has been the only person from the area to die in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
But while Cannon’s personnel continued to train for war — including an October exercise in New Jersey in which Cannon’s 27th Mission Support Group led a special exercise teaching personnel how to set up a forward-deployed base starting from scratch with little more than bare ground and an airstrip — local leaders watched carefully as Pentagon officials began a process that could extinguish the base.
In August, the New Mexico Military Base Planning Commission held the first of a number of meetings designed to persuade the Pentagon that New Mexico’s low population is a large asset. Citing large amounts of available airspace and minimal encroachment by civilian uses, the commission’s director, a retired Air Force general, set to work trying to keep military bases in the state. Coming to Clovis in December, the commission’s second meeting reviewed progress to date and its members expressed optimism regarding the future of the state’s military bases.
Just days after the capture of Saddam Hussein, the Pentagon released its set of criteria for deciding which bases would survive in BRAC, the Base Realignment and Closure Process designed by Pentagon officials to address what they say is a 25 percent excess in capacity.
As director of the New Mexico Military Base Planning Commission, retired Brig. Gen. Hanson Scott said he was optimistic all four of the state’s bases would make the cut.
“We have great airspace, great weather, no environmental issues,” Scott said. “It doesn’t change anything in our view of how New Mexico installations would match up against that criteria.”
Scott said the state’s next brush with BRAC will be Jan. 6, when the state’s commission will meet to review the criteria and determine whether it needs to file a response or contact the state’s congressional representatives for assistance in helping keep state’s bases open.