Posted: 10:00 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012

Springfield Guard unit named top in the nation

Group provides reliable communication technology in combat zones.‘The majority of people don’t realize we’re out here and the mission we perform,’ colonel says.



Related

Springfield Guard unit named top in the nation photo
Barbara Perenic
Col. Norm Poklar of the Ohio Air National Guard leads the 251st Cyber Engineering Installation Group, based in Springfield. Formerly known as the 251st Combat Communications Group, the group has eight squadrons in six states under it and has been named the top nonflying Guard unit in the country. An $11 million project will result in a 32,000-square-foot David L. Hobson Communications Complex set to open next spring, and the 251st will share its new home with the Air Guard’s 269th Combat Communications Squadron. Barbara J. Perenic/Springfield News-Sun

By Andrew McGinn

Staff Writer

SPRINGFIELD —

A Springfield National Guard unit that isn’t well-known in its own backyard is playing a huge role at war, recently being named the top Guard unit in the nation.

The Springfield-based 251st Cyber Engineering Installation Group of the Ohio Air National Guard can have a world-class IT network up and running anywhere on Earth in 24 hours, including mountaintops in Afghanistan. And they boast that they do it faster, more reliably and cheaper than private contractors.

At war, two things must remain up — the flag and the network.

“We do our darndest to ensure that communications reliability,” said Col. Norm Poklar, group commander.

And, now it’s official: Nobody does it better than the 251st, which, from its headquarters at the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport, manages a force of 900 IT professionals spread throughout eight squadrons in six states. The 251st this summer was named the top nonflying unit in the entire Guard by the National Guard Association of the United States.

Among its eight squadrons, it has close to 100 people at this time deployed to Southwest Asia, burying cables and erecting antennas, mostly at forward-operating Army bases in Afghanistan. The days of putting up telephone poles are virtually over, although they still have that capability.

“We’re completely self-sufficient in our skill sets,” Poklar said.

It’s the same type of work, with the same commercial equipment, but it isn’t at all like working for AT&T. Last year alone, more than a dozen Bronze Stars were awarded to members of units under the 251st for acts of courage under fire.

Of the 38 people at the 251st headquarters in Springfield, three have been awarded Bronze Stars in the past two years.

“Thankfully,” Poklar said, “everyone’s come home safe.”

With its first-time win this summer of the prestigious Mission Support Trophy, the 251st bested roughly 500 other units, according to Poklar, highlighting the importance of the many men and women behind the plane that drops the bomb.

“It felt good to finally get that top award,” Poklar said.

It’s also a good opportunity for Poklar to share the group’s mission with the community it’s called home for 60 years.

Even with a new, $11 million headquarters in the midst of construction along Ohio 794, this might be the first time you’ve heard of the 251st, which is undergoing a name change from the 251st Combat Communications Group.

“The majority of people don’t realize we’re out here and the mission we perform,” Poklar explained. “We do a great job, but we don’t do a great job of letting the community know what our contributions are.”

When the 32,000-square-foot David L. Hobson Communications Complex opens next spring, the 251st will share its new home with the Air Guard’s 269th Combat Communications Squadron, which has slightly more than 100 personnel.

The 269th has been in Springfield even longer, dating to 1948.

In 2010, 40 members of the 269th deployed to Southwest Asia as part of the squadron’s last major deployment. Typically, deployments are conducted voluntarily.

“We’ve been all over the world,” said Maj. Steve Dudash, detachment commander of the 269th. “If there’s a major conflict, we’ve had someone there.”

Between the two organizations, an open field can be transformed from scratch into a state-of-the-art base.

“You can’t open an airbase without us,” Poklar said. “You can’t harden an airbase without us.”

A combat communications unit like the 269th moves in first, setting up initial, tactical communications. Give them 24 hours, according to Dudash, and you can be checking email from what had been an empty field in Afghanistan.

“What you’re used to having at home,” Dudash said, “is what we provide.”

There’s no place on Earth, they say, where they can’t set up communications.

“At one time,” Poklar said, “this organization had all sorts of trucks and trailers.”

“Over the years,” Dudash added, “our capability has gone up and our footprint has gone down.”

While the core mission hasn’t changed, the technology certainly has, from telephone and teletype to VoIP phones and email.

Housekeeping, however, can still be an issue.

“A lot of times,” Dudash explained, “our cable will be thrown on the ground.”

An EI — or engineering installation — unit under the 251st eventually comes in to “harden” those initial cables, making the base more permanent. Until the cables are off the ground, it’s possible for trucks to run over them, cutting them.

“You can endure that pain for a while,” Poklar said, “but you’re going to want a more sustainable IT structure.”

Hence the reason to bury them or erect old-school telephone poles.

Former U.S. Rep. David Hobson, whose name their new building will bear, secured funding for the complex that’s still under construction while in office in 2009.

“One of the reasons I stepped up to bat for them,” the Springfield Republican said, “was not just to create jobs, but I could justify the quality of work done on that base.”

The new facility should help the 251st withstand any future rounds of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, he said. The 2005 BRAC process stripped Springfield’s 178th Fighter Wing of its jets after half a century of manned flying. (The 178th now remotely pilots drones.)

Another thing the 251st has going for it?

In the 1990s, Poklar said, the other branches of the military looked to privatize engineering installation services.

But, he said, it’s different to install a phone system in Ohio than on a mountaintop in Afghanistan.

The Air Force now provides EI work across the Department of Defense, with the Guard providing 95 percent of that capability, Poklar said. And, he added, the Guard can do the work for 60 percent cheaper than a private contractor.

“We don’t have the overhead and the profit margins,” he said.

Of the 16 EI squadrons in the Guard, half are managed by the 251st in Springfield, which has won the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award 10 times since the 1970s. The other eight are under the command of a group at Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts.

“There’s nobody better trained or better equipped than Air Force EI professionals,” he said.

In civilian life, most members of the 251st and 269th work in IT for area telecommunications and energy companies.

“People who work there, it’s good training for employers in the area,” Hobson said. “It’s great for Springfield. And, more importantly, the country.”


By the numbers

The 251st Cyber Engineering Installation Group

60: The number of years the 251st has called Springfield home, having been established on Oct. 5, 1952, as the 251st Communications Group

10: The number of times the 251st has won the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award since 1973

30: The number of Bronze Stars awarded to Air Guard engineering installation, or EI, personnel in 2011

16: The number of EI squadrons in the Air National Guard

8: The number of EI squadrons under the Springfield-based 251st

900: The number of IT professionals, located in six states, under the 251st

 
 

The latest news videos