Ground troops under fire in Afghanistan rely on the 170-foot radio tower a Springfield-based unit erected there last year to call for air support, while virtually everyone in uniform from the Middle East to Central Asia has come to rely on the computer networks they install.
The 251st Cyber Engineering Installation Group of the Ohio Air National Guard manages a staggering amount of those wartime telecommunications needs — saving a staggering amount of taxpayer money in the process — and was recently honored as the top nonflying unit in the nation’s Air Guard.
On top of that, the 251st now has a new, $11 million facility befitting an outfit that has won the national honor two years straight.
For a unit that likes to boast that it can construct an IT network anywhere on Earth, it’s nice to finally have a building that doesn’t predate the Internet or even fiber optics by a matter of decades.
The David L. Hobson Communications Complex, which it shares with the close-knit 269th Combat Communications Squadron at the Springfield Air National Guard Base, replaces a facility built in 1952.
“This is, without a doubt, the finest communications facility in the Air National Guard,” said Col. Norm Poklar, 251st commander.
The building’s namesake, a Springfield Republican, secured $13 million before retiring from Congress to build the new facility.
About 150 airmen are attached to the two local communications units — 35 serve full-time — and work continues on the new facility even though they started moving in last month.
Everything should be finished in late January or early February, Poklar said, with a formal opening ceremony in the spring.
The building could come to benefit both units in the likely event of another BRAC, the Pentagon’s nerve-wracking base realignment and closure process.
Communities like Springfield — which enjoys a $99.4 million economic boost each year thanks to the Springfield Air National Guard Base — have come to dread even the possibility of a BRAC.
“They rack and stack units,” Poklar explained. “They look at things like mission accomplishments.”
“One of the things they look at is the condition of the facilities,” he added. “It tends to be a tie breaker.”
The new facility, Poklar said, “clearly postures us for success in the future.”
Before Sept. 11, 2001, “big mother Air Force,” as Poklar put it, thought she could easily get away with using private contractors to do what’s known as engineering installation, or EI.
By the late 1990s, he said, the active-duty Air Force was left with just one EI group and one squadron.
But as the war on terror unfolded in some particularly harsh environments — and with coalition bases springing up quickly in those remote locations — the Air Force came to the realization “that contracting wasn’t the most effective tool to use over there,” Poklar said.
It’s faster and 60 percent cheaper, they say, to use the 15 Air National Guard EI squadrons spread throughout the country, seven of which are under the command of the 251st in Springfield.
The joint services and even the British and the Dutch have all come to use their expertise, Poklar said.
“We’re unique,” he said of their ability to operate backhoes, run cable and climb towers.
Indirect enemy fire also doesn’t deter them from constructing towers, setting up meteorological systems, running fiber-optic cable and wiring IT networks.
In 2012 alone, personnel under the 251st were awarded 15 Bronze Stars for exceptionally worthy meritorious service.
“It’s nice to come in to work,” Poklar said, “knowing you’re making a difference every day.”
There’s also no shortage of work, even as American involvement in Afghanistan winds down.
In fiscal-year 2016, the 251st will lead the effort to wire the IT infrastructure of U.S. Strategic Command’s massive new headquarters — the command and control center of the nation’s nuclear weapons — under construction in Nebraska.
Having the Guard’s uniformed technicians do the job will save taxpayers more than $30 million than having it done with contractors, Poklar predicted.
The local unit also is involved in the relocation of a space tracking radar system from the Caribbean island of Antigua to northwest Australia — another savings of $30 million, he said.
Closer to home, the 251st installed the premise wiring at the Springfield Air National Guard Base for the 178th Fighter Wing’s MQ-1 Predator mission.
From Springfield, local pilots and sensor operators are able to see real-time video and heat signatures captured by Predator drones anywhere in the world with only a two-second delay.
The wiring was done for $500,000 less than the closest contractor bid, according to the Guard.
The group’s back-to-back wins of the Mission Support Trophy — the annual award given out by the National Guard Association of the United States to the Air Guard’s dominant support unit — are a direct reflection of the mission they’ve been tasked with, according to Poklar.
Poklar himself returned in May from a nine-month voluntary deployment to Afghanistan. He previously deployed to Iraq and Kuwait.
“How do you ask your folks to go if you’re not willing to go yourself?” Poklar asked.
Being named the top support unit in the nation should be a “tremendous source of pride,” said John Goheen, spokesman for the association that lobbies on behalf of the National Guard.
Literally hundreds of support units are eligible to compete for the trophy, including the likes of security forces squadrons, air control units and Red Horse outfits, which are the Air Force equivalent of the Navy’s heavy construction specialists, the Seabees.
“To come out on top two years in a row, I don’t think anybody’s done that,” Poklar said. “It’s a pretty significant accomplishment.”
In her letter of recommendation for the 251st, Maj. Gen. Deborah A. Ashenhurst, adjutant general of the Ohio National Guard and a Springfield native, called the unit “an invaluable asset” to the U.S. Air Force.
The group’s “professionalism, responsiveness and attention to detail are shining examples of the quality of personnel within the Ohio National Guard,” she wrote.
It should probably come as no surprise, then, that the 251st and 269th, while too busy to wire their new local facility, personally moved all equipment and supplies from one building to another.
“Call us control freaks,” Poklar said, “but being in the IT business, we have a number of fairly anal-retentive people.”