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Colonel earns Bronze Star

167th Airlift Wing commander recognized for service

167th Airlift Wing commander recognized for service

February 12, 2006|By CANDICE BOSELY

candiceb@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. -

When the Marines' Humvee went off a bank and into a raging river, Col. Eric W. Vollmecke set up a combat search-and-rescue mission, complete with helicopters and pararescue specialists.

Although the rescue mission would turn into one focused on recovering the bodies of two Marines, Vollmecke said the effort reflected the spirit of the United States military.

A Marine officer later told him that "it was a morale booster to all his soldiers to see how much energy the U.S. military put into it to try to rescue (the Marines) and eventually recover their bodies," said Vollmecke, commander of the 167th Airlift Wing of the West Virginia Air National Guard in Martinsburg.

Last month, Vollmecke was awarded a Bronze Star for his overall work in Afghanistan last year. From April to September 2005, Vollmecke was the commander of the 451st Air Expeditionary Group, an active-duty unit stationed at Kandahar Airfield.

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Vollmecke, 45, was in charge of 300 to 400 airmen during that time.

"It was the period of the heaviest fighting of Operation Enduring Freedom since the initial invasion" in 2001, said 1st Lt. Andy Schmidt, who served as Vollmecke's executive officer overseas during the mission and who calls his commander "Colonel V."

"He's outstanding," Schmidt said.

Those under Vollmecke's command in Afghanistan moved more than 16,200 personnel and 16,400 short tons of cargo from 1,200 aircraft, controlled more than 1,000 close air support sorties and performed almost 200 search-and-rescue operations, saving 14 lives.

Vollmecke's three key responsibilities were ensuring the strategic airlift was maintained, which was the primary way soldiers on front lines were supplied and reinforced; maintaining command of the skies over Afghanistan; and working with the Afghanistan government to transition the airfield back to the Afghan people, as well as helping Afghans rebuild infrastructure in the region.

Kandahar Airfield is on the southern edge of the country, near Pakistan. The airfield's terminal since has been turned over to the people of Afghanistan and this spring, the base is to become a NATO-led facility, with the U.S. to have a smaller presence there, Vollmecke said.

Vollmecke, of Great Falls, Va., said he considers himself to be a true "citizen soldier" whose full-time job is not with the military. He works for SCRA, a research-and-development firm working with cutting-edge technology related to manufacturing.

He previously served on active duty with the Air Force and has been a Guard member with the 167th Airlift Wing since 1989.

The airfield where Vollmecke served in Afghanistan was attacked several times and a lot of soldiers died while Vollmecke was there, he said.

"There are hard days and there are hard, sad days," he said of his stint there.

Vollmecke, a mountain climber who left a homemade "167th" flag atop Mount Chulo in Nepal, said he was pleased there was a mountain known as "three-mile mountain" to the north that he could see.

It was a far cry, however, from the snow-capped mountain he climbed.

Temperatures in Afghanistan reached the 120s and, after a while, dry heat is just as miserable as any other kind, Vollmecke said. And any sort of breeze would stir up the powdery earth, stinging people's eyes.

The heat presented a challenge to air operations since performance data usually tests planes in temperatures of up to 45 degrees Celsius, or 113 degrees Fahrenheit. It wasn't known whether planes would operate at higher temperatures or whether the runway was long enough, given the heat. Personnel at the base were rebuilding the 40-year-old runway.

"The asphalt was melting on us," Vollmecke said.

Despite the challenges, Vollmecke said serving in Afghanistan was a simpler way of life, where he understood his mission and duties and was not distracted by the noises of modern-day society.

He said he appreciated smaller pleasures, such as playing chess, running or reading a book.

"You really value these little things," he said.

He has not returned to Afghanistan, but said he would be willing to fly there again for "a brief visit" after the 167th acquires its C-5 jumbo jets, expected to happen early next year.

Vollmecke became the commander of the 167th Airlift Wing in January 2004.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, six Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts have been awarded to members of the 167th.

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