AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- Airmen assigned to the 603rd Air Control Squadron here were greeted by hundreds of family members and friends Jan. 19 as they returned home from their final deployment in Southwest Asia before the squadron is inactivated later this year.
The 603rd ACS, one of two Air Force theater air control systems in Europe, is being inactivated as part of a larger effort to help meet Budget Control Act resource levels.
The squadron has a rich history with roots reaching back to the very beginnings of the Air Force. It was officially activated as the 603rd ACS on Dec. 31, 1945 under the Army Air Corps. The squadron's early years provided air control for major air operations, including support of the Berlin Airlift.
Since 9/11, the squadron's operations have been essential to providing deployed Airmen the control of the skies over Afghanistan and Iraq. The squadron also supported Operation New Dawn and operations in the Horn of Africa, said Lt. Col. Stephen Carocci, who is the commander for both the 71st Expeditionary Air Control Squadron and the 603rd ACS.
"I had a majority of my squadron deployed in Southwest Asia, who on a daily basis provide battle management and command and control over the skies of Afghanistan and support for the Gulf region," Carocci said. "While it will be sad knowing this squadron is making its last deployment, I know it's in the best interests of the Air Force as a whole for the squadron to be inactivated."
Since the start of the squadron's deployment in July, the squadron controlled 129,000 miles of airspace, assisted in 50,000 combat missions, controlled 41,000 aircraft and supported three rescue missions. Seeing this direct impact on the war effort makes being a member of the 603rd ACS an extraordinary experience for its Airmen.
"Coming from a career field where it isn't a guarantee to be a part of an air control squadron, has made this assignment meaningful," said Senior Master Sgt. Jamie Kitchen, who has been a member of the 603rd ACS since October 2008. "Being able to go on these deployments, getting steel on target and supporting the guys on the ground who need air support is what makes this special."
Unfortunately, the squadron also had to deal with personal tragedy when it came to supporting the war on terrorism. Airman 1st Class Antoine Holt lost his life during a mortar attack and Senior Airman Scott Palomino lost his left leg below the knee during the same attack while they were deployed to Balad Air Base, Iraq, in April 2004. A memorial plaque was dedicated to Holt in 2006.
Chief Master Sgt. Virgil Horsley, who's last assignment will be with the 603rd ACS, said he wants to make sure the memorial is properly taken care of and not forgotten after the squadron leaves Aviano AB.
"Our squadron owes it to his family to remember his sacrifice," Horsley said. "As for Palomino, he has since gone on to run marathons with a prosthetic leg and by all accounts is one of the most positive people you will ever encounter.
While the final chapter of the 603rd ACS is being written, the commander said his Airmen have done an amazing job to leave a lasting mark.
"Our squadron's mascot is the scorpion, so we have dedicated this last deployment to be the Scorpion's last strike," Carocci said. "The air control community is small, so many of us will run into each other again in the future and remember what we accomplished while in the 603rd ACS."
603rd members who did not deploy spent the past few months breaking down the equipment to be sent to other units that will take over the squadron's responsibilities.
"Although the 603rd (ACS) is inactivating, I hope at some point the Scorpion strike is seen again in the future of our Air Force," Carocci said. "This squadron provides a unique opportunity to all those fortunate enough to be a part of it, and we will carry that on with us to our future assignments forever."
Senior Airman Joel Mease contributed to this article.