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440th Airlift Wing Bids Farewell in Deactivation Ceremony

For as long as it's been in North Carolina, the 440th Airlift Wing has played the part of underdog.

An Air Force Reserve wing given the task of supporting the home of the nation's airborne forces, it accepted a mission many thought it was destined to fail.

The unit succeeded, exceeding expectations over its nine years in the state, right up until the end, when -- despite the loss of hundreds of airmen as the unit prepare to inactivate -- the wing's airmen flew its C-130H aircraft longer than Air Force Reserve Command thought possible.

But on Sunday, current and former airmen, as well as other supporters of the 440th Airlift Wing, acknowledged one battle the wing couldn't win.

In a ceremony on Fort Bragg, they watched as the 440th's colors were furled, ceremonially marking its inactivation.

Col. Karl Schmitkons, the wing's last commander, said it was a difficult goodbye.

"I have my biological family and I have my military family," he said.

On Sunday, during the wing's last drill weekend, Schmitkons said goodbye to the latter.

Some described it as a bittersweet family reunion, as former airmen traveled from as far as Milwaukee to bid farewell to the unit.

Others said it was more like a funeral as they honored the 73-year legacy of what is one of the Air Force Reserve's oldest units.

The inactivation ceremony helped mark the end of the mission for the wing, whose airmen and units have been routinely honored for being among the best in the force in recent years, and officially won't shutter until the end of this month.

It also capped a failed more than two-year campaign to save the 440th led by local leaders and members of Congress.

The wing, which had more than 1,200 personnel and 12 C-130H Hercules aircraft at its peak, was down to just over 250 airmen by its end.

Its aircraft were long gone, having been flown months ago to other Air Force installations.

Instead, it was a C-130J from Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi that was parked outside the hangar on Pope Field.

Even that display was bittersweet, as many attributed the loss of promised C-130J model planes years ago as the beginning of the end for the 440th.

The airmen who attended the ceremony included the remaining force, as well as many who have moved on to new units.

Many of those airmen still live locally, but commute to jobs in Virginia or at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro.

"It's an emotional day," said 1st Sgt. Gillian Holland, who served with the 440th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.

"They've been my family for the last three years," she said. "They'll always be a part of my life."

"It's definitely bittersweet," added Master Sgt. David Herzog, who has served in the unit since 2010. "I don't know if I'm prepared to say goodbye."

For the last several months, airmen of the 440th Airlift Wing have been preparing for the inactivation.

Col. Robert Blake, vice commander of the 440th Airlift Wing, said that work would continue through the month.

The 440th won't officially shutter until Sept. 30, he said. And between now and then, its remaining airmen will continue to turn in equipment, hand over buildings and support each other as airmen search for new jobs elsewhere in the force.

At one time, the 440th Airlift Wing had 39 facilities under its control at Pope Field.

But that number is shrinking each week as buildings are turned over to Fort Bragg, to eventually be filled by new units.

"This is going to be a busy place for the next few weeks," he said.

Part of those efforts will include finding homes for the remaining airmen of the unit.

Blake said some of those who remain plan to retire, others who plan to leave the Air Force and some who have yet to find new units.

Unlike active duty service members, the 440th Airlift Wing's reservists are responsible themselves for finding their next jobs.

For some, that means the possibility of uprooting family and civilian careers to continue their military service. For others, it will mean long commutes into Virginia or to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro.

"We're trying to take care of the airmen that are left here and get them where they need to be," Blake said. "We're trying to take care of folks."

During the inactivation ceremony, leaders chose to not dwell on the closing, but to instead praise the unit and its airmen for their efforts over decades.

Maj. Gen. John P. Stokes, commander of 440th Airlift Wing's higher command -- the 22nd Air Force at Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia -- said leaders will rehash and discuss the analysis and the decisions that led to the 440th Airlift Wing's inactivation.

But he said now is not the time to do that.

"I'm here to celebrate the 440th," Stokes said.

In particular, officials praised the last nine years of the unit's history, since it moved from Milwaukee to what was then Pope Air Force Base as part of base realignment.

In that time, Stokes -- a former vice commander of the 440th Airlift Wing -- said the partnership between the unit and airborne forces at Fort Bragg, which eventually absorbed Pope Air Force Base, has been fantastic.

He thanked the community, both military and civilian, for the support of the wing over the years.

But more importantly, he thanked the airmen, acknowledging that it hasn't been easy for airmen to know the end was coming.

"Please accept my sincere appreciation for a job well done," Stokes said.

Officials said the 440th Airlift Wing was not inactivated due to a failure of its mission. Instead, the decision was based on economics.

The unit, housed on an Army installation, was easier to shutter than others, Air Force leaders have said.

And the decision wasn't without controversy.

Some Army leaders came out against the move. And after the 440th Airlift Wing stopped supporting local paratroopers due to its dwindling manpower, the Air Force came under fire from Congressional leaders for the low levels of support that remained.

In more recent months, leaders at Fort Bragg have said that support has drastically improved. But they note that the 440th Airlift Wing provided more than just flights.

Schmitkons, who spent the last five years with the 440th -- first as vice commander and then as wing commander, said the unit is leaving an indelible mark on Fort Bragg.

"The greatest benefits we had and gave while we were here were in the personal relationships that our airmen cultivated with our total force, joint and community partners," Schmitkons said.

During nine years in North Carolina, the wing supported the paratroopers of the 18th Airborne Corps, 82nd Airborne Division, 3rd Special Forces Group and U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command.

For those efforts, Fort Bragg's Army leaders thanked the unit and Schmitkons.

Maj. Gen. Paul J. LaCamera, deputy commanding general of 18th Airborne Corps, presented Schmitkons with an Iron Mike statue and read a letter from Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend.

Townsend, the commander of the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, is currently deployed leading the anti-ISIS mission in the Middle East.

"Greetings from Baghdad, it is bittersweet as we commemorate the long service of the 440th to our Air Force and our nation on the day you furl your colors and inactivate this great organization," he said. "From the skies and hedgerows of Normandy to the sandy drop zones of Fort Bragg, our partnership has been a long and memorable one."

"The paratroopers and soldiers of the 18th Airborne Corps salute you all on this day and look forward to the day when you unfurl your colors and we fly and jump together once again," Townsend said.

Before it stopped flying earlier this year, the 440th Airlift Wing provided 100 percent of airlift support to Pope Field's Air Force units, including special tactics airmen, joint terminal attack controllers and combat weathermen. And one-third of all airlift support at Fort Bragg.

At Fort Bragg, the 440th Airlift Wing was unique. It was the only Air Force Reserve wing on an Army installation. And the first C-130 active association wing, meaning the Reserve unit was augmented by active duty troops.

"I'm proud to say the airmen of the 440th, no matter what their specialty, have done a superlative job and developed a mutual respect and admiration for the soldiers and airmen we supported," he said.

And while the wing will soon no longer exist, Schmitkons said the Air Force is better for the work the 440th accomplished.

"I ask you to remember this wing's legacy," Schmitkons said. "Take with you that legacy wherever you go and with whatever you do."

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