Finally home: A look back at the history of the 167th AES

  • Published
  • By Capt. Holli Nelson & Tech. Sgt. Eugene Crist
  • 130th Airlift Wing

Why is there a 167th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at the 130th Airlift Wing? This questions is posed by many people when they discuss the storied legacy of the 130th Airlift Wing. It seems odd to them that at McLaughlin Air National Guard Base, there would be a unit with the same numerical designation as our sister unit in Martinsburg, West Virginia, the 167th.

The explanation, while seemingly unordinary in Air Force terms, has significance to the members, and particularly Lt. Col. Joseph Buonocore, who’ve served in the unit before it was moved to Charleston in 2012.

That significance of the two unit’s ties spans multiple decades, back to the 1990’s where they participated in missions together in the Gulf War, then to the Air Mobility Command Rodeo and later Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom come into play.

“When I joined the 167th in 1985, 97 percent of aeromedical evacuation personnel in the entire Air Force were in the Guard and Air Force Reserve,” Buonocore recounted. “We were told in the event of a major military operation, we would without a doubt, be going to war.”

In just five short years after enlisting, Buonocore found himself deployed to the Middle East supporting the war effort for Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm as an aeromedical evacuation technician. While his unit’s aircraft were stationed in Germany, Buonocore found himself flying AE missions with the 130th Airlift Wing, which had been deployed to the area of responsibility.

“No one at our home unit [the 167th AW] really understood Aeromedical Evacuation or its mission and what we did,” he said. “Our aircraft were stationed in Germany, flying support missions into the area while our AES members were scattered across the AOR, which is where the 130th AW aircraft were stationed. We deployed half way around the world and our sister unit, from our own state, ended up flying our missions.”

While this seemed like a one off experience for Buonocore, to work hand-in-hand with his unit’s counterpart in Charleston, this experience would be repeated numerous times throughout the rest of his career.

In 1996, Air Mobility Command hosted their biennial rodeo event, where units from around the Air Force competed in mobility exercises, which, for the first time, included aeromedical evacuation in its competition. The event showcased the best of the United States’ and international mobility forces’ abilities and provided a forum for them to share best practices, tactics and techniques that are crucial to continued pursuit of coalition operations around the world.

 Since this was the first time any AES would compete in the competition, Buonocore and the members of the 167th weren’t really sure how to put together their team, what to train for specifically, or how they would even get to the competition, since their aircrew and planes weren’t participating.

“The team developed our own lesson plans and practiced in the evenings after work or school, depending on the crew member,” he said. “We didn't know what to expect despite having a list of rules of engagement for the competition. The whole culture and experience of the rodeo was new for us.”

But the team faced a bigger problem - not knowing how they would get to the competition. It was later agreed that the crew and their equipment would be flown down to Charleston by the 167th AW and then to McChord AFB aboard 130th AW C-130s. From there, the AES members received unwavering support from the 130th.

Buonocore noted, “we were blown away by the support we received by the 130th AW, 130th Family Support, and 130th AW Rodeo Team. From the moment we arrived in Charleston, they treated us as if we were in the same unit.”

He continued, “the day we left for the rodeo, Brig. Gen. William Fleshman, the West Virginia Adjutant General for Air was there to see the competitors off for competition. He asked for a team photo, but we felt somewhat left out since we weren’t a part of the unit, but the general asked to have a photo taken with ‘the world’s best aeromedical unit’ and we snickered and agreed for a photo.” 

After the competition was completed, the 167th AES team assured themselves that they hadn’t placed and went to the awards ceremony early to get a good seat.

“When the announcement of the winner of the inaugural aeromedical evacuation rodeo trophy came over the loudspeaker - ‘The one…..sixty…..seventh,’ we all stared at one another, frozen. Then we said, ‘oh wait! That’s us!’”

When the team went to accept their award, they were overwhelmed with support from the 130th.
“We walked up to accept the award and take pictures and as we exited the stage, the 130th came pouring out of the bleachers waving the state flag and congratulating us for our victory,” he reminisced. “If it wasn't for the 130th we wouldn’t have competed, let alone won.”

That winning trophy adorns the case inside the 167th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at the 130th, highlighting the partnership the two units have built over the years.

Years later, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were at their height, the 167th and 130th once again found themselves serving alongside one another, providing airlift for the war and supporting the AES mission from the 167th.

In 2002, the 167th Airlift Wing in Martinsburg, West Virginia, underwent a mission conversion from flying the C-130H to the C-5 Galaxy. Ten years after that, the 167th found itself permanently stationed as a part of the 130th Airlift Wing in Charleston.

Since that time, the 167th and 130th have seamlessly fallen into a battle rhythm - one that seems to have always been there and is both supportive and cohesive. Necessary elements for mission success.

Buonocore celebrated nearly 32 years with the two units recently and his retirement from the West Virginia Air National Guard became official in April.

“It’s fitting,” Buonocore mentioned in closing, “that the trophy now resides at McLaughlin Air National Guard base, whom we received so much support from over the years.”