Canadian airmen support airborne warning, control in Southwest Asia

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- To any other member of the 965th Expeditionary Airborne Air Control Squadron, the five Canadian airmen who work with them are a part of the team. And that's just the way they like it.

Each day the five Canadians work together as part of a crew on an E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system aircraft supporting missions in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility from an air base in Southwest Asia. Their presence with the 965th EAACS; however, is part of an international partnership between the United States and Canada -- known as the North American Aerospace Defense Command -- dating back to May 12, 1958, when the first agreement was signed. All five of the Canadian airmen live and work at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., the home station of the 965th EAACS.

"At Tinker we are co-manners," said Canadian Forces Maj. Scott Marshall, a 965th EAACS E-3 mission crew commander and ranking member of the deployed Canadian Forces team. "We are not exchange officers or exchange personnel. It's a co-manning situation based on the NORAD agreement."

Major Marshall said there are approximately 50 Canadian airmen overall who work at the Tinker AFB 552nd Air Control Wing as part of the NORAD compact. In his words, they "get farmed out to all the different sections and squadrons" and integrate with U.S. Airmen filling a variety of roles. When one of the Tinker AFB air control squadrons deploy, they go with the unit.

"When we deploy like this or to any other operation, we are considered part of the squadron and we go along and fill those roles," said Major Marshall, whose hometown is Sudbury, Ontario. "For our current deployment, it includes supporting Operation Enduring Freedom and in support of International Security Assistance Forces there in Afghanistan. ISAF involves the Canadian Forces as well. We come along every time one of the squadrons deploy and spend 120 days over here."

As far as what they bring to the fight, each of the Canadian airmen said they work the same roles as U.S. Airmen and seamlessly fit into operations both at their home station and on deployment.

"It's just like when I was back at (Canadian Forces Base) North Bay (in Ontario) where we have the Americans there and they integrate into our forces just the same as we do with American units," said Canadian Forces Master Cpl. Mark Keown, a senior air surveillance technician and nine-year veteran of the Canadian Forces.

"In this unit, they expect us to jump right in and know what we're doing when we come to a unit," said Master Keown, whose hometown is Powassan, Ontario. "They are all very good people too, so it is very easy to integrate."

Canadian Forces Capt. Chris Horner, an E-3 senior director and weapons officer and 11-year Canadian Forces member who has been with the 965th EAACS for more than three years, said when he and his fellow crewmembers are out on a combat sortie, the only concern any of them has is for supporting the troops on the ground.

"On any given day we're out there, we could be protecting the Marines, a Canadian special forces unit, an American special forces unit, the Dutch, the Germans or the British," Captain Horner said. "They are all soldiers on the ground and they are the ones serving as the pointed end of the sword versus us playing a supporting role and helping them to get support from the air.

"While it is comforting knowing I have Canadian soldiers on the ground who are helping the fight but it's all of the allies who are helping as well," said Captain Horner, whose hometown is Collingwood, Ontario. "When we step out of the door to do our job, essentially I know that I am going to help out whoever needs our help on the ground by providing them with the close air support they need to accomplish their mission."

For Canadian Forces Lt. Will Natynczyk, E-3 air weapons officer and a 6.5-year veteran of the Canadian Forces, deploying with the 965th EAACS also meant going on his first deployment. He said deploying with his countrymen also makes being away from home a little easier. He added they are all fun to be around as well.

"Coming out here is great," Lieutenant Natynczk said. "When you come out here with Canadians, you're not all by yourself. It's a great group and we laugh a lot. Some people who have flown with us say this is a good crew. Not so much that they wish their crew was like ours, but we have a good time out there."

Canadian Forces Sgt. Theresa McLaren is the most experienced of the Canadian team with more than 19 years in the Canadian Forces. An E-3 air surveillance technician, Sergeant McLaren's job is to make sure the air picture is established and everything is up and running and correctly identified. "That gives the weapons directors and the senior director a better opportunity to find their aircraft and make sure they are directing people in the right place," she said.

However, when she's talking to family about why she keeps doing what she's doing in the military and on her deployment with a U.S. Air Force, she gave a simple answer. "For the love of the game."

"I explain to them that it's truly exciting," said Sergeant McClaren, whose hometown is Calgary, Alberta. "We can do a lot of the training and some might roll their eyes and say, 'This is so boring, why are we doing this?' You do it again and again and again, but when you get to do it for real and get that adrenaline rush that tells you that that's what all that training was for! And it feels good at the end of the day. You go home really with a lot of job satisfaction."

Major Marshall said as he continues serving with American forces both in the U.S. and abroad, it will continue to be "like one force."

"It doesn't matter what uniform we are wearing -- it's interchangeable," Major Marshall said. "We have a really great relationship with the American forces -- specifically the USAF. It's just very easy to work together. It's what we do. That's all we know. So no matter where we are, it's very easy to get the job done as one team."