For more than 32 years, the V.I. Air National Guard has been providing communications support to the territory, but that all changed on Thursday, when the VIANG’s only squadron, located on St. Croix, received a new mission – to protect, preserve, and improve facilities and infrastructure.
The official redesignation ceremony took place Saturday morning at 11 a.m. at the Air Guard Base in Estate Manning Bay where the 285th Combat Communications Squadron was officially stripped of its name and given new title – the 285th Civil Engineering Squadron (CES).
More than 50 airmen, soldiers, and several dignitaries showed up at the ceremony, including Delegate to Congress Donna M. Christensen, Col. Richard Edwards from the National Guard Bureau, and the Adjutant General for the VING, Maj. Gen. Renaldo Rivera.
Col. Jeffrey Buckley, the VIANG’s Chief of Staff explained in his remarks why the mission was being changed after so long.
“For over 30 years, the 285th Combat Communications Squadron has admirably served the territory and nation when called upon,” Buckley said. “Despite its many lauded successes and awards, the unit’s endurance as a communications provider was doomed.”
He explained that the Air Force was downsizing across the nation, and the unit was on the docket to be closed. As a result, Buckley said that in order to keep the squadron relevant and to avoid closure, VIANG leadership determined that a Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force (Prime BEEF) civil engineering mission was needed.
“The 285th Engineering Squadron will turn on the lights when there are none,” Buckley said. “They’ll make sure there is running water when called upon. They’ll build shelter where needed, and they’ll fix roads and runways when required. This is Prime BEEF.”
The new mission, replete with completely new career fields, will focus on providing a full range of engineering support and will deliver world-class emergency response services and resource management, both locally and abroad.
The 285th’s current commander, Capt. Jon Hult, said that the transition has been a welcome challenge for him, and although it’s been stressful at times, he emphasized his excitement for bringing the new mission online.
“Being a commander during a mission conversion brings a unique and separate set of challenges,” Hult said. “It also brings a great opportunity for the Virgin Islands and the Air National Guard as a whole because the civil engineering mission will better serve the local communities and the territory in the time of need.”
Hult said that unit members and people thinking of joining will be given the opportunity to learn useful skills, which can also help them with employment in the private sector. For example, the new jobs consist of electricians, structural support, paving and equipment operators, and water and fuel systems maintenance, among others.
“Civil Engineering skill sets will be better aligned with local services, and will allow more opportunity for people to succeed in the private sector,” Hult said.
The 285th Combat Communications Flight got its start in Feb. 1980 in the Virgin Islands with a team of only five enlisted members and one officer to provide communications support to operational commands.
The original members, Capt. John Watley, Lowell Thomas Sr., Lionel Edwards, Florencio Ortiz Jr., Andres Sankitts, and Antonio Whitehead, were actually part of the Alabama Air National Guard until they were federally recognized. On May 7, 1980, the VIANG was born under Gov. Juan F. Luis and VING Adjutant Gen. Brig. Gen. Carl Briscoe.
Throughout its 32 years in the territory, the Virgin Islands Air National Guard played a vital role in supporting the territory and the nation. It engaged in real-world deployments, contingencies, and training exercises. The 285th Combat Communications Squadron has received numerous awards and commendations. Its achievements include the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award, the Harold M. McClellan Trophy, and an excellence rating for COMSEC inspections.
After Hurricane Hugo devastated St. Croix in 1989, the 285th became the heart of the recovery effort and provided the only official communications capability from the V.I. to the mainland.
Although the communications support will be missed, Buckley said that he’s confident the airmen will duplicate their success with the new mission.
“The capabilities of the Prime BEEF mission lend themselves in a far greater extent than the sole communications mission,” Buckley said. “With proper coordination, the 285th CES, will be able to contribute in a greater fashion to the local community than ever before.