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In Tinker’s Tacamo community ‘The Shadows know’

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- "What is the Navy doing in a landlocked state? We get a lot of that," says Lt. j.g Clint Turner, an airborne communications officer with Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron FOUR and part of the unit's public affairs office.

The answer is simple -- deterrence.

The 500 Sailors of VQ-4 -- the Shadows -- and its sister squadron VQ-3, fly the Navy's only heavy jets, the E-6B Mercury, a modified Boeing 707. Equipped with state-of-the-art communications equipment and lengthy antennas, the planes serve as the direct link from the president to the nation's strategic forces.

"It's a mission that has been around for decades," Lieutenant Turner explains. "It started as a Cold War mission, but has evolved over the years."

During the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, the United States used airborne communications platforms orbiting at random, undisclosed locations 24-hours-a-day in order to be assured the U.S. would be able to order its own forces to launch a counter strike should the need ever arise. This policy prevented nuclear war for the duration of the Cold War.

In the post-Cold War era, America began reorganizing her nuclear forces. In 1992, as part of U.S. Strategic Command, the Navy set sail for Oklahoma on the then-new E-6A.

"I was on the first E-6 to taxi on to the ramp here," remembers Cmdr. David Meron, now the commanding officer -- or "skipper" -- of VQ-4. "They met us on the ramp wearing cowboy hats."

It was a culture shock for Commander Meron, who was raised on an island off the Florida coast and was then based in Hawaii with VQ-4. But he and others quickly adjusted, with many current and former Sailors calling the state home.

"Everyone always wants to come back to Oklahoma," says Commander Meron. "Most people that come here, they really enjoy it."

Because of the specialized nature of the two squadrons, grouped under Strategic

Communications Wing ONE, assignment to the unit is often long-term. It doesn't take long for the Sailors to sink roots in Oklahoma's fertile soil.

"Here at TACAMO, it's not uncommon to find one of our Sailors who have spent the bulk of their time in the Navy here, then retire and remain in Oklahoma City," Lieutenant Turner says. "Because of that, we get a tremendous amount of support from our local community."

But the job of TACAMO (Take Charge and Move Out) is exactly that -- to fly at a moment's notice. Although both squadrons are based here, the aircraft flown by the squadrons are deployed often, ready to dash at high speed and take up station at secure locations.

"When we deploy, we are at a constant state of readiness," Lieutenant Turner says.

Those deployments, and standing alert in "The Hooch," make assignment to TACAMO "sea duty," even if they are ostensibly in Oklahoma.

"This is hard duty," Commander Meron says. "You don't have to be at sea for hard duty." Because they must be constantly available, maintenance on the aircraft is continuous.

"We're all-the-time busy," says Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Dansby. "But I enjoy it."

Although the squadron has its own maintenance crews, the flight crews are also trained to "fix what they fly," Lieutenant Turner explains. "Billets within the Navy are such that we end up wearing many different hats, so to speak."

The everyday operations of the aircraft is a juggling act where scheduling is tight and often changed to accommodate arriving or deploying aircraft and maintenance crew availability.

At the Maintenance Controller's desk, Chief Petty Officer Phil Stevens talks with Chief Petty Officer James Collins. They rearrange the schedule to meet operational demands. "It's all a learning experience for me," says Petty Officer 1st Class Robert Ambol, a maintenance controller trainee and a chief petty officer select.

Petty Officer Ambol will spend at least three months behind the desk, learning the ropes of being a controller. "Then an oral board to see if he knows his stuff," Chief Collins adds. "He's already been out turning wrenches. Now we're bringing him in here."

In the Navy for 14 years, Petty Officer Ambol is anything but new to the Navy. But, as Lieutenant Turner points out, "The Navy is a 20 year training program for our career Sailors." Even those marshalling the aircraft on the apron spend months in the classroom first.

"This is my first plane," says Seaman James Morsberger. "I'm still very fresh. I'm glad to be out of the classroom."

But he is still under the watchful eye of Petty Officer 3rd Class Clayton Murphy who shows him the finer points of keeping a heavy jet on the ramp as it refuels, swaps crews or replaces equipment.

Reliability is vital to the mission of VQ-4. Without the certainty that the U.S. could communicate with its strategic forces in a nuclear attack and order a counter strike, there is no nuclear deterrence.

Communications is achieved through a complete suite of communications equipment. What makes the aircraft special are the trailing antennas that have the capability of communicating very long distances with our nation's nuclear forces.

Although their mission is deterrence, VQ-4 did play an active part in the skies over Iraq by using their radio equipment to provide communications for convoys and supporting forces. With a long loiter time, the crews often stayed on station for 12 hours or more monitoring friendly convoy movements and calling for help when those on the ground needed it.

"If they had an IED attack, we could provide radio support that they would never lose even in that attack," Commander Meron said.

The aircraft flew more than 2,500 hours during its two-and-a-half-year deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"We were doing it for 12 hours at a time," he said. "They loved us over there."

But, says Commander Meron, the core function of TACAMO is deterrence. It is unlikely, he said, that the squadrons will be used in similar operations.

"That's not a typical mission for us," Commander Meron says. "We have to be good at our core job. And we'll have that mission for the next 20-plus years. But," he adds with a smile, "It was fun while it lasted."