Getting to know the vice commander: where the rubber meets the road

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. John Snowman
  • 301st Fighter Wing
Editor's Note: This is a post contingency deployment interview with Col. Robert "Mort" Mortensen, 301st Fighter Wing vice commander, at Naval Air Station Fort Worth, Joint Reserve Base Carswell Field, Texas. The interview was conducted by Tech. Sgt. John Snowman, 301st Fighter Wing historian, on June 19, 2008. 

Q. Good afternoon Sir. This is an unclassified interview. I am Tech. Sgt. John Snowman the 301st Fighter Wing Historian. Sir would you please identify yourself; name, rank and current job title? 

I am Colonel Bob Mortensen and currently the 301st FW vice commander for Col. Kevin Pottinger. 

Q. How long have you been in the Air Force and part of the 301st? 

I have been in the Air Force now for 24 years and I've been at the 301st FW continuously for 22 years 

Q. You lead a deployment to Balad, Iraq, in 2007; I was hoping you could give us the inclusive dates and how long you were there during the deployment? 

OK. It was part of AEF 7 and 8 and it was part of OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM and we were there from early May 2008 until early July 2008. 

Q. In what capacity did you serve on that deployment? 

On that deployment I was the commander of the 332nd Expeditionary Forces Squadron which is expeditionary fighter squadron which is what the 457th Fighter Squadron becomes when we go over there. So it's still an intact fighter squadron but we fall under the 332nd Operations Group when we go over there. 

Q. Can you give me a rough idea of how many aircraft and personnel deployed? 

Yes. We took 12, F-16C+ aircraft and 318 personnel. 

Q. How many extended deployments have you been on in your career? 

If you're talking contingency type deployments I've been on seven in the last fifteen years. If you add in training deployments you could probably triple that number. 

Q. How did your last deployment in Iraq compare to other operational deployments you have been on? 

I would say the big difference there is that we are right in the middle of the Area of Responsibility. This is compared to in a previous life we were outside the AOR. Being in the AOR has its benefits, as well as some downfalls. The benefits are that we are right in the middle of the AOR so that cuts our response time down so we can react quickly if needed. It allows us to use low fuel bingos and most of the time less coordination with fewer assets. In other words we don't need air refueling to get where we want to go. 

Q. Did you find that being at Balad was a hostile environment? 

Yes it was especially when you compare it to bases in other countries. It's a very noisy and busy environment. There are a lot of cycles off that field of every type aircraft that you can imagine; twenty four hours a day three hundred sixty five days a year. It's a high operations tempo base, the highest I have ever been to. So that has its challenges. Security and force protection are larger issues there because of its location. 

There are attacks on the base that I would say average daily. There may be some days where there aren't any but then there are days where there are multiple attacks which is real different than places we have been to in the past. It's a relatively small base so you don't get too far away from the noises which like I said goes on twenty four hours a day. It takes a little getting used to that as far as your sleep cycle goes. 

You wake up a lot because of the noise or the heat. So I think over a period of time fatigue becomes an issue. It's hot and it's noisy, but it's great because your right there in the middle of everything and it's an exciting place to be. 

Q. What did you personally take away from your Iraq experience? High point and low points? 

I would say for everyone there it's personally rewarding operating in theater, in the AOR. You're right there where the rubber meets the road so to speak. You get to execute with the skill sets you practice every day stateside sometimes for a career before you can get to deploy. 

I've been fortunate to be able to employ those skill sets now and for some very early in their career. So that's what I would say I would personally take away from it. When I think back over it I would say the high points were when we were delivering ordnance - when people in the squadron were actually doing their job delivering ordnance and killing bad guys and helping the guys on the ground which was our primary mission there, helping the men on the ground, protecting them, guiding them in some cases and helping them out when they got in trouble. That was real rewarding. 

Q. Were most of your missions close air support type missions? 

Yes, I think you could categorize them as close air support missions. There was one instance I will tell you about. It probably stands out more than others. 

While we were there, there were three Army soldiers that were kidnapped near Baghdad and they didn't find them for a couple days. Maybe two or three days after that one of our pilots was on a mission at night north of Baghdad and some Army personnel had cornered some insurgents in a grove of palm trees and they called in air, which was one of our guys and they delivered ordnance on them which put an end to this skirmish they had going on down there. 

When they went in to exploit the scene they found two of the Army guys identification cards and some computers and things. So they were able to gather intel and determine that these bad guys were involved with the kidnapping of our soldiers. 

That was a good feeling to know that at least those guys paid for that. The low points you asked about - I would say that one of the squadrons there lost an F-16 and the pilot. That was the low point while we were over there. 

There was rough period of eight months where the US Air Force lost three F-16s and two pilots and one of them was while we were there. That would be the low point for me. 

Q. What significant operational lessons did you take away from this deployment? 

There were some operational lessons learned there. I don't know if I would categorize them as significant though. In any conflict you have Tactics, Technique, and Procedures and there is always going to be a counter to them over time. Then you adjust to counter the counter and that's the way the game is played. 

I wouldn't say there were any huge operational lessons learned. There were some as there always are but this is not the correct forum to speak to those. 

Q. If you had an opportunity for a do-over what do you think you might have done a little differently? 

I don't know if there would be any major differences. There are some minor things and probably most of it has to do with getting there and getting home - you know, to transition into and out of the theater. 

After every one of these deployments there is an after action report and we forward lessons learned to the appropriate agencies. There is both a classified and unclassified report. I was also there on a deployment in 2005 and went back in 2007 and I saw some changes that were made and some of those changes were things we forwarded in the after action reports. So I know there are people that listen to those and they are working on improving the process. It was evident on both the operational and support side of the house. 

It was easier to fly out of Balad in 2007 compared to 2005 because of some changes they made and living conditions were better. They are continually improving the process. 

Q. Sir, the operators were there to fly, fight and win. Everyone else that deployed was there to support you in doing that. What did you come away with when it came to the work that your support team provided? 

Ok, that's a good question John. It's one that's very evident to me but may not get advertised or talked about a lot. As far as the support goes, it was absolutely outstanding performance both here, stateside in the 301st FW and those that went along with us. This is really a monumental undertaking to take that many people and airplanes that far and into that type of environment to operate and the planning for that starts about a year out. 

There is assigning project officers for the deployment both on the operations and maintenance side of the house as well as other areas. During this organizational phase you've got logistics, medical, administration, Military Personnel Flight and others who play huge roles in helping us to get out of town by making sure we have all the right equipment and all the squares filled. They ensure things are in order to get us over to the AOR and then return. 

Maintenance has to work a lot of issues. The aircraft and phase maintenance and getting them in line to go over there, choosing the correct aircraft and making sure that when we deploy not only are the aircraft in tip top shape for the maintenance items but also the phase inspections are done. If we can get fresh aircraft over there i.e. aircraft that will not require major maintenance while there then that makes the whole process run smoother once we arrive. 

It takes a lot of organizing and planning to do that. In any flying operation you always have the inevitable issues that arise unexpectedly so then they have to react to those as well to fulfill this plan. As we get closer to the deployment date the fighter squadron will start their spin up program of tailoring their training plan specifically to do the types of missions we will be doing when we get over there. 

The objective there is to get every pilot that is going to deploy not only trained in the skill sets that are going to be required but also proficient in those as well. What this enables us to do is hit the ground running over there so you get in place and the first day we are responsible to execute the ATO the guys are ready to go for their first sortie. 

There are a lot of times when there is not much going on over there when you're airborne and there are sometimes when it is very, very busy. You have to be ready to perform that very busy sortie on your first sortie because it could very easily happen. So that's how we get ready to go. 

As your question alluded to, especially in a combat zone, the emphasis is on the operators, the guys that execute the mission, commonly referred to as the tip of the spear. In our case, being a fighter wing, a lot of the focus goes towards the pilots and maintenance turning the airplanes but what isn't so obvious are the support assets and the endless hours of work they put into getting this huge package, this huge organization, 6000 miles around the world to employ in this environment that we're talking about. 

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of those assets are here, stateside, on base but we also deploy with a lot. So when we are over there executing the ATO, pilots can worry about pilot stuff, the maintainers can worry about fixing, turning and loading the planes with fuel and munitions and then for all the other stuff we have personnel there in place to take care of it so you can concentrate on your job. 

That's what pilots like to do, that's what maintainers like to do to project the force as required. If those support assets were not there to do that we couldn't be as successful as we are over there or here for that matter. In fact we probably wouldn't even be able to get to the fight. 

We are fortunate here at the 301st FW that we have the professionals on the support side of the house that we do. There is a lot of experience and they do an outstanding job prepping us to get out the door and supporting us while we are there. 

On the maintenance side of the house I have been working with these maintenance guys for a long time. The faces have changed out there but not the product. They are absolutely the best in the CAF, the combat air forces. 

This last time over there we flew I think 437 sorties during our portion there, that doesn't include the 482nd Fighter Wing (Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla.), so for the first 40 days of the ATO we flew over 1850 hours and we didn't lose one sortie due to a maintenance problem. So that is pretty remarkable. 

These guys performed their jobs. I've been there in the summer when its 120 degrees and I've been there in the winter when it gets cold, it rains, crummy weather and a lot of mud. The mud creates a lot of problems in the winter and the maintenance guys plow through all that. They are simply the best. 

Q. Deploying for weeks and months takes a significant toll on military families. Many Airmen have deployed multiple times and many, like you, deployed in harm's way. Can you talk a little about how you and your family coped with you being away for so long? Any personal experiences you would care to share? 

Ok. Every family is different and are at different stages in their lives. My kids are fairly young so they don't comprehend a lot of things that might bother older kids. 

This is the thing I would say about families. Obviously, when somebody is deployed it adds a lot of stress to the families. 

How do you counter that? 

One thing is preparation for the deployment and that's getting your affairs in order. That is legal and financial affairs. You should do that early, a year prior to the deployment. That will avoid the rush at the end trying to get out the door when everybody else is doing it and the stresses that induces. So get those legal affairs taken care of, have a will and powers of attorney, just like the Air Force preaches to you. 

Get your financial affairs in order. Brief the spouse that is left behind on all those affairs so they are comfortable with it. Prepare a checklist and I know that Family Services provides these. So if something goes wrong either at this end or that end they know where everything is and how to reach the appropriate people. 

I think if you have this plan in place prior to deployment and you've talked about it with the person staying behind they feel more comfortable when you're deployed. It will alleviate a lot of stress. Then keep your family informed of when you're going to deploy and for how long; you have to stay within force protection and classification issues there but you can let them know when you're going to be gone. 

A lot has to be done before the deployment because it is very difficult to coordinate things from there to here with time change, phone issues, and email issues. It's a lot better if this is all done before. 

Second is communication; from the AOR you have email and telephones most of the time so it's a lot easier to communicate back home and you need to take advantage of that every week or whenever you can talk to your spouse and kids. I would talk about their lives not yours. 

Family Services is a great organization to tap into for the family left here at home station. There are other support assets that the military provides so make sure your family is aware of Family Services and how to contact them. Don't hesitate to contact them if you have problems. There are a lot of people here to help in the member's absence. 

Then make a family return to base plan so when you get back and you're off duty for a while on R & R, take advantage of that time and spend it with your family. As you approach the end of your deployment and you communicate with them from the AOR talk that up so you have something positive to look forward to. 

Q. You were recently selected as our new vice wing commander. What are your goals in your new position? 

They are fairly simple. Obviously it is to support Col. Pottinger, 301st Fighter Wing commander, his policies and goals. That's my main job. I want to help him in keeping the 301st FW on the leading edge of performance. We have a great reputation within the CAF and I want to protect that reputation and perpetuate it. 

Also, I want to keep the 301st a great place to work so that people look forward to coming to work. Working here, living here and socializing here. There's a great group of people here and we keep cohesiveness in this wing that will carry us through any adversity that we may face. 

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add sir? 

I would say when you asked me questions about the AEF it gets you thinking about the past, deploying to the AOR, that was a very rewarding time and maybe a highlight. 

These deployments are really what we do for a living and why we're here. Like you said earlier go fly, fight and win when our nation calls. When I look back, like I mentioned, I've been here 22 years, the thing that stands out are the people I've worked with in all aspects of the wing - maintenance, MPF, all the support side obviously the operations side which I have been closely involved with, and that's what really stands out - you have a good quality of people that work here in the Air Force Reserve in general and the 301st FW in particular. I really appreciate that. 

When you start talking about deployments all this is done with volunteerism. When you look back and see that many people going over there for that length of time and it's all done through volunteerism. That's pretty impressive. That says a lot of the individuals that make up this wing. 

I'm very honored to serve with these people and I really appreciate them.
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