Air Force celebrates its 70th today, MANG and RED HORSE celebrated this year too

The Air Force is celebrating its 70th birthday today and earlier this summer, the Montana Air National Guard and RED HORSE units celebrated their own anniversaries.

Sen. Jon Tester introduced a Senate Resolution today to honor the service of Montana’s airmen.

Tester, a Co-Chair of the Senate Air Force Caucus, specifically thanked those who have served at Malmstrom Air Force Base and in the Montana Air National Guard for keeping the country safe.

“The folks at Malmstrom and the Montana Air National Guard go above and beyond to defend our freedoms,” Tester said. “Today we are reminded of their critical mission, their sacrifice and their service. I proudly have their back as Congress debates important national security legislation to ensure Montana’s airmen have the resources they need to keep Montana and our nation safe.”

In July, the 120th celebrated their anniversary during the air show weekend with music and barbecue. Gov. Steve Bullock and Adjutant General of the Montana Guard Maj. Gen. Matthew Quinn came to celebrate with them.

“It’s a humbling responsibility to be commander-in-chief of the Montana National Guard,” Bullock said. 

The anniversary celebration was to honor those who have served and that more than 1,000 Montana Guardsmen have represented Montana in more than 60 countries on all seven continents, Bullock said. It was also a celebration of the families that support the airman of the 120th and the rest of the Montana National Guard.

“Let this celebration be a reminder of their service and sacrifice,” Bullock said. “We walk and stand on the shoulders of so many who came before us. You’ve left a lasting impression on all of our communities.”

Ed White was a communications manager, back when it was a two-man shop and served in the 120th Airlift Wing from 1996 to 1991. He was with the unit when they flew F-102s, F-106s and F-16s.

White said he has good memories of the Guard and “I’d recommend it to anybody.”

Lt. Gen. Scott Rice, director of Air National Guard, also attended the anniversary. 

He said the community made him and his wife feel at home and thanked community for that. They felt how the community cares for mission and each other, he said.

“What better place to grow up in American than here in Montana, here in Great Falls, well done,” Rice said.

It was also impressive to see how MANG has evolved over the years and risen to every challenge.

“There is nothing that we can hand to you that you can’t handle,” Rice said. “Whatever magic you have here…don’t stop, because we need it.”

Brig. Gen. Bryan Fox, assistant adjutant general for MANG, said that 70 years ago, in a nearby hangar, a group of World War II veterans raised there hands and “thus began the Montana Air National Guard.”

Two of the original members attended the July celebration and both were presented with Montana National Guard Distinguished Service Medals.

One was retired Brig. Gen. Emmett Whalen, who served as wing commander from 1964-79 and assistant adjutant general from 1979 to 1984, according to Fox.

Whalen initially wasn’t at the ceremony and the medal was presented to his daughter, but he arrived shortly after the ceremony and Bullock practically hurdled over a row of chairs to shake his hand.

Whalen was a math teacher while serving in the Guard and was a command pilot in 20 different military aircraft. Whalen died in August. He was 92.

Until his death, he was the only living member who served in WWII, Fox said.

“I take great pride in serving with each of you,” Fox said. “Let us pause and remember who started us down this road.”

Retired Col. Robert Gruenhagen grew up in Great Falls and in the summer of 1947, he was a rising high school junior and was working for a contractor salvaging buildings on the base that had been used by the 7th Ferrying Group. While working there, he saw a P-51 Mustang land and he walked down the airfield to enlist in the Montana Air National Guard later that year.

Fox presented the Distinguished Service Medal to Gruenhagen who served from December 1947 to June 1966.

“Sir, your legacy lives on in Montana,” Fox said.

During the ceremony, Gruenhagen said “You must all know how proud I am.”

Gruenhagen was among those who responded to a crashed T-33 about a mile west of the Great Falls Airport on Aug. 21, 1954. The pilot killed in that crash was Col. Einar Malmstrom, the nuclear base’s namesake.

“This deal today is a big day,” Gruenhagen said during the July ceremony. “My life, everything that’s happened to me, all started right here.”

Growing up, Gruenhagen lived on the south side and would hitchhike up to the airfield on Sundays, before he was a member of the Guard. During that time, he’d hang out with the airmen there who mentored him and others.

Part of his enlistment required that he finish high school and then he’d be sent to the first available mechanics course. Gruenhagen and a few of his buddies had planned to apply for jobs on Gore Hill once they completed training, but there weren’t any at the time, so he volunteered for A-26 radar sites. He was sent to Boise, Idaho for training, then California for more training and then to Texas.

Then the Korean War started. During that time he was hired at the 120th, but spent some time Moody Air Force Base in Georgia and with Strategic Air Command and Tactical Air Command.

He supervised the first jet engine shop and in 1963 he received a direct commission to lieutenant. Gruenhagen was a C-130 squadron commander at the 120th in 1978 and then served at wing headquarters as the deputy maintenance commander and retired in 1987.

He’s now lives in Texas, but had been looking forward to the anniversary event.

Sitting at a table with a plate of barbecue, he looked up at a photo of the original members projected on a large screen in the new hangar.

“They raised me up. Those guys raised me,” Gruenhagen said. “I spent all my time here.”

The 819th and 219th RED HORSE units celebrated their 20th anniversary the same week in July that the 120th was celebrating its 70th.

Commanders past and present attended the event, as well as former commanders of the Guard.


Current members and retirees gather for a photo during the 20th anniversary celebration of the reactivation of the active duty 819th RED HORSE Squadron and the activation of the 219th RED HORSE Squadron of the Montana Air National Guard at Malmstrom Air Force Base on July 20, 2017. (U.S. Air National Guard photo/Senior Master Sgt. Eric Peterson)

Retired Col. Gary Shick was the first commander of the 219th from Sept. 1996 to May 2000.

That was the time “when the unit literally built itself,” he told the crowd of about 200 that included current and former RED HORSE members and their families.

Shick said standing up a new RED HORSE squadron by reactivating the 819th and activating the 219th helped offset the loss of an air refueling wing and the closure of the runway at Malmstrom.

The original proposal, he said, was to combine active duty forces with an Air Force Reserve unit, but the Great Falls area demographics made it difficult to fill the part-time reserve force ranks so the Montana Air National Guard rose to the challenge and aligned a unit with the 819th.

That effort created the first ever active-associate unit, Shick said.

The unit had initial operating capability in October 1992 and full operating capability in 1998. 

They started with nothing, Shick said, and used scrap items from the rest of the Air Force that they tried to turn into something useful.

Col. Jose Rivera-Hernandez, current 819th commander, said “It wasn’t easy at the beginning. Thank you so much for setting the path for us.”

The current 219th commander, Col. Rusty Vaira, was first assigned to Malmstrom with the 819th.

219th RED HORSE Squadron celebrates 20th anniversary

219th RED HORSE Commander Col. Rusty Vaira speaks during the 20th anniversary celebration of the RED HORSE squadrons. (U.S. Air National Guard photo/Senior Master Sgt. Eric Peterson)

He asked who in the crowd was born after the unit was activated in 1997 and several raised their hands.

“This is a legacy that’s been going on,” Vaira said. “We’re always doing the same mission, and that is to execute rapid engineering, deployable, heavy, operational combat support, and we’ve been doing it for years. It’s outstanding to see so many folks here that are part of that legacy to make this what we are today.”

RED HORSE squadrons have had a continuous presence in the Middle East region since 2001, Vaira said.

Maj. Gen. Gene Prendergast was the adjutant general of the Montana National Guard and helped lead the effort to standup the RED HORSE units in Great Falls.

“We had to have Department of the Air Force, National Guard Bureau and congressional approval,” Prendergast said. “We had to prove that the Air National Guard could do it.”

He met with the Air Force and Guard officials, who asked if the Montana Air National Guard could do the job.

“And I said I bet my two stars that they’ll make this a success,” Prendergast said. “And they did. They’ve proven themselves through the years.”