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Guard, active military join ranks

Airmen learning new skills from Guard personnel at Vermont airport

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. -- When Airman First Class Cabe Feller joined the Air Force two years ago, he was hoping to see the world beyond his farm town. He didn't expect one of his first stops to be Vermont.

Now, during his working hours, Feller, 20, of Herscher, Ill., is learning the intricacies of maintaining F-16 fighter jets. He's getting plenty of one-on-one tutoring about the airplanes from Air National Guard technicians, some of whom have worked on the planes for longer than he's been alive.

During his off hours, Feller has learned to snowboard. He's been exposed for the first time in his life to what he sees as the ethnically diverse communities of Bosnians, Vietnamese, and Sudanese who live in the Burlington area.

"The setup here is fantastic," said Feller, an active-duty airman taking part in a first-of-its-kind program that sends a small number of active-duty Air Force personnel on three-year rotations to the Vermont Air National Guard base at Burlington International Airport.

The program is known as "community basing" and is designed to help the active-duty Air Force work closely with the Air National Guard.

"It takes advantage of the years of experience that the guardsmen have in training our young airmen while at the same time it exposes our young airmen to the guard operations," said Colonel Michael Vidal, commander of the 20th Maintenance Group at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C., the active-duty parent of the service members in Vermont. There are similar programs underway at another base in South Carolina and one in Utah.

The program was conceived by Major General William Etter of the Vermont Guard, who was recently appointed to the staff of the chief of the National Guard bureau in Washington. And it was promoted by US Senator Patrick Leahy, co chairman of the Senate's National Guard Caucus.

Leahy saw the program as a way to help the Air Force and to help ensure that the Vermont National Guard remained important enough to the Air Force that the South Burlington base wouldn't be targeted for closing.

"It has helped cement the ties between the Air National Guard and the active Air Force," Leahy said.

"It can and should be a model now for the entire Air Force. I'd like to see the program expanded aggressively in Vermont and across the Air Guard."

Last month, Leahy wrote a letter to Air Force Secretary Michael Wyne and the Air Force chief of staff, General T. Michael Moseley, saying the Air Force had not followed through with an effective program.

"We are not surprised but we are disappointed," said the letter signed by Leahy and caucus cochairman Senator Christopher Bond, Republican of Missouri.

Working with the Air Guard doesn't exempt active-duty personnel in Vermont from overseas missions. Feller spent about six weeks in Iraq last year with the Vermont Guard's 158th Fighter Wing, and he is due to return later this year.

Currently, there are 14 active-duty Air Force personnel at the South Burlington base. Two are pilots, the rest are maintenance technicians, the majority young people new to the Air Force on their first tours after they completed technical training.

Feller has been working on his own toward a bachelor's degree so he can qualify for officer training and, eventually, pilot training.

"The family atmosphere here is awesome," he said.