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161st Air Refueling Wing earns 5th Air Force Outstanding Unit Award

Air Force officials recently announced that the 161st Air Refueling Wing, Arizona Air National Guard, is a recipient of the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award. (U.S. Air National Guard photo illustration by Master Sgt. Kelly Deitloff)

Air Force officials recently announced that the 161st Air Refueling Wing, Arizona Air National Guard, is a recipient of the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award. (U.S. Air National Guard photo illustration by Master Sgt. Kelly Deitloff)

PHOENIX -- Air Force officials recently designated the Arizona Air National Guard's 161st Air Refueling Wing at Sky Harbor International Airport as one of the service's very best units, as it earned the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award for meritorious service between Oct. 1, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2015.

The Air Force Outstanding Unit Award is given annually by the Secretary of the Air Force to select units that distinguish themselves by exceptional service or outstanding achievement that clearly sets them above and apart from similar units. Arizona's air refueling wing previously earned the award in 1968, 1972, 1977 and 2012.

The 161st is an operational KC-135R Stratotanker unit with eight aircraft and more than 800 Airmen assigned. Its missions include air refueling, world-wide deployment, airlift and aeromedical evacuation among many other state and federal duties.

"This award is a tremendous honor," said Col. Troy Daniels, the wing commander, "one the entire community can be proud of. Our Airmen's skill and dedication enabled us to accomplish our missions with great success and their efforts will continue to help defend our state and nation."

"Every Phoenix Air Guard member understands that our success is only made possible by the continued support of our entire community. We gratefully share this outstanding award with our immediate families, friends, employers and elected officials throughout the great state of Arizona."

During the two-year award period, the 161st flew 8,500 hours while delivering 4.4 million gallons of fuel to more than 3,500 receiver aircraft in every theater of operations from the Pacific to Southwest Asia - astounding figures for a unit its size.

Even through constant overseas deployments, wing Airmen maintained a continuous alert mission at home; ready day or night to refuel America's bomber aircraft as a vital nuclear deterrent. They additionally supported border security missions, helped protect millions during Super Bowl XLIX, hosted large exercises, and participated in operations that ranged from Air Force One support to a no-notice rescue mission.

"Literally every squadron and staff office contributed to this achievement, and I could not be prouder of our Airmen," said Chief Master Sgt. Martha Garcia, the wing command chief. "Our wing performed test flights, energy conservation projects, NATO training support, counter narcotics operations, comprehensive inspections, innovative resilience and morale events, and so much more. The 'can do' spirit is alive and well here, and our people are always ready to accept new and challenging missions."

The outstanding unit award arrives on the heels of several other recent accolades. Members here earned the Outstanding Aircrew of the Year award for U.S. Air Forces Central Command in 2015, as well as national recognition for its mission support group and the Air National Guard Security Forces Squadron of the Year award.

The timing of this outstanding unit award is also of special significance to unit members. This year marks the 161st Air Refueling Wing's 70th anniversary. The unit was first established as the 197th Fighter Squadron on Dec. 12, 1946, when a handful of World War II veterans - including Arizona's late U.S. Senator, Barry M. Goldwater - stood up the unit equipped with F-51D Mustangs under the direction of the Arizona governor.  Its members were, and are still, known as the "Copperheads." Their mission transitioned to air refueling in 1972 and the unit eventually grew to be the wing it is today.

The Air Force Outstanding Unit Award will be officially presented to the wing during the unit's 70th anniversary celebration in December; however, all Airmen who served here between Oct. 1, 2013, and Sept. 30, 2015, will be authorized to wear the ribbon on their uniform prior to December. Members may check their personnel records, which will be updated automatically, to verify the award.

"The Air Force Outstanding Unit Award is a confirmation of not only the excellence of today's Copperheads, but also serves to highlight the wing's heritage - 70 years of outstanding service by generations of Arizonans," said Daniels. "What a great way to begin the next 70 years."