Arizona Airmen celebrate 70 years of service, reflect on legacy

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Michael Matkin
  • 161st Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
What comprises an Air National Guard unit's legacy? Is it the aircraft flown? Is it the missions and contingencies? Is it the patches and symbols that represent the organization? Or is it a combination of all - coalescing into something greater than its individual parts? According to Airmen here, the legacy lives in those who came before, it is being built by those whom are currently serving and it will be sustained by those yet to come.

Dec. 12, 2016, will mark 70 years of Airmen building and maintaining the legacy of the 161st Air Refueling Wing.

The 197th Fighter Squadron - which later became the 161 ARW - officially launched into operations Dec. 12, 1946, at Luke Field in Glendale, Arizona, with 13 Officers and 40 Airmen flying and maintaining F-51D Mustangs.

Retired Lt. Col. Tom Barnard, the last living original member of the 197th, former unit commander, and a true Arizona Native - born 94 years ago on a ranch in Northern Arizona - said the original squadron was a genuine family.

"We were a lot smaller," he said. "We were just a squadron. We were the only ones at Luke Field, there wasn't even a control tower, but that made us real close - everybody knew everybody. We were so close I dropped everything socially I was doing [outside of the Guard] and strictly socialized with Copperheads. I still feel part of it. I still feel close to it."

Retired Col. David Manning, also a former commander and Arizona Native of 88 years, echoed Barnard's thoughts.

"For some of us, the Guard was everything," he said. "It was where we spent our weekends, our nights and our days off. We had activities there. It was our total social life. All of my friends were Copperheads."

The squadron nickname, "the Copperheads," comes from Arizona's rich history of copper mining.

Manning has a unique place in Copperhead history. While a student at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, he heard about a contest to design a unit patch for the 197th.

"I sent in two applications," he said. "I wasn't really trying to make a part of a snake. It's a coyote with a branding iron. I just thought, there are coyotes in Arizona, there are cowboys - and he's dressed as a cowboy - and there are branding irons. It was just something I came up with."

Originally, the patch had the squadron number on it, but the National Guard Bureau later told unit members they could not have any letters or numbers, so Manning changed it to the outline of the state.

He said it means a lot to him when he sees Copperheads still wearing it and that it is still part of who the Copperheads are and how they represent themselves.

"It's nice to see the unit going forward," said Manning. "We started out as a small squadron, then we went to a group and then a wing; so it's a progression and it's nice to see. Airmen keep coming and doing the job and moving the Copperheads forward. It's nice to the see the continuity - where it started and where it's going."

Airman 1st Class Zachary Baca, 161st Security Forces Squadron journeyman, is in a distinctive position to see firsthand how Airmen have moved the unit forward, as he is a third generation Copperhead.

"There has been a Baca here since my grandfather joined in 1964," he said. "We've all kind of done something a little different here though, my grandfather was in maintenance, my father was in logistics and now I'm in security forces."

He said he didn't understand the significance of his father serving until he got older - as a kid it was just going to work with his dad; however, he said he witnessed the impact his father had and the legacy heĀ  left when he attended his retirement ceremony.

"Seeing all the different people from all the different squadrons attend his retirement showed what a big impact he had across the whole base," he said. "He was always the first to offer help and I've never heard anyone say a bad word about him."

He said it's not just his father he hears about, he has also spoken with some of the "old-timers" that knew his grandfather.

"They speak very highly of him," said Baca. "He was a hard worker. It's a great legacy my father and grandfather left. To see and hear about them first hand is awesome."

Knowing his family contributed to the base's legacy, leaving his own legacy is important to him. He said one of the first things his father told him when he joined the Copperheads was to not try to be like him, but to find his own way and to be his own man - in other words, create his own legacy.

Airman Baca said he would like build upon what his grandfather was known for, which was always be willing to do what needs to be done and to do it with a smile. He said it's also the advice he'd give to future generations of Copperheads.

"Whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability and do it with a smile on your face," said Baca. "There's no better place to serve and give back, so do it with a smile."