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Trip to military base rewards county's role in veterans' service

Pierce County Board Supervisor Mel Pittman of Plum City went on board the USS Wisconsin. The battleship is open to visitors at the Norfolk, Va., Naval Base, where Pittman and over 70 others from the state traveled in July as part of "Boss Lift 2011" through the Wisconsin Employer Support of Guard and Reserve program. <i>Submitted photos</i>1 / 2
Refueling was done on the KC-135 aircraft carrying 34 of the people from Wisconsin involved in "Boss Lift 2011" through the Wisconsin Employer Support of Guard and Reserve program, including Pierce County Board Supervisor Mel Pittman, from Volk Field to the Norfolk, Va., Naval Base in July.2 / 2

When Pierce County Veterans Service Officer (CVSO) David Till spent almost a year away from his office for military service, county officials needed to cover his responsibilities during his absence.

Till is a member of the National Guard and Reserve, whose members are presently represented in overseas conflicts such as Afghanistan to the level of 50 percent of U.S. forces, County Board Supervisor Mel Pittman said this month.

It fell to the county's veterans service committee, including Pittman along with Jeff Holst and Thomas Sitz, to arrange for fill-in assistance, the supervisor said. In return, the Wisconsin Employer Support of Guard and Reserve program has rewarded the county as well as other employers who temporarily lose employees to military duty by offering them trips to installations.

Pittman said Holst went to Fort Bragg, N.C., last year as a participant in the program. This year, it was his turn.

"It was called 'Boss Lift 2011'," he said, explaining those burdened by employee absences are usually known as bosses.

Plum City's representative on the county board was one of 34 people who left from Volk Field on the latest trip, July 18-20 to Norfolk, Va., Naval Air Base. It was his first time visiting that part of Virginia, though he'd been farther north near Washington, D.C., in the past.

"Norfolk's the largest naval base in the world," he said.

Another 40 people departed from Milwaukee for the same destination, Pittman said, noting he later visited with 15-20 of them and learned most were either employers or human resources personnel. He was the only county supervisor on the trip.

The group he was with flew on a 1960s-vintage KC-135 aircraft, he said. Once they boarded it on a day that was among the hottest of the summer and the hatch was closed, they spent 15 minutes inside the non-air-conditioned craft before takeoff. They were given water to stay hydrated, but they and their clothing were soaked with perspiration, he said.

"Then we got into the air and dried off almost immediately," he said.

The group was issued headsets so they could listen to communications during the flight, according to Pittman. Twice during the trip--on the way out and back--they saw the refueling process done. The refueling craft had to align with the KC-135 at 20,000 feet, slowing down to around 200 knots from its normal speed of 280 knots while the refueling job was accomplished. They met F-16s from Madison to handle the task on their way out and A-10 Thunderbolts on the return trip.

On July 19, they were taken from their accommodations at the Naval Lodge on the base to the Naval Yard, the board supervisor said. They saw the USS New York, a transport ship commissioned less than two years ago. It's outfitted to be able to offload tanks and other boats. He and the other visitors got some exercise just walking up the ramp from this part of the ship to its main section.

The USS Enterprise, an aircraft carrier, was on their itinerary, too, he said. Meantime, a destroyer just back from Libya carried drones, small surveillance devices outfitted with camera equipment that flew at a level of 3,000 feet over that country.

"You can see a man carrying a gun down below," he said he was told about the drones' capabilities.

The USS Wisconsin is on display at the base, Pittman said. Commissioned in 1944, it was retired after the first Iraq war. Its deck is made of teakwood; its capacity is 3,000 sailors. A sledge on board caught his attention and he understood it was one of three carried specially to rid the ship of all intelligence in case it was captured.

In its arsenal are 16-inch shells, fired using 600 pounds of gunpowder each and having a range of 30 miles, he said. The Sea Hawk group featuring radar with a 200-mile range was another memorable feature of the trip.

The participants wore neck badges and didn't encounter any security issues after receiving initial clearance, he said. They were accompanied by two generals during the entire tour of the base, one from the Air Force Reserves and the other from the Army Reserves. Pittman said he came to realize no matter what branch of the military, a general always goes first, so his group was regularly waiting for them while on the tour.

The board supervisor has compiled a Powerpoint presentation about his experiences on the trip, which he's delivered to a county committee and a Toastmaster organization in Red Wing since his return.

Bill Kirk

Bill Kirk was editor of the Pierce County Herald in Ellsworth, from 1988 to February, 2015 and is now on staff as a reporter. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He previously worked in the media distribution department at the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus and is past editor of The Tri-County News in Osseo, Wisconsin.

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