YARS, a City Unto Itself, Serves the Nation

VIENNA TOWNSHIP, Ohio – After you pass through a gate just off King Graves Road in Vienna Township, a right turn takes you to the more industrial side of town, where men and women come every day to work on some of the most recognizable aircraft in the United States military.

A left turn, though, takes you to a place reminiscent of a small town, albeit much more compact. You’ll see a gym with a baseball field out back, a hotel with the occasional camper parked in front and a restaurant its peers salute as one of the best in the country. Further down the road are the police and fire departments and, beyond that, a half-mile running track that surrounds the lot where civil engineering trucks are parked.

In every aspect, the Youngstown Air Reserve Station is a city unto itself. The 910th Airlift Wing’s security forces squadron works as the base police force. The civil engineer squadron serves as the equivalent of the public works department in a city, clearing roads and maintaining buildings. The communications squadron deals with information technology. Logistics readiness maintains and repairs vehicles and ensures the planes are fueled. Every unit at the air station has a role that keeps the station running smoothly.

And beyond the 1,900 reservists – 1,689 with the 910th Airlift Wing, 79 Marines and 95 with the Navy – in and out of the station, 300 civilians come to work at the base every day.

“It’s a 24-hour operation seven days a week and 365 days a year,” says Col. Donald Wren, commander of the Mission Support Group at the base. “We do it with full-time professionals along with our part-time reservists who come in on weekends.”

And like any other city, that requires constant communication among departments and leadership. In this sense, Wren serves as the city manager handling day-to-day operations while Col. Daniel Sarachene, commander of the 910th Airlift Wing, is its mayor, setting long-term goals for the base.

“It takes a lot of people, a lot of effort and a team, like any organization,” Sarachene says. “My first priority is to make sure everyone’s safe and that we’re not cutting corners to do something in the interest of time or complacency. Then we want to be efficient. We’re given a lot of resources by the American taxpayer. We want to be efficient and handle those cautiously.”

Among those resources are eight C-130 Hercules cargo planes, 71 buildings, with a plant replacement value – the total value of everything the military owns at the air station, from buildings to equipment to vehicles – of $797.6 million and an annual payroll of $49.3 million.

When it comes to jobs, Youngstown Air Reserve Station, with a manning of 1,863, is the Mahoning Valley’s fourth-largest employer behind General Motors, Youngstown State University and Mercy Health. Seventy percent of those stationed at YARS live within 70 miles of the base.

The impact of those resources extends well beyond the base. YARS has mutual aid agreements with 26 municipalities in the Valley to provide support for fire departments, as well as an agreement to provide crash rescue and firefighting service to Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport.

In 2016, Mike Coates Construction Co. in Niles was awarded a nearly $8-million contract to build a new firing range at the base. Construction has begun and when it’s ready next year, the range will be used not only by those stationed at Youngstown Air Reserve Station, but local law enforcement at both the municipal and county levels, as well as federal agencies such as the FBI and TSA.

Among other recent additions is the Eagle’s Nest Lodge, a 200-room hotel for reservists to stay during drill weekends. The first phase was completed in 2010 and rooms added in 2012. The cost is $65 per night for anyone with a Department of Defense ID. And should the hotel be full, the base has contracts with nearby hotels to lodge reservists.

In addition to the Eagle’s Nest Lodge, the base gym and Community Activities Center are available for those with Defense IDs to use. The latter won the Air Force Reserve Command’s Food Operations of the Year award in 2016, naming the recreation center and cafeteria the best the Air Force Reserve has to offer.

It’s not uncommon, says Master Sgt. Bob Barko, base public affairs officer, to see out-of-state plates on cars or trucks with camping trailers hooked up in the parking lots as service members stop by for vacation or business.

“In the 11 years I’ve been here, they’ve been continually upgrading and updating,” Barko says. “That’s one of the Air Force mandates, to have modern facilities.”

With some reservists facing an hour-and-a-half commute, the station is constantly monitoring the weather. In winter, the station is in constant communication with nearby municipalities to see where snowfall is heaviest and ensure that roads are plowed and salted.

“Just like Youngstown or Warren, we have to coordinate with different agencies, with our fire and police departments, with our communications guys to get the word out to our people to make sure they aren’t coming in under bad conditions,” Wren says. “We have to be careful not to put them into a situation where they could be in an accident.”

The indirect benefits of the air reserve station to the regional economy include 486 full-time jobs with an annual payroll value of $23 million, according to the station’s fact sheet.

Also among the benefits are those the reservists enjoy when they’re not at the base. While they are required to spend one weekend per month at the base for drills plus 15 days of active duty per year, they are civilians otherwise.

They work as police officers and firefighters, as pilots and mechanics, as teachers and pastors.

“There are over 1,600 individual stories that walk through that gate at least once a month to come in and do a job,” Wren says. “And on Monday morning, they walk right back into society and continue doing whatever they were doing in their lives. That’s a challenge for our citizen airmen. Their sacrifice is more than one weekend a month and two weeks a year.”

What they’re sacrificing for is the Department of Defense’s only large-area aerial spray mission. When necessary, six C-130s equipped with a spray system cover areas with herbicides or insecticides to control the spread of disease-spreading insects such as mosquitoes, and unwanted vegetation.

In addition, the 910th Airlift Wing can be – and has been – called upon for tactical airlifts to deliver supplies or humanitarian aid in combat areas. In 2014, the wing delivered crates of food and water to refugees stranded on Iraq’s Mt. Sinjar as they fled ISIS. Since 9/11, YARS has recieved more than 6,000 deployment orders from Air Force Reserve Command.

With those missions, from Iraq to the annual spray missions in North Dakota, the experience of the citizen airmen is invaluable. Where active duty Air Force pilots have a few years of flying experience, those in the Air Force Reserve have been flying for, in some cases, decades.

“The reserve airmen bring a unique perspective, especially in a deployed environment,” says Sarachene, who also works as an airline pilot. “Many of our pilots, who have a lot of military experience, have even more experience in the civilian world.”

While the mission of YARS has shifted since it was established in 1951 as a base for fighter planes, the sense of duty here is as strong as ever.

Marines at the base work with volunteers to buy gifts as part of Toys for Tots. Reservists have visited the Boardman campus of Akron Children Hospital. Throughout the year, the base hosts programs to welcome nearby communities, from emergency response training for first responders to tours of the station.

YARS’ biggest event of the year, the Thunder Over the Valley air show, will draw thousands of visitors to the air station, providing the 910th Airlift Wing the opportunity to explain its mission and impact on the community.

“I hope this air show and open house gives citizens a chance to see what a great facility we have here, the great airmen we have here, the great mission we do and to see their tax money put to use in a great way right in their own backyard,” Sarachene says. “I hope they’re as honored to serve us as we are to serve them.”

There was a time when reservists were dubbed “weekend warriors,” a phrase the Air Force’s own glossary makes sure to note is outdated and obsolete. What’s required of the citizen airmen stationed at Youngstown Air Reserve Station is exactly the same as what’s asked of active duty Air Force. The only difference: for active duty, it’s daily work and for reservists it isn’t.

“They are the unsung heroes of what happens here at Youngstown,” Wren says. “They come here. They do their jobs. They don’t complain. They just want to give back to this great country.”

Editor’s Note: This story was published in the MidJune issue of The Business Journal as part of our Air Station Salute. Leading up to the Thunder Over the Valley air show, we’ll be sharing stories from Youngstown Air Reserve Station. To purchase a copy of our Air Station Salute issue, click here.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.