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​A Massachusetts Air National Guard F-15C Eagle fighter aircraft prepares to land on the flightline at Graf Ignatievo, Bulgaria, Sept. 8, 2016. USAF photo by SSgt. Joe W. McFadden.

—Jennifer Hlad

Oct. 3, 2016: Airmen from the 194th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron have finished the first-ever joint NATO air policing mission in Bulgaria and are headed home.

The mission was part of NATO’s “enhanced air policing measures for eastern Allies,” according to a NATO news release, and was in response to a request by Bulgarian leaders that was approved by the country’s parliament in February. The goal is to guarantee the security of Eastern European countries and the “enhanced forward presence of allied forces on the eastern flank of the Alliance,” according to the Bulgarian Ministry of Defense.

Though USAF units have worked with the Bulgarians in the past, this was the first time participating in an air policing mission.

Lt. Col. Rob Swertfager, commander of the 194th EFS, told Air Force Magazine that the airmen found out just a month prior to executing the air sovereignty mission that the unit might be tapped for it.

“Fortunately, this is something that we do,” Swertfager said, noting that the Air National Guard unit’s primary mission at home with the 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno, Calif., is air sovereignty on the West Coast. “It was a mission that was easy for us to pick up and execute,” he said.

Lt. Col. Cesar Gonzalez, an aircraft maintenance commander with the 194th EFS, told 52nd Fighter Wing public affairs that the guardsmen are “on alert protecting the homefront and the western front,” so doing the same in Europe was a great opportunity.

The unit was already based in Romania for a European Theater Security Package deployment, during which they also flew with airmen from Finland, the United Kingdom, Greece, and Estonia. They sent more than 75 airmen to Bulgaria for the mission – though there were “way too many” volunteers than spots to fill.

“Everybody was extremely excited, especially with the new emphasis on reassuring our Eastern European allies,” Swertfager said. “I think, to a person, each one of our members that got down to Bulgaria really enjoyed the mission.”

While in Bulgaria, US airmen flew “every single day” in support of the NATO mission, Swertfager said, and two of the four F-15s were on alert at any given time.

Though nothing ever is going to be perfect, Swertfager said, it went well.

“Honestly, the flying part’s the easy part,” he said. “It is developing the relationships and coordination to ensure that every step of a scramble or an intercept goes flawlessly, that’s where we do all of our homework and spend a majority of our time.”

Working with the Bulgarians was a great experience, he said: they are “very easy to work with, [a] very capable air force flying very capable airplanes.”

To be on the same ramp with MIG-29s and F-15s is “pretty amazing, and it really inspires you to go the extra mile to get the mission done and to work together,” Swertfager said.

The “benchmark takeaway” from this mission was total force integration and interoperability, he said. The team they sent to Bulgaria was a mix of Air National Guard and A​ctive Duty members, and to combine all three cultures and execute the mission so seamlessly is “something to be extremely proud of,” Swertfager said.

It “just validates all the training and time that we’re putting into doing what we do,” he said. “When you tear down the borders of these paradigms, you really harness the ability to accomplish greater things.”