Whidbey squadron disestablished to fund The Growler, a follow-on to EA-6B,

It was a somber occasion Friday when the first Prowler squadron established became the first one to be disestablished. Like saying good-bye to an old friend, everything seemed to have special meaning: The last posting of the colors, the last speech by commanding officer Cmdr. Charles Drummond, the last dismissal of the entire crew. While ships are decommissioned, squadrons are disestablished.

The disestablishment ceremony in the hangar of VAQ-128 marked the last time the squadron’s crew would be together, and Drummond commended them on the role they played in the Fighting Phoenix’s successful tenure at Whidbey Naval Air Station, and in the Navy.

“You have done well and have much to be proud of,” Drummond told the assembled crew standing at attention.

Drummond, who took command of the squadron in 2003, received word in December of the disestablishment while the squadron was on deployment in Iwakuni, Japan.

Even before they returned to NAS Whidbey the cannibalization of the squadron began, with VAQ-128 aircraft being swapped for older planes from VAQ-136, aboard the USS Kitty Hawk.

All four Fighting Phoenix jets have now been absorbed into other units.

Why them, why now? Drummond acknowledged it was not easy news to hear.

“It’s always kind of a shock when you hear your squadron is going away,” he said. “Every squadron thinks they’re the best.” But Drummond said the selection of his squadron was logical, especially since his change of command was next in line.

He said it had nothing to do with performance or any other negative factors.

“When you look at the hard numbers, we’re at the top,” he said.

Capt. Brian Bennett, Electronic Attack Wing commander, said while the disestablishment had nothing to do with the Prowlers, it had everything to do with the “Growlers,” the EA-18G that will replace the EA-6B Prowlers in 2008.

Basically, the money used for running the squadron will be used to make a down payment on one of the follow-on jets.

Capt. Bennett began his Phoenix farewell speech with an analogy from Harry Potter, in which the Phoenix rises from the ashes to save the day.

Bennett noted that VAQ-128 was born from the ashes of the VQ-128 squadron, the Golden Intruders, in 1995, and now it was making way for the creation of the EF-18G.

“This squadron saved the life of the future of the EA-18G,” Bennett said. “We are able to convert current readiness to future readiness.”

Not everyone was holding back their disappointment at the Pentagon’s decision to disestablish the squadron.

Marine Col. Stephen Pomeroy, commanding officer of Marine Air Group 12 at Iwakuni, had a few scathing remarks aimed at those not present: the decision-makers.

Pomeroy had the opportunity to work with Drummond and the Fighting Phoenix at Iwakuni, and felt the Navy was doing the wrong thing in turning away from a key element in the joint task force mission.

“Tactical air integration is a good thing,” he said. “Like a good brother would, we need someone to tell us when our fly is down — on tactical air integration, the Navy’s fly is down.”

Drummond toldthose assembled that change is not only inevitable, it’s acceptable.

“It can make you a better person,” he said.

The ceremony was also the occasion of the last promotion for a member of the squadron, which created more than the average number of chiefs.

That last promotion went to aviation structural mechanic John Holland, who became Senior Chief Petty Officer Holland.

A choked up Holland said afterwards that the disestablishment was like losing a family member, but that it gave him strength to know that all the members of the squadron would be going on to different assignments in the Navy.

“The Navy will be stronger for them,” he said.

Holland, like 60 percent of the Fighting Phoenix, will be staying on at Whidbey, absorbed like the jets into other squadrons.

Cmdr. Drummond received a meritorious service award for his tenure with the Fighting Phoenix, and he immediately dedicated it to his squadron.

“I’ll wear it with pride for them,” he said.

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