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Hermantown pair are brothers at home and in service to their country

Master Sgt. Joshua Graves (left) and Master Sgt. Jeremiah Graves conduct repairs on a runway at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, in June. (U.S. Air Force photo)1 / 2
Senior Master Sgt. Douglas Ion uses a power planer to remove panel material to prevent potential aircraft mishaps on the flight line at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. Ion is a Duluth native and is deployed as part of the Minnesota Air National Guard’s 148th Fighter Wing. (U.S. Air Force photo)2 / 2

There was a time, when they were boys, that twins Joshua and Jeremiah Graves of Hermantown were inseparable. They built forts together. They played catch together. They always had someone with whom to play.

Several years and half a world away, not much seems to have changed.

“Everything we’ve done, our entire lives, is basically the same,” Jeremiah said. “Even after 41 years. We both went to Atlanta, Georgia, and worked the 1996 Olympics. We were police officers down there.”

The Graves brothers spoke by phone Thursday from Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. The men were deployed with the 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth this spring with the expectation of being away from home for six months.

The Air and National Guards once espoused themselves as operating “one weekend per month, two weekends a year.” The Graves, on their second deployment with the 148th following 2010’s, are proof that the modern guard “seems to have changed to multiple weeks and months every year,” Jeremiah said.

But the Graves brothers are up for the challenge.

They’re both rigorous professionals in their home lives. Jeremiah, 7 minutes the senior of the pair, is a sergeant with the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crimes task force. Joshua works as a patrol sergeant with the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office. While on duty for their country, they’ve traded squad cars for heavy machines. On Thursday, the brothers interrupted a shift craning concrete barriers around the airfield to speak with the News Tribune.

“Dump trucks, loaders, graders, bulldozers,” Jeremiah said. “There’s no shortage of work. We’re pouring a lot of concrete, and building roads.”

While the brothers wished a happy Fourth of July back home, they won’t necessarily be sharing in the celebration. The airfield stays in constant motion, with aircraft usage and never-ending maintenance and repair efforts for both planes and concrete.  

“We don’t take time off here,” Joshua said. “We get down days once in a while, but typically we work seven days a week. Time goes faster when you’re working.”

The brothers joined the Air Guard’s civil engineer squadron years ago, when they returned home from Atlanta. Working with airmen from the 455th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron and the 577th Expeditionary Prime Base Engineer Squadron, the brothers recently were involved in flight line repairs to one of Bagram Airfield’s roughly 10,000-foot runways.

It was a precision operation that another Duluth man described in detail in a military news release.

“It was the epitome of teamwork and self-sacrifice that returned Bagram’s main runway back to full operational capacity,” said Senior Master Sgt. Douglas Ion, the noncommissioned officer in charge and a native of Duluth deployed with the 148th Fighter Wing. “The barrier arresting kits have been repaired providing another fail-safe for landing aircraft.”

Jeremiah Graves described the barrier arresting kits as being “like a catch cable you’ve got on aircraft carrier runways.”

The work involved fastening Ultra High Molecular Weight polyethylene panels to the runway so that the cables don’t erode the concrete runway beneath them. The repairs included testing each of the existing 992 bolts and extracting any that spun underground in their anchors, or even pulled out when tested. The brothers helped to reinstall 502 bolts that had failed inspection.

Another Duluth native described the scope of the operation.

“Initial plans for the project were for the entire month of June,” said Maj. Ryan Kaspari, an operations chief deployed from the 148th Fighter Wing. “We were permitted 16 outages throughout the month to complete the project. I estimated it would require 12 days, but we finished in eight.”

One enlisted officer called it the most well executed project he’s been a part of, and said the “creativity and ingenuity of our airmen played a crucial role in the completion of the assignment.” Another called it likely the most important task the airmen will complete while deployed.

“It was a project that started planning several months before we got here,” said Jeremiah, who turned a heavy wrench for much of the work. “We got here and just took over where they left off.”

The brothers are depicted in an image of the project baring shaved heads under the hot sun.

“There’s a lot of us with our heads shaved,” Jeremiah said, “some by choice and some because of genetics.”

148th Fighter Wing

Military branch: Minnesota Air National Guard.

Based at: Duluth International Airport.

Members: About 1,100, including 400 full-time; the workforce makes the Air Guard the ninth-largest employer in the Twin Ports.

Pilots: About 35, many of whom are part-time traditional Guard members who fly commercial airliners for a living.

Federal missions include: Air defense (Guard members are trained to identify enemy aircraft and then either shoot them down, escort them or observe their activities) and bombing (Guard members also are trained to bomb enemy targets, sometimes in support of soldiers on the ground).

State missions include: Disaster assistance, protection of life and property, maintaining peace and order, civil defense, responding to air-crash scenes, first-responder medical aid, air-crash recovery, disposal and storage of explosives and specialized emergency response.

Annual economic impact: $85.1 million, including $41.4 million in payroll.

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