Hancoc Field Air National Guard Base --
Six drill weekend regulars are civilians who keep the base’s MARS shortwave emergency radio station in the base communications building up and operating.
Short for Military Auxiliary Radio System, the system is run by the Air Force and Army, and manned by civilian amateur radio operators who donate their time and talents to maintaining an emergency short-wave radio communications system to back up traditional communications networks.
These “ham” radio operators run high-frequency radio stations that can send and receive messages when phone lines or computer lines go down.
The MARS traces its roots back to 1925 when the Army Signal Corps began recruiting amateur radio enthusiasts to augment the Army’s regular radio operators in time of crisis.
This Auxiliary Affiliate Radio System was renamed the Military Auxiliary Radio System in 1948. The military shortened that to MARS almost instantly.
During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, MARS was widely known among service members as a way they could send messages back to the United States in the days when international long distance phone service was rare and expensive.
MARS radio operators would transmit written messages from troops overseas like telegrams or patch soldiers calling from a phone in Vietnam to their family back in the U.S. over a radio call. The families would have to say “over” when they were done talking so the radio operator could flip the switch for the response.
Currently, MARS has over 5,000 , licensed amateur radio operators who actively participate in quarterly exercises.
Members meet on a regular basis at least three times a day and sometimes more on military frequencies outside of amateur bands that span all over the world.
“This station I would say is the most active Air Force MARS station in the state of New York.” said Nancy Bridges, a MARS Operator from Pompey, New York.
The 66-year old Bridges has been a ham operator for over 20 years. She joined the MARS team five years ago.
“I volunteer to be able to show my support for the military,” Bridges said .
Fellow operator Paul Dukette, who resides in Liverpool, New York, said it is remarkable how often their equipment is used. The team participates in quarterly exercises each year.Seventy-two year old Paul Conaway, travels from Fairport, New York, on drill weekend to keep the MARS station operating. He started operating ham in 1968, and has been volunteering with MARS for 10 years, Conaway said.“It’s something out of the ordinary that not many people can do,” said Conaway. “It gives us a chance to show our expertise and actually work hands on.”
Peter Baron, a 59-year old ham radio enthusiast from Camillus, has been working with the MARS system for 18 years.
He became interested in MARS after September 11, 2001 when communication was key for emergency services, Baron said.
According to Master Sgt. Linda Walker, 174th Radio and Spectrum Non-Commissioned Officer, hosting the MARS station is beneficial to the 174th Attack Wing because they will be able to provide communication in any type of emergencies including nuclear attacks and natural disasters.
“We’d be happy to train up anybody on how to use the equipment,” said Bridges. “If there was enough interest, we’d even teach classes for people to get their amateur radio license.
If interested in joining a USAF MARS team, contact their hotline at (888)778-6277(MARS) or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.