The D.C. Air National Guard recently took the war against drugs on the road.

Six F-16 fighters and 270 members of the D.C. Guard's 113th Wing traveled to the Caribbean to conduct counter-narcotic missions from Curacao, a Dutch protectorate 25 miles off the coast of Venezuela that is part of the Netherlands Antilles.

They were taking part in Coronet Nighthawk, the Air National Guard's portion of an operation combating Latin American drug trafficking. The U.S. Southern Command is conducting the operation, in support of U.S. military forces and law enforcement agencies and other governments in the region.

There was no problem finding volunteers in the D.C. Guard to travel to the Caribbean during January and February--when the wing's six-week mission took place. "It's a real-world mission, but at least the weather's nice and you're working under the palm trees near white sand beaches," said Col. Mike Redman, wing vice commander.

The 270 troops were divided into three groups that each spent about 15 days on the island.

Strain on the Air Force from budget cuts and ongoing missions such as enforcement of "no-fly" zones over Iraq has resulted in a greater reliance on National Guard units for operations such as the counter-drug effort.

The operation had been based at Howard Air Force Base in Panama, but it was dispersed to several locations in May after the base was turned over to the Panamanian government.

At Curacao, the force worked from the same civilian airport where international flights arrived. "We're in there mixing it up with all the tourist aircraft coming in and out," Redman said.

An eight-member alert force was on duty 24 hours a day, housed in a tent city at the airport, with instructions to scramble and get jets airborne within 15 minutes of receiving a launch order.

Information on suspicious planes, based on classified sources, would be passed on to the alert team. "We'd get a phone call: 'Go to these coordinates,' " Redman said.

The fast, agile F-16s would quickly intercept the suspect planes in international air space as they flew over open water. The aircraft would be identified and tracked along their route and then followed again after making suspected deliveries. Information on the planes' actions and location would be passed on to law enforcement agencies and local civil authorities for possible arrests and seizures.

The type of flying involved in the mission was often challenging, Redman said. "The drug runners aren't running at high noon," Redman said. "They're doing it very early in the morning, and they're flying low over the water." Often the aircraft fly at low speeds below a low cloud ceiling, leaving pilots with few visual cues.

The D.C. Guard carried out 41 sorties during the operation without mishap. Two missions had to be scrubbed because of weather. "It has been a very successful deployment," said Lt. Col. Brian Flood, commander of the D.C. Guard's 121st Fighter Squadron.

"Drugs affect more people than just the users," said Maj. Mical Bruce, a D.C. Guard F-16 pilot. "They destroy people's futures and entire families. Anything we can do to stop the use and flow of these drugs is worth doing."

After their return from Curacao, members of the 113th learned that they had been selected to receive an Air Force outstanding unit award for the eighth consecutive year, which D.C. Guard officials said is unprecedented.

The award is given to units that finish in the top 10 percent of the Air Force in various performance ratings.

"I have always known that you are the premier wing in the Air National Guard," Maj. Gen. Warren Freeman, commander of the D.C. National Guard, told members of the unit at a ceremony March 12. "Now you have finally convinced the Air Force that you are premier."

Md. D-Day Veterans Honored

More than 60 Montgomery County veterans of D-Day have become the latest World War II vets to receive belated medals honoring their participation in the invasion of Normandy.

The veterans were awarded the Normandy Medal of the Jubilee of Liberty at a recent ceremony on Capitol Hill held by Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) and Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Randall West.

The Normandy Medal of the Jubilee of Liberty was minted more than five years ago at the direction of the Regional Council of Normandy and the governor of Normandy to be presented to those D-Day veterans who returned to France for the 50th anniversary of the invasion.

Subsequently, the Normandy government minted additional medals for presentation to veterans who were not able to attend the 1994 anniversary.

"The medal that I am presenting today is a reminder that the people who you fought for remember your sacrifice, and the sacrifice of those who did not return from Europe," Morella told the veterans.

"This afternoon, we gather to honor and thank the heroes who were instrumental in securing our freedom," Morella added. "Your supreme efforts ultimately destroyed Nazi Germany and paved the way for democracy and freedom to spread throughout Europe."

Steve Vogel can be reached at vogels@washpost.com via e-mail.