"During such tight budget times," Cardin said, "I hoped the Navy would have reconsidered its plan for this cross-country relocation that will cost a great deal of money, disrupt the lives of hundreds of American service members, and remove an important strategic asset from the D.C. area."

About 90 of the squadron's 238 members plan to follow VAQ-209 as it moves to Whidbey Island on July 31. The rest have been left to find other billets in the Navy, or to retire.

Cmdr. Arch Watkins is planning to stay with the squadron — for now, at least — traveling to the West Coast to drill, while keeping his home in Baltimore and his job at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel.

"My intention is to make the transition, stick with it for a couple of years, and then reassess," said Watkins, who heads the squadron's maintenance division. "Obviously, it will be challenging to continue to drill on the other side of the continent. But I'm looking forward to it. I think that it will be fun."

Petty Officer 1st Class Keith Evans is looking forward to working on "brand new aircraft." A Jessup resident, he also plans to commute cross-country for drills.

"The reserve community is used to getting hand-me-downs from the active components, so this is definitely an exciting moment for the squadron," he said. "Especially since we've done so much with the Prowler. It will tell you what we can do with the Growler."

Casad called the new Growler "vastly more capable" than the Vietnam-era Prowler. It's faster and can fly higher.

"The biggest thing that the EA-18G brings is the ability to better position itself on the battlefield," he said.

The new jet can also defend itself, with offensive, forward-firing weapons.

Cmdr. Jeffrey Woods said the move will be good for the squadron, even if he won't be a part of it. The electronic counter-measures officer, a member of the squadron since 2000, made his final flight earlier this month. He's planning to retire.

"Personally, I'm going to really miss being a part of the squadron," said Woods, who lives in Pennsylvania but works as a project manager at Northrop Grumman in Linthicum.

"I wanted to do this since I was a little kid," Woods said. "And being able to do this for 24 years, to serve the country … I wish I could start over and do it again."

To maintain their readiness, members continued to fly training missions out of Andrews until recently.

Casad invited former members to the squadron's hangar on May 17 for the final flight. To mark the occasion, pilots King and Van Hoose roared down the runway side by side in a rare double launch.

Casad described the squadron's departure as "emotional."

"All military units develop ties with the communities that support them," he said. "We have a ton of investment here. We live here, we patronize the businesses, we send our children to school here. That's difficult.

"But we have a mission to get qualified on the EA-18G, and that can only occur at Whidbey Island."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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