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California Struggles to Find Benefit Scammers

With a high influx of COVID-related jobless claims, hackers found it easy to scam state unemployment benefit systems. But tracking down the illegitimate payments is a slow and frustrating process.(TNS) — It was a three-person operation based out of a compact, single-story home on Windsong Lane in Escondido — just one small piece of the massive fraud that scammed at least $20 billion in unemployment benefits intended for California workers who lost jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic.But the yearlong scheme co...

With a high influx of COVID-related jobless claims, hackers found it easy to scam state unemployment benefit systems. But tracking down the illegitimate payments is a slow and frustrating process.

(TNS) — It was a three-person operation based out of a compact, single-story home on Windsong Lane in Escondido — just one small piece of the massive fraud that scammed at least $20 billion in unemployment benefits intended for California workers who lost jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But the yearlong scheme conducted by the trio of Ryan Kubista, his wife, Maereichelle Marquez, and Kubista’s mother, Stacy Wright, offers a glimpse into both how easy it was to hijack the funds, and the difficulties investigators face as they continue to pursue swindlers across the state through a network of local, state and federal task forces.

For most of 2020 through February 2021, the three filed at least 64 separate applications for pandemic unemployment benefits with the state. The money came largely from the federal government’s coronavirus relief rescue packages that pumped trillions into the economy.

They used the names of inmates at local prisons and jails and people on parole or probation on the bogus applications, and had the cash — loaded onto debit cards and mailed out by the state Employment Development Department (EDD) — sent first to the address on Windsong and then to rented mailboxes in Vista and Carlsbad.

In all, the three netted $1,176,235 in bogus unemployment claims.

Kubista, Marquez and Wright were finally arrested and charged in March 2021. All three have since pleaded guilty to unemployment benefits fraud, perjury and other charges. Kubista was sentenced to six years in prison, Marquez to four years. Wright was sentenced to two years’ probation.

Court records show that $996,119.51 of the money the three claimed went to cash withdrawals, another $65,000 to purchases. A spreadsheet itemizing the activity of each debit card shows the amounts swindled ranged from a low of $900 to multiple cards that rang up $30,000 in fraudulent payments over the months.

The records also show how easy it apparently was to get money from EDD, which was inundated with applications in 2020 at a pace it had not seen before and was unprepared for the deluge. In an interview with a probation officer after she pleaded guilty, Wright recounted the process after she filed an application.

“She was called on the phone, an interview was done, and they gave her unemployment,” the officer wrote. “The card came to her.”

The EDD gave out the funds hastily, with little oversight and largely without verifying the identities of applicants.

It’s not known how many people have been charged by local District Attorney offices or federal prosecutors, nor how much money has been recovered so far. The EDD said it did not have that information.

A report by the state auditor last year found that the agency paid out $10.4 billion in claims to applicants without verifying identities. Another $810 million went to prison inmates, the audit found.

The audit said it stopped the work it normally did to check if a claimant was eligible to get benefits, largely in an effort to push money out much faster. The agency also suspended for two months its normal requirement that people receiving payment periodically certify they are still eligible.

Scam artists took note and piled in.

In San Diego, where DA Summer Stephan estimated the fraud amounted to at least $5 million, 21 people have been charged in nine separate cases. Court records show more than half were prison inmates.

While investigations are ongoing, they are hampered by the requirement to get and verify information from a variety of sources — the EDD, Bank of America which distributed funds, postal records, even the state prison system.

Deputy District Attorney Damon Mosler, who heads the economic crimes section of the district attorney’s office, said each case relies on getting records from EDD that show the benefits paid out, who applied, the address used and so forth.

Slowing that process down is the dearth of investigators in EDD to assist in the case investigations, Mosler said. There is one investigator assigned to all of Southern California, and fewer than two dozen around the state, he said.

“The investigative flow makes us have to go through the agency that was defrauded,” Mosler said. “It’s up to them to help us make these cases move forward.”

Loree Levee, a spokeswoman for EDD, disputed that there was only a sole investigator for Southern California and said she believed there were more than 20 in the state but could not say how many. She did acknowledge that the agency has been trying to recruit more investigators with limited success.

“It has been hard to get investigators who want to come to state government,” she said. “We’ve had openings and been trying to get them filled. But it has been very hard for us to bring on investigators. It has not been an easy year.”

Many of the cases brought so far, according to a list provided by EDD and news reports from around the state over the past year, involve jail or prison inmates. That’s because those cases are easier to prove: inmates are ineligible to receive benefits. The EDD did not initially cross-check inmates’ names, Social Security numbers and other identifying information with applicants. It was not until November 2020, months into the distribution of the benefits and just after the extent of the fraud was becoming apparent, that the information was shared with state and local prosecutors, according to a letter Stephan and other prosecutors sent to Newsom in December 2020.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) estimated at that time that as many as 36,000 prison inmates could have been involved in the scam — either by getting benefits directly, or selling their personal identifying information to others who then used it to apply, investigators have said.

Penalties for people found guilty of fraud have varied. Court records in San Diego show that inmates had additional time tacked on to their sentences, usually a few years. Defendants are also on the hook for restitution to the state — but that is unlikely, especially for inmates serving years in prison, Mosler said.

“The money is gone,” he said flatly.

Levee could not say exactly how much total money has been recovered so far statewide. “We have collected several million in restitution,” she said.

Meanwhile, late last year EDD began to send letters to some 1.4 million residents who received unemployment benefits, asking them to provide documentation proving that they were eligible. Levee said this is a federal requirement.

The letters target workers who in the past usually did not qualify for unemployment because they were self-employed, freelancers or small-business owners. It’s possible if someone can’t provide the proof, they may be on the hook for repaying the benefits — which many legitimate recipients waited months to receive — though Levee said the EDD could waive the repayment requirement in some instances.

The state auditor had issued 21 recommendations that EDD should implement to address both the lax oversight that allowed fraud to occur and administrative inefficiencies that created a massive backlog of claims applications. So far, five have been fully implemented and others are in various stages of completion, according to the EDD website.

Full implementation will have to be overseen by a new director, the third for the agency in two years. Rita Saenz, appointed a year ago when the fraud and backlog problems put the agency under withering scrutiny, resigned in late January. The agency’s deputy director, Nancy Farias, will replace her.

©2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

The Central Valley has a doctor shortage. Kaiser and UC Davis are working to change that

As medical student Benjamin Vincent learns patient care at the Kaiser Permanente medical offices in north Modesto, he is only three miles from his former high school and his parents’ home.Vincent has spent his third year of medical school at Kaiser Modesto Medical Center as part of an initiative to bring more doctors to a region that’s notorious for physician shortages and barriers to health ...

As medical student Benjamin Vincent learns patient care at the Kaiser Permanente medical offices in north Modesto, he is only three miles from his former high school and his parents’ home.

Vincent has spent his third year of medical school at Kaiser Modesto Medical Center as part of an initiative to bring more doctors to a region that’s notorious for physician shortages and barriers to health care.

The UC Davis program, called REACH, is training medical students in the Central Valley environment where they grew up to motivate them to practice here after completing their medical education and training. REACH is an acronym for Reimagining Education to Advance Central California Health.

The San Joaquin Valley from Stockton to Bakersfield has trouble recruiting physicians because of the strong pull of opportunities and lifestyle in coastal counties of California.

Vincent said he feels at home in Modesto and understands the city’s health care needs.

“I understand the lay of the land,” Vincent said. “I would be very happy working in Modesto. The last year has allowed me to get back to my roots and be me again.”

Vincent and his wife Jacqueline are temporarily living in his parents’ home in Salida. She is due to deliver their first child next month.

Vincent, who is 6-foot 5-inches tall, played basketball at Modesto Christian High School and was valedictorian of his graduating class in 2011. He also played basketball for Pacific Union College in Napa Valley before graduating and leaving for UC Davis medical school.

He said he had a childhood dream of becoming a doctor, and that ambition was sparked again while taking a physiology class in college.

The third year of medical school is for leaving the classroom behind and learning to care for patients in clinics and the hospital. The Kaiser center on Dale Road combines medical clinics and hospital wings in a single complex.

Vincent began the year at Kaiser in Modesto with a family medicine rotation. The students also are learning the skills of inpatient care, obstetrics, pediatrics, psychiatry and surgery. They are assigned to daytime hours or night shifts running from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Vincent is finishing up with general surgery this month and has been spending time in the operating room as first or second assistant to the surgeon.

The seven students in the REACH program, also from Manteca, Fresno, Bakersfield and other communities, will complete their training at the end of this month. A new cohort will begin May 2.

Dr. Howard Young, a regional director of medical education for Kaiser, said a person raised in the San Joaquin Valley understands the nuances of each community, the people and the culture.

The Valley has about 45 physicians per 100,000 residents, a much lower ratio than in Bay Area counties, which have 60 to 65 doctors per 100,000 residents, according to the California Health Care Foundation.

Young said Kaiser Permanente could ultimately hire some of the REACH students as physicians after they complete medical school and residency programs, but some could come back to work for other healthcare groups in the Valley.

The REACH students made their own decisions about how much time to spend on COVID-19 hospital floors last year. All of them were trained in use of personal protective equipment and in treatment of COVID-19 patients, Young said.

“It was an experience wearing double masks and gowning up to see patients,” Vincent said. “At least I learned the protocols so it won’t be totally new if (a pandemic) happens again.”

Vincent said during the past year of medical training he ran into some people that he knew from his younger days in Modesto. “They were surprised to see me,” he said. “It usually puts a smile on their face. It’s good to take a few minutes to catch up.”

Najiba Afzal, another student in the REACH program, said her family came from Afghanistan and settled in Manteca when she was 4 years old. Her parents did not speak English well and she took on the role of child interpreter for her parents during visits to the doctor, which is considered a recipe for bad medical outcomes.

Afzal attended Stanislaus State University in Turlock and was accepted into medical school at UC Davis. She said the health system is hard to understand for ethnic groups in the Valley. Requirements like signing up for health insurance or calling for an appointment may be foreign to them.

“It isn’t done in Afghanistan and I think it’s why a lot of refugee patients end up coming to the emergency room,” Afzal said.

Last week, the medical student was present when a woman from Afghanistan came in for a checkup. Afzal speaks a different Afghan language than the Dari-speaking woman but the interaction was positive, she said.

The patient kept looking at Azfal’s friendly face and nodding during the visit with the doctor. She was fasting for Ramadan and the doctor gave her a medication that could be taken in the morning and night while following rules of the holy month.

Azfal, who speaks Pashto and some Spanish, said she hopes to learn Arabic to be better equipped for patient care in the Central Valley.

The next step for the REACH students is the fourth year of medical school at UC Davis and then a multiyear residency for intensive training in medical practice. With the few residency programs in the San Joaquin Valley, the medical school graduates may travel elsewhere for the training.

Vincent said he’s drawn to family medicine but also is considering a career in anesthesiology. He said he hopes to return to serve patients in the valley somewhere between Modesto and Lodi. Among the admission criteria for REACH is commitment to work in central California, so his fellow students may not be too far away.

“We have gotten to know each other really well,” Vincent said. “I think it will keep us close.”

This story was originally published April 18, 2022 9:39 AM.

Paterna encumbra al CA Serrano

La ola de calor que empezaba a remitir este domingo no fue impedimento para que 2.500 deportistas disfrutaran del Campeonato de España de Medio Maratón y 5K en Paterna, organizado por la RFEA, el Ayuntamiento de la localidad, y un Club de Atletismo CárnicasSerrano que se coronó por equipos en casa con una lluvia ...

La ola de calor que empezaba a remitir este domingo no fue impedimento para que 2.500 deportistas disfrutaran del Campeonato de España de Medio Maratón y 5K en Paterna, organizado por la RFEA, el Ayuntamiento de la localidad, y un Club de Atletismo CárnicasSerrano que se coronó por equipos en casa con una lluvia de medallas.

Al oro por clubes con la suma de tiempos de Alberto López, Octavio Sanchis y Chiki Pérez se añaden dos subcampeones de España de 5K, una prueba que nunca se había celebrado como campeonato nacional hasta la fecha, y que recayeron en Nacho Giménez y en María Ureña, con Miguel Baidal bronce. Otro bronce se llevó Chiki Pérez en el Medio Maratón, quien se quedó a un suspiro de lograr la plaza para el Mundial de Medio Maratón de Yagnzhou (China), reservada para los dos primeros con la condición de que logren la mínima exigida (1:03.30 en hombres y 1:12:30 en mujeres) antes de noviembre.

Campeonato de España de Medio Maratón de Paterna JM López

Además, otros tres representantes del CASerrano se colgaron medalla en otras categorías. Miguel Ángel Plaza logró un nuevo título de campeón de España en Master 55, Luis Félix Martínez se colgó la plata en Master 50 y Octavio Sanchis el bronce en M40.

El CA Serrano, campeón por equipos CA Serrano

Medio Maratón

A las 8:30 horas, para tratar de evitar las altas temperaturas, se daba la salida al Medio Maratón, que tras callejear por el polígono después de salir en los aledaños de la pista de atletismo, y adentrarse en Paterna, regresó a meta, donde el madrileño Fernando Carro (Nike Running), plusmarquista nacional de 3.000 m obstáculos, y la barcelonesa Meritxell Soler (Avinet Manresa) se proclamaron campeones de España, a pesar de no ser los primeros en cruzar la meta.

Carro, que regresaba después de su doble operación en los tendones de aquiles en 2021, y que debutaba en la distancia, llegó segundo por detrás del marroquí Hicham Sigueni (ADA Calviá), con 1h03:38, por el crono de 1h03:41 del español, que estuvo acompañado en el podio por Houssame Benabbou (1h04:09) y Juan Antonio ‘Chiki’ Pérez (1h04:33).

El podio femenino tuvo también representación valenciana, con el tercer puesto de Laura Méndez (Playas de Castellón), con 1h13:14, a 30 segundos de la plaza al Mundial. La marroquí Majida Maayouf (Bilbao At) llegó destacada con 1h11:55, y a 18 segundos Meritxell Soler se proclamó campeona de España con 1h12:13, seguida de Fatima Azaharaa Ouhaddou (Amo Alla), con 1h12:44, y de Laura Méndez.

5K pionero

El leridano Xavier Badia (AA Xafatolls), con 14:46 minutos, y la alicantina Cristina Juan (JA Elche) con 16:49 se convirtieron en los primeros campeones de España de 5 km en ruta, competición rapidísima cuya salida se dio a las 11 horas. Badia se impuso a los anfitriones Nacho Giménez y Miguel Baidal, y Cristina a la también atleta del Cárnicas Serrano María Ureña y a Marina Bagur (Ría Ferrol).

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The Real Value of a Cybersecurity Strategic Plan

A colleague asked me last week if I could chat about refreshing her government organization’s cybersecurity strategic plan, and the very next day the California Department of Technology and its Office of Information Security published “CAL-SECURE,” described as the state’s “multi-year information security maturity roadmap.” Talk about coincidence: It’s an i...

A colleague asked me last week if I could chat about refreshing her government organization’s cybersecurity strategic plan, and the very next day the California Department of Technology and its Office of Information Security published “CAL-SECURE,” described as the state’s “multi-year information security maturity roadmap.” Talk about coincidence: It’s an issue that couldn’t be more timely and worthy of discussion both inside the cybersecurity community and throughout government leadership.

The CAL-SECURE plan is one of the best I’ve seen, and when I asked California’s chief information security officer, Vitaliy Panych, about it, he told me that “planning a roadmap that is applicable to all public-sector entities requires a community-driven approach where input from across the public and private sector is considered.” The CAL-SECURE road map, he added, “consists of multiple people, process, and technology initiatives to continuously increase privacy and security for the benefit of all residents of California.”

I have written or co-written several cybersecurity strategic plans over the years, and I think California’s approach is right on target. As I thought about how I could help my CISO colleague with her strategic-plan refresh, I focused on some of the common mistakes and what I believe are the critical and essential elements of an exceptional plan.

A proper cybersecurity plan should be viewed through the lens of CAL-SECURE — as a road map that sets the stage for the future, and in government that means preparing for the people, processes and technology resources to carry out the mission. It also means calibrating with the CIO’s goals to ensure that the cybersecurity road map is in alignment with the jurisdiction’s digital transformation initiatives and the delivery of citizen-facing services.

I found a number of state government cybersecurity strategic plans online and also discovered the National Governors Association’s ”Meet the Threat” memo on state cybersecurity strategies that, while a few years old, uncovered some incredibly consistent data across 18 state strategic plans. The NGA’s Resource Center for State Cybersecurity is another goldmine for tools and recommendations to develop cybersecurity policies and practices.

One of the significant differences between private- and public-sector strategic planning is the dynamic nature of executive branch leadership over the course of election cycles. There is almost certain to be an election between the time a plan is published and the plan’s time horizon, and priorities are often dramatically adjusted between administrations. A solid strategic plan helps keep long-term cybersecurity initiatives in focus and on target.

“It is especially important for government organizations to plan ahead because of the way budgets work,” said Mike Lettman, who served as state CISO in both Arizona and Wisconsin. “Government entities are often asked to determine their risk and recommend a technology to fill it, but the funding doesn’t happen until a year later and implementation until a year after that. Because technology innovation happens so quickly compared to the pace of government, both the risk and the technology will have undoubtedly changed by the time you get the funding or are ready to implement the technology.”

One of my soapbox issues that I believe should be mandatory in any cybersecurity strategic plan is how the organization is planning for the growing and potentially calamitous cybersecurity workforce deficiencies. The just-released (ISC)2 Cybersecurity Workforce Study highlights that in the United States alone there are more than 350,000 vacancies in the cybersecurity workforce. Security executives everywhere should take the opportunity to read through this report, because while it highlights the challenges we face in hiring qualified people it also suggests a number of interesting and innovative approaches to address the development and retention of existing staff and provides key takeaways for managers seeking to hire people into cybersecurity roles.

While there are a number of fundamental components in a good strategic plan, I think there are three critical ones that hold the keys to success:

• Make success measures actionable and quantitative. A strategic plan is not the time to be solely aspirational. Putting stakes in the ground with measurable goals that clearly identify success and will survive the test of time encourages organizations to take ownership and be accountable.

• Get input from every organization with a role in the success of the strategic plan. Nothing sours a plan quicker and creates more animosity than being held accountable to a plan you didn’t have a role in developing.

• A strategic plan is the beginning, not the end. Far too many state government cybersecurity plans are simply check-in-the-box exercises and begin to gather dust the moment they are signed. A strategic plan should be viewed as a living document, and because the cybersecurity threat and vulnerability environment change so rapidly, it should be reviewed at least annually to make sure the things you planned for last year are still valid. A strategic plan that hasn’t been updated in two or three years is almost certainly worthless.

“Updated strategic plans were always vital to our enterprise success,” said Dan Lohrmann, former chief technology officer and chief security officer for the state of Michigan. “Articulating a clear vision as well as an actionable road map to delivering expected results meant that everyone stayed on the same page from the governor’s office all the way to the frontline workers. Strategic plans guide enterprise priorities, funding, project initiatives, resource gaps and much more.”

Dan has it right: Cybersecurity has become a fundamental organizational component of all government organizations, and solid strategic planning is the least we can do for the citizens who support us.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

HMCS Halifax leaves for deployment as part of NATO support for Ukraine

HMCS Halifax has set off for a six-month deployment supporting NATO in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.Families and friends of the 253 members of the ship's company hugged their loved ones and waved goodbye under a grey sky Saturday afternoon on a Halifax jetty.The Canadian navy frigate will be active in the North Atlantic and join allied ships in the Baltic region as part of Operation Reassurance. The ship is also deploying with an embedded air detachment operating a Cyclone helicopter out of 12 Wing Shearwater....

HMCS Halifax has set off for a six-month deployment supporting NATO in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Families and friends of the 253 members of the ship's company hugged their loved ones and waved goodbye under a grey sky Saturday afternoon on a Halifax jetty.

The Canadian navy frigate will be active in the North Atlantic and join allied ships in the Baltic region as part of Operation Reassurance. The ship is also deploying with an embedded air detachment operating a Cyclone helicopter out of 12 Wing Shearwater.

Defence Minister Anita Anand attended the departure. She thanked Halifax's crew for their service in her remarks.

"At this time it is so important for us all to be united, to stand together, to stand against unwarranted and illegal Russian aggression, and to stand up for peace, deterrence and the defensive posture on which NATO is built," Anand said.

HMCS Halifax was originally slated to sail to the Middle East in the next few weeks for a counterterrorism operation. But the frigate and crew will instead head to northern Europe, retasked by the federal government as part of Canada's larger military support package.

It will join another Canadian ship already overseas supporting NATO in the operation. Last month, HMCS Montreal arrived in the Mediterranean region as part of a previously scheduled deployment.

"You are making a difference. Your presence in Europe will help Canada meet its NATO commitments and show our friends that we are there for them in good times, and in bad. In tough times we are with them," Anand said.

Megan Ellis and her sons, Lincoln and Clifton, were on the jetty Saturday to wave goodbye to their father, Matthew Ellis.

The boys said they had spent lots of time bowling, going out to dinner and watching movies with their dad last week before he had to sail.

Both Lincoln and Clifton said they were "a little worried" while watching him leave.

"I'm more sad today," Megan said. "The worry will come."

Ron Nash was also there to send off his brother. He said their family has been talking with him to make sure he's "mentally prepared" for the deployment.

"Hopefully ... he'll be safe and able to come back safely," Nash said.

Cmdr. Dale St Croix, commanding officer of HMCS Halifax, said it was "heartwarming" for the ship's crew to see the support from Nova Scotia politicians, dignitaries and federal representatives like Anand and Gen. Wayne Eyre, chief of the defence staff.

"We're ready, willing, eager, and able to proceed overseas, conduct whatever mission the government of Canada has for us," St Croix said during the Saturday event.

"I've never been prouder to work with a crew as such that are right behind me."

St Croix has told CBC the ship will be there to "help defend if need be" as countries like Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland are all on the border of conflict.

He added that the ship may also need to assist with humanitarian efforts.

Halifax's next port of call will be in England, where the sea training group disembarks. The ship will then co-ordinate with NATO allies before continuing to the Baltic area.

The deployment is supposed to last until July, but could be extended, said St Croix.

The Halifax-class frigates have been in service since the early 1990s. HMCS Halifax was the first ship of the class to be built.

Canada is finalizing plans for a fleet of new Canadian surface combatants, which would replace the aging frigates.

However, the current ships are still maintained on Canada's East and West coasts and are deployed on missions around the world.

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