70 'Patriots' among Fort Polk Soldiers flying high on silver wings
April 7, 2010
FORT POLK, La. - Seventy Soldiers from 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division made up more than half of Air Assault Class 006-10 that graduated 138 Soldiers on Honor Field here March 26.
Distinguished Honor Graduate Spc. Eric Oteham; Road March Champion Sgt. Roberto Zavala, who finished a 12-mile road march in 2 hours and 15 minutes; and Wing Bearer Pvt. Robert Ellman, the youngest graduate of the class, led the way for the other Patriot Brigade Soldiers standing in formation. Honor Graduate 1st Lt. Jeremy Duncan, 337th Signal Company, 88th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade also received recognition during the ceremony.
Oteham is assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment; Zavala is assigned to Battery B, 5th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery Regiment.; and Ellman is assigned to HHC, Brigade Special Troops Battalion.
Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk Commanding General Brig. Gen. James C. Yarbrough personally pinned silver air assault wings on the four honorees during the ceremony. As guest speaker for the graduation, Yarbrough addressed the entire class.
"We are proud of you, and we congratulate you," Yarbrough told the graduates. "More importantly though ... is those of you who have had a combat turn and those of you who are teed up to go get one know that you are going to ... (succeed or fail based) off of helicopters in moving and sling loading.
"And, with these skills, you are going to be counted on to get it right," Yarbrough continued. "That is pretty valuable, not just for you but for your unit, so lead by example, wears the badge proudly and remember what you learned."
As an intelligence analyst and Purdue University graduate, Oteham is not likely to soon forget the skills and lessons air-assault course cadre taught him. He worked on a Family farm when he enlisted in the Army 18 months ago, making use of his degree in agricultural systems management in a modern agri-business.
Oteham said he was looking for a change, something new, and decided the intelligence field offered interested prospects. Given his military occupational specialty, he is not sure he will ever use his air-assault skills and knowledge in a combat situation but he will be prepared just in case.
"Most people in my career field don't have opportunities to do something like that (air assault). I saw one, and I jumped on it," said Oteham. "In my field, we won't really necessarily have a lot of opportunities to utilize it, but you never know what you are going to need when the time comes."
Oteham is no stranger to success. He was the honor graduate of his Warrior Leaders Course class, and he humbly acknowledges that his teammates named him rookie of the year after his first season of playing for Purdue's rugby team.
The Brownsburg, Ind., native attributes his air-assault course accomplishments to proper preparation, which included being physically fit, practicing the obstacle course and conducting Internet research about air-assault school.
"I just pay attention and dedicate what time I can and go to sleep when I can," said Oteham. "Don't be late, that is a big thing they really harped on ... be on time and pay attention. That seems to work for me."
Sgt. Thomas Van Horn is a Class 006-10 graduate and a forward observer from Baton Rouge, La. He is assigned to HHC, 4th BCT, but unlike Oteham, he expects to use his air-assault skills quite often in Afghanistan. Van Horn is transferring to 3rd Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment before the Patriot Brigade's deployment in support of Operation Enduring Freedom later this year.
"I heard it is one of the better schools to go to, and it is going to be very useful downrange," said Van Horn, whom the Army just promoted to sergeant April 1. "A lot of the sling loading and stuff like that (are things) we are going to be doing in Afghanistan, so it is helpful to my MOS."
Van Horn, who has only three years of service in the Army, described the air assault course as rigorous, very useful and fun overall. Looking back, it was a really good course all around, he said.
The sling-load operations phase was the most difficult part of the air-assault course for Van Horn because of the attention to detail involved in having to find multiple deficiencies. "There are definitely a lot of things to miss; and you have to be really careful, look for everything and not make a mistake," he said.
Rappelling about 90 feet out of a UH-60 helicopter, on the other hand, was probably the most enjoyable aspect of the course for Van Horn. One moment clearly stands out for him.
"One of my buddies ... was right in front of me; and I have a fear of heights, so I was just starting to get over that getting up to the helicopter and he rolls out of the helicopter upside down," Van Horn recalled. "He fell off the side of it, so that was definitely a funny moment for me. It completely got me over my fear though. He broke (his fall) pretty good (using his break hand) ... but he rolled (and) he was laughing upside down spinning around right underneath the helicopter."
An air assault course is broken down into three phases, explained Army National Guard 1st Sgt. Douglas Conaway, who is assigned to Company B of the Warrior Training Center out of Fort Benning, Ga. Co. B provided the air assault course Mobile Training Team cadre for the course here. The phases are air-mobility operations, sling-load operations and rappel operations.
During phase one cadre familiarize the students with rotary-wing aircraft, medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) procedures and hand-and-arm signals. Phase two consists of
rigging, inspecting and preparing sling loads. Air-assault candidates learn how to rappel during the final phase, which culminates with students rappelling from UH-60 aircraft - National Guard helicopters and crews in this case. On graduation day, before the ceremony, Soldiers must meet the last requirement to earn their air-assault wings - a 12-mile road march in no more than three hours.
There are many positive outcomes when Soldiers graduate from an air-assault course. Not only do students gain valuable skills and knowledge, they earn the privilege of proudly wearing air-assault wings on their uniforms for all to see. Consequently, positive effects are seen in recruiting, retention and esprit de corps, said Conaway.
"It is a great morale booster for the units and for the Soldiers, (especially for) units that are deploying, which I believe 4-10 MTN is in the hot seat here soon to deploy," said Conaway. "They (4th BCT, 10th Mtn. Div.) have now increased their ability to rig sling loads, prepare sling loads and accept sling loads .... They now have 70 more people that can help in resupply, which is a great asset if they are going to Afghanistan or Iraq."
This is especially true in Afghanistan, where Soldiers often operate in remote areas, road systems are limited and in disrepair and travel on roads is extremely dangerous, Conaway pointed out. In these areas, aircraft are used extensively to transport troops and supplies, resupply units and perform MEDEVAC missions, he added.
Air-assault courses are tough to complete, as reflected in the 50-percent attrition rate for the course held here at Fort Polk. The Warrior Training Center cadre consists of dedicated Soldiers committed to upholding Army standards. During the course they often work until 10 p.m. to assist students. After all, the implications are as serious as life and death.
"As long as there is a student here that is willing to get some extra training, we will have instructors here to train," said Conaway. "They (instructors) all take it to heart that what we are doing is important to the war on terror, and it is going to help units and, eventually, move these Soldiers into a different direction.
"Unfortunately, we have to send Soldiers home who don't meet the standard," continued Conaway. "It's not because we want to, but we are going to uphold the standard and do what is right; ensuring when that sergeant major calls upon an air assault graduate, he has got somebody who is more than competent and capable to accomplish the mission."
Conaway is proud to say his cadre graduated more than 3,000 air-assault students last year. He is excited about increasing that number this year and "helping to build the heroes here at Fort Polk that they talk about," he said. "It is a great opportunity to come to Fort Polk."
Van Horn said he is happy the MTT cadre came to Fort Polk to conduct an air-assault course, because he has a wife, a Family and a baby on the way. Otherwise, he would have had to travel to Fort Campbell, Ky. and spend two weeks at another installation that offers an air-assault course.
Van Horn almost did not have a home-station course, however, as it took a lot of effort and construction to bring the course here. Fort Polk had not hosted an air-assault course for quite some time, so the facilities were in disrepair, said 2nd Lt. Antonio Nash, 276th Engineer Battalion, Virginia Army National Guard, who is the officer in charge of Fort Polk's air-assault complex.
"I am working with the (Fort Polk) National Guard office that came up with a brilliant idea to have an air assault course here," said Nash. "It hasn't been done here in eight or nine years. I don't think there has ever been one solely done by the National Guard at Fort Polk."
Louisiana Army National Guard engineers from 1022nd Engineer Company, 225th Engineer Bn. based in West Monroe, Ruston and Bossier City La. had to work extremely hard for five to six months to build up the course, said Nash. Original plans were to tear down the air-assault complex buildings the week following the air-assault course, he said.
Having the course at Fort Polk serves two purposes, said Nash. It is instrumental for units that are getting ready to deploy to prepare their Soldiers, and it is cost efficient for them to conduct a course right here as opposed to going somewhere else such as Fort Benning. Units from all around the installation supported the effort to bring Fort Polk's air-assault complex up to acceptable standards, he added.
"We need to keep Fort Polk on the map. We need to project positive images for this place, and this is one of them," said Nash. "So as far as costs, it would be a waste to tear down the site that we have here and go somewhere else. Everything comes down to costs (and) it is cost efficient to have it here. It is already built."
Regardless of what happens to the course here in the future, properly preparing and training Soldiers before they enter a combat zone is paramount to air assault operations. This is a lesson not lost on Conaway and his cadre.
"We are at war, and we are here to support the Soldiers," said Conaway. "The way that we are going to support them is to give them the knowledge and the information they need to be successful in their units and their units to be successful in the war fight. And that is what it is all about, being successful in the war."