Civil Affairs Soldiers coordinate humanitarian aid mission in Montenegro
March 1, 2012
PODGORICA, Montenegro -- Army Reserve Soldiers with U.S. Army Europe's 361st Civil Affairs Brigade are gaining valuable skills while helping the government of Montenegro to conduct humanitarian assistance operations to bring aid to people affected by severe winter weather here.
The Kaiserslautern, Germany-based reservists are participating in the operation as part of a U.S. task force that also includes Soldiers and two Black Hawk helicopters from USAREUR's Alpha and Charlie Companies, 1st Battalion, 214th Aviation Regiment, 12th Combat Aviation Brigade.
The task force joined the mission at the request of the government of Montenegro, which asked NATO for assistance after heavy snowfall closed roads and isolated villages across the small Balkan country.
Col. Robert Levalley, commander of the 361st and the task force here, said the reservists received their mission to provide command and control for the task force Feb. 15. He said he was excited to take on a mission that would allow the unit to help the Montenegrins and gain valuable experience.
"Humanitarian assistance is a core task for civil affairs. The amount of real-world experience my team would get would be invaluable," Levalley said. "This is an opportunity to do what we are trained to do."
Levalley began preparing for the task ahead by assessing the mission and selecting a team of four Soldiers whose backgrounds would help in the operation: Lt. Col. Michael Chung, the 361st's planning chief and a U.S. State Department employee; Maj. Efrem Slaughter, the executive officer of the brigade's 457th Civil Affairs Battalion; Sgt. First Class Paul Caron, the senior intelligence analyst for the 361st; and Staff Sgt. Micah Johnson, an intelligence analyst and a former helicopter crew chief.
The colonel said that while humanitarian assistance is at the heart of what civil affairs units do, command and control is not, which provided a bit of a challenge for mission planning and assigning roles for his team members.
"This was not a typical role for us, in that we were identified as the command and control. (Civil Affairs) units are not assigned as command sections. We are enablers," he said.
Levalley's team was augmented by a public affairs NCO from the USAREUR headquarters to report on the mission and help staff members from the press office of the U.S. embassy here to facilitate civilian reporters covering the operation, and two combat camera Soldiers from the U.S European Command tasked with documenting the task force's participation in photos and video.
The eight-Soldier team and the members of the 1-214th's advance party rendezvoused at Golubovci Airbase here and were greeted by the U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro Sue K. Brown and the Montenegrin Minister of Defense Boro Vucinic as they stepped off the plane. Following a quick ceremony the task force got to work.
The first order of business was setting up an operations center for the 1-214th and the task force command and control section. Command and control was established alongside operations personnel from the Montenegrin air force to facilitate communication between U.S. and Montenegrin forces, while the 1-214th set up its operations on the air base flight line to synchronize with Montenegrin helicopter crews taking part in the mission. Once their bases of operations were in place, task force members met with senior Montenegrin officials to begin coordinating humanitarian assistance operations. By the second day they were ready to begin their mission.
Unfortunately, the winter weather that had brought the task force to Montenegro in the first place continued to cause problems, delaying the arrival of the U.S. Black Hawks. Two days later, at about midday, the helicopters could be heard arriving through the fog. They were greeted with same pomp and ceremony as the task force members had been, but the pilots and crews were focused on getting the mission under way. Thanks to the 361st's meticulous planning while waiting for the helicopters to arrive, the crews were able to begin flying humanitarian missions the same day the aircraft arrived.
While the aviation group was the heart of the operation, delivering aid and medical assistance to stranded Montenegrins, the team from the 361st acted as the U.S. task force's brain.
Working long hours, the reservists controlled operations and managed the abundance of behind-the-scenes efforts needed to make the missions happen. They coordinated flight schedules, determined what humanitarian assistance supplies got delivered, facilitated the efforts of a throng of local and international journalists, ensured that the task force's Soldiers and equipment were properly cared for, and synchronized efforts with Montenegrin and other civil and military agencies. Croatian, Slovenian and Greek agencies participated in the mission as well, and Levalley said the U.S. task force's position as part of the operational planning process helped everyone get the most out of their resources and efforts.
Once missions were given the thumbs-up and planned, the helicopters were loaded and made ready to fly. Frequently the crews completed one mission and headed right out into harsh conditions for the next, delivering supplies and transporting medical personnel to isolated villages in the snow-filled mountains and valleys of northern Montenegro.
Over the course of 11 days the 361st oversaw and coordinated 15 supply missions that delivered nearly 44,000 pounds of supplies and the completion of eight medical missions, and facilitated the purchase and delivery of nearly $100,000 in humanitarian assistance donated by the U.S. Government and $10,000 in Humanitarian Assistance provided by the U.S. European Command to purchase winter gear and supplies for those affected by the heavy snowfalls.
Levalley said that while the tasking of his unit to take part in this mission and serve as a command and control element are not normally part of civil affairs doctrine or operations, those tasks are a function of their higher headquarters, the 7th Civil Support Command, and having the opportunity to work outside its normal mission an integrate into the bigger picture while participating in a real-world effort "has worked well for the 361st."
"As an Army Reserve unit we are provided little opportunity to participate in real-world events other than training," he said. "This is significant to us because as a Civil Affairs unit, one of our core tasks is to provide foreign humanitarian assistance."
Many of the Montenegrin soldiers and government officials that worked with the U.S. task force said they looked forward to the opportunity to continue building on the bonds developed during the mission here and expressed their gratitude for the efforts of the U.S. forces.
"This (mission) will further strengthen our partnership and friendship, making us strong allies to help each other in times of need," said Montenegrin Chief of General Staff Vice Adm. Dragan Samardži***. "You have proven the proverb, 'When the going gets tough, the tough get going.'" Not only the armed forces of Montenegro members appreciate (the) relief given, but also the whole Montenegrin population was relieved by the great effort being put forth by the U.S. military."