By Sgt. Christopher HernandezFebruary 5, 2019
FORT BLISS, Texas -- Huddled inside a tightly compacted room of a flight hangar, a group of National Guard Soldiers shuffled playing cards as they exchanged jokes with one another. Suddenly, the jovial ambiance was interrupted by an urgent radio call for a medical evacuation. Without hesitation, the Soldiers sprang into action as they ran toward their UH-60 A/L Black Hawk helicopters, gathered all of their equipment and then ascended onto the skies … all in a matter of about 15 minutes.
This aforementioned scene encompasses one of many exercises conducted by four National Guard aviation regiments, as part of their culminating training event (CTE) conducted at Biggs Army Airfield, Fort Bliss, Texas, Jan. 30, 2019.
"We'll be sitting there on standby, so we wait for a call to come in and then we go out and practice our run-ups all the way through the mission," said Sgt. Tyler Monts, UH-60 helicopter repairer and flight instructor for Gulf Company, 1st General Support Aviation Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment, Mississippi Army National Guard. "All of that gets us into the battle rhythm, so we're ready when we go overseas."
For the past three weeks, National Guardsmen of the 171st Av. Regt., 211th Av. Regt., 168th Av. Regt. and 135th Av. Regt. have been exhaustively taking part in their pre-mobilization training exercises here. This collective of units comprises of personnel and equipment pooled from the Nebraska and Colorado Army National Guards (the CH-47 Chinook helicopter crews), as well as the Mississippi, New York, New Jersey, and Wyoming Army National Guards (the Black Hawk crews).
"It's nice being in a company that's split between different states," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Warren Buchanan, a CH-47F Chinook maintenance test pilot with Bravo Company, 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 135th Aviation Regiment, Colorado Army National Guard. "This is one of the first times since our last deployment that we were able to pull everybody together. Each state tries to run things the same exact way so that when we do come together, there are no issues."
Of course, the success of the pre-mobilization training operation is attributed to the oversight, evaluations, and guidance provided by Soldiers of the Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Armored Division, Fort Bliss, and First Army Division West, Fort Hood, Texas.
"This mobilization was definitely unique," said Sgt. 1st Class Reid Carpenter, UH-60 A/L team noncommissioned officer in charge of the observer controller/trainers, 1st Training Support Battalion, 351st Av. Regt., 166th Av. Bde., First Army Division West. "We typically do these at Fort Hood, but the training unit that was deploying (fell) under an aviation task force here at Fort Bliss. They were around and had the personnel and resources in place to act as a higher command."
The Chinook and Black Hawk flight teams were presented real-world scenarios in their validation and military rehearsal exercises (MRXs), mirroring as closely as possible to what they would most likely encounter in their forthcoming deployment.
"We've been doing the simulated 9 Line MedEvac requests, and there's been a couple of mass casualty situations as well, just to get everyone familiar as to what the routine will be like overseas," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Preston Blocker, an air medical evacuation pilot for Gulf Co., 1st General Support Aviation Battalion, 168th Av. Regt., Mississippi Army National Guard. "We've also been doing hoist extractions, rescue seats, and some simulated skid lifts. We've done live lifts with our medics because they need to be proficient in case that we must do that overseas.
"We've also been doing degraded visual environment (DVE) settings, which are brownout landings due to an accumulation of dust, especially around here and in (overseas theater). It allows us to get a little more comfortable in the eventuality of landing in areas with brownout conditions," Blocker said.
Alternatively, the Chinook teams were given different mission sets to train on, respective of their own unique capabilities.
"infiltrations and exfiltrations are our main job, and it is known as direct support. We also have general support missions, (which is) anything from providing food, water, and personnel," said Sgt. 1st Class Jared Wiehn, CH47F Chinook Helicopter Repairer and platoon sergeant for Bravo Co., 2nd Bn., 135th Av. Regt., Nebraska Army National Guard.
While the training exercises were respectable, there should've been a greater variety of scenarios, Wiehn said.
"They could've thrown more at us," Wiehn said. "It was great training, but we can always get better by them pushing us and stressing us out a little bit more."
In spite of minor disadvantages, the National Guardsmen all hold the consensus that First Army Division West and Combat Av. Bde., 1st Ar. Div. was vastly accommodating to them in their entire pre-mobilization process.
"I really do not have anything negative to say about the experience, and it was the best pre-mobilization that I've ever gone through," Buchanan said. "It was nice that the (First Army Division West) actually came out to our states and did some work with us during our annual training. We were able to link up with them and get them to see how we were running things, and they give us some tactics, techniques, and procedures for some things to adjust and what they were looking for."
"When the time comes to go down there, things will go really smooth," Buchanan said.
For Carpenter, facilitating these training exercises gave a sense of accomplishment for himself and First Army Division West in its entirety.
"Overall, I felt like this was a good experience, as it was definitely something different," Carpenter said. "With the opportunity to have the training unit work with the people that they'll work with prior to getting deployed, it will make the transition much quicker and make them more effective. I'm sure that they will be able to execute their missions at a much higher proficiency and much faster than they would've otherwise."
Soon, the four National Guard aviation regiments will mobilize to their overseas tour of duty, taking all that they've learned and gained from their experiences here at Fort Bliss.
"This place is just been, hands-down, one of the best pre-mobilization locations that I've been to, and this is my third deployment, "Wiehn said. "If we get called up again, then this definitely would be the first place that I would go back to."