FORT HOOD, Texas — Soldiers and aviators of 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, 29th Combat Aviation Brigade, Virginia Army National Guard, successfully conducted their mobilization and final readiness checks for their deployment to the Republic of Kosovo.
The unit will serve as the aviation task force for the NATO-led Kosovo Force, also known as KFOR, Regional Command-East, supporting the Staunton-based 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team Headquarters. Since the end of the Kosovo War in 1999, NATO KFOR troops conduct peacekeeping operations to support a safe and secure environment for all people in Kosovo, while diplomatic efforts continue between Kosovo and Serbia.
Upon completion of an air operations assessment, Brig. Gen. Joseph A. Edwards, commanding general of First Army Division West, visited the aviation battalion at North Fort Hood to thank them for following through their call to federal active-duty service.
“The KFOR mission consists of a historical, multi-national partnership. 2-224th has been called up to not only serve as the next aviation battalion for this mission, but also to represent the United States Army alongside our NATO allies,” said Edwards. “What you do as Soldiers from the Virginia Army National Guard is challenging enough as it is, and our team couldn’t be any prouder of the hard work and readiness you’ve demonstrated during your mobilization here at North Fort Hood. On behalf of Division West and Army aviators, we wish you a successful mission and safe return from your deployment.”
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Matthew C. Lewis, battalion commander of the 2-224th Avn. Reg., discussed about their unit readiness for the year-long mission.
“Our unit was selected based off of our organizational readiness and training. We are both, honored and excited, to be a part of our nation’s continued partnership with KFOR,” said Lewis. “We will be a part of the larger lift component in RC-E that provides the aerial mobility and CASEVAC capability to the higher command, allowing freedom of maneuver throughout the region. We feel prepared and ready to execute the mission.”
Lewis was pleased with North Fort Hood’s training facilities and support provided by First Army's Observer, Coach/Trainers, or OC/Ts. After looking back at what his battalion went through last year, he shared his thoughts about his young Soldiers deploying to KFOR for their first time.
“Mission success for our Soldiers would be: one, they have gone over there and made a difference for Kosovo; two, they have made a difference for themselves — better physically, spiritually, and professionally; and three, they have made the unit better,” said Lewis. “That’s what I want them to walk away with at the end of our mission. And, I think all of that will become a life experience where they can look back 30 years from now and say, ‘I am glad I did that.’”
By the end of the mobilization, when several of the pilots and mechanics of 2-224th were interviewed separately, it was no surprise to see and hear from each of them a shared sense of purpose, readiness, and unit cohesion.
Spc. Paul D. Kelly, a Black Hawk mechanic assigned to 2-224th, joined the KFOR deployment to begin his career in aviation and honor his late father, U.S. Army Col. Paul M. Kelly, a distinguished Army aviator and former battalion commander of 2-224th who was last assigned to Joint Force Headquarters, Virginia Army National Guard, while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“I volunteered for this mission because I wanted the experience, and I always wanted to get into aviation eventually,” said Spc. Kelly. “On the civilian side, I actually just finished college, and I plan on pursuing a full-time position with this unit. I figured this would be the best time for me to come in and really learn my job. I am also looking forward to see Kosovo — to see that part of the world. I’ve never travelled outside the U.S., so this will be a cool experience.”
Kelly’s father served in the Army National Guard for 25 years and is a recognized Fallen Hero by the National Guard Bureau and DOD for his honorable service and sacrifice during a flight mission over Baghdad, Iraq, on Jan. 20, 2007. Col. Kelly is also survived by his wife Maria, and his other son John Joseph, who still support the unit’s family readiness group and Gold Star families to this day.
“It’s definitely an honor to be a part of the battalion, especially seeing family and friends I grew up with, who are still a part of this unit and are closely tied to it,” he added. “I am very proud to be here, and look forward to working and learning from the 2-224th to make myself better every day.”
Sgt. Kayla Jackson, an Army aviation operations specialist for 2-224th, expressed her appreciation for the mobilization.
“This will be my first ever overseas deployment, so I am very excited, nervous, and all of those things,” said Jackson. “It’s definitely been a whirlwind of experience completed with training, COVID protocols, safety checks and evaluations by the OC/Ts, but so far my team and I have been very resilient. I am definitely feeling ready to go to Kosovo.”
CW2 Brandon D. Frost, an Army aviator from Detachment 2, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 169th Aviation Regiment assigned to the 2-224th for the KFOR mission, shared what he expects for his first deployment.
“My mission as a medical evacuation pilot is to be able to get into helicopter flight, along with our assigned flight surgeon in 15 minutes or less, the moment we receive a call to execute from command approval,” said Frost. “In Kosovo, our flight operations will be capable of providing 24-hour MEDEVAC support with our assigned NATO forces.”
Frost further shared what he looks forward to seeing in Kosovo, including potential cultural exchanges with KFOR military members from other countries.
“From what I hear, it’s gorgeous terrain over there, so lots of great flying — I am looking forward to that. I should be coming up on pilot in command responsibilities, so starting on that progression is something I am looking forward to as well,” he said. “As far as working with our assigned contingents, I understand language barriers may pose some challenges in the beginning, but I am confident we will build a shared understanding in how we will train and operate together while we are over there. Our unit morale is very good right now, and I think we are ready to do our mission in real life.”
The past month’s training support to 2-224th's mobilization was provided by Division West OC/Ts of the 3rd Battalion, 351st Aviation Regiment, 166th Aviation Brigade.
Lt. Col. Curtis J. Unger, battalion commander of the 3-351st TSBN, highlighted several of his unit’s responsibilities for the mobilization process.
“Our primary focus with the 2-224th was to develop a strong partnership leading up to this mobilization that ultimately led to a highly trained unit,” stated Unger. “We do that by simulating an operational environment, stressing their systems and processes in a manner that allows them to see themselves in terms of strengths and weaknesses.”
Bringing several years of OC/T experience to various Army units at both, Fort Hood and the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, Unger related the command team of 2-224th to key values that have made them mission ready.
“The key to any successful organization can easily be summed up in three ‘buckets’; the unit is a learning organization, they do routine things routinely, and the unit leader is always engaged and always at the friction point,” said Unger. “If units do those three things, they will win in a complex environment. When combined with professionalism, standards and discipline, ultimately you get an organization that no adversary can match or mission that goes unfinished.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Pedro Lopez, command sergeant major of 3-351st TSBN, also commended the 2-224th for their preparation and smooth execution of the mobilization.
“The 2-224th came very prepared, so they have made our jobs a lot easier this year,” Lopez remarked. “As the saying goes for any mission planning, ‘Always be prepared for the unknown.’ The training that we gave them was harder than what they were really expecting, considering the location that they are going to. Yet, they always listened to us and took our advice with no issues.”
While serving at Fort Hood since 2020, this was the third KFOR mobilization that Command Sgt. Maj. Lopez participated in as an OC/T.
“As an Army aviation maintainer myself, I got to spend a lot of time with their maintenance teams, advising and coaching them,” Lopez added. “They are very motivated and well-trained Soldiers. I believe they are going to do great in their upcoming KFOR deployment. All I can say for them is to continue to maintain their discipline. Discipline, after all, is what makes us the best Army in the world.”
Maj. Robert H. Wells, S-3 operations officer and OC/T from 3-351st TSBN, also observed and coached operations personnel of the 2-224th throughout the mobilization.
“The OC/T experience working with 2-224th was both enjoyable and rewarding. The unit was extremely professional, willing to learn, and motivated to perform at a high level of readiness every day,” said Wells. “We partnered with 2-224th earlier on their mobilization process, and observed the unit during their last Annual Training prior to mobilizing at Fort Hood. Since then, we observed tremendous growth in the organization, especially within the junior enlisted Soldiers and those that had recently changed MOS.”
Wells concluded with a message to 2-224th Soldiers deploying for their first time.
“Continue to stay engaged and establish goals to better yourself, your section, and the unit as a whole,” said Wells. “The unit has proven themselves ready to successfully complete their assigned mission and I wish them the best of luck.”
First Army Division West OC/Ts proceeded with supporting the aviation battalion’s final after-action review and confirming their flight schedules to the KFOR area of operations. 2-224th Aviation Regiment certainly demonstrated how Virginia Army National Guardsmen can quickly come together as a readied active-duty force.