For the first time, Army makes use of Grays Harbor to ship out equipment for deploying Fort Lewis unit

The first time was the charm for loading 4th Squadron, 6th Air Cavalry Regiment helicopters and equipment onto a ship in Aberdeen. Unit and Port of Grays Harbor officials said things couldn't have gone more smoothly.

A tiny but bellicose group of protesters outside the port grounds had no effect, despite extensive local coverage.

A handful of local organizations mobilized to protest in Aberdeen, but only a ragtag group of 40 arrived, made up of locals from Aberdeen and organizers from Olympia, Tacoma and one from Eugene, Ore.

They missed the arrival of the ship on Saturday as well as the subsequent loading of military equipment onto the vessel.

The Kiowa OH-58s and Black Hawk OH-60s belonging to 4-6 Air Cav. flew to Aberdeen April 25 and remained tucked away, blades folded, in warehouses at the port. With the 4-6 port team assisting, stevedores loaded the aircraft Sunday afternoon, again without incident.

Squadron staff members were impressed with the facilities from the beginning.

"We did a two-hour recon," said operations officer Maj. Demetri Nicholson. "Everyone we talked to were experts. They had more than what we needed out there - building space for us to have offices, space for the helicopters and all the equipment we're bringing in."

The location and facilities made it likely, Nicholson said, that other Fort Lewis organizations will use the facility. The choice to load in Aberdeen had nothing to do with avoiding demonstrations in Tacoma or Olympia, as those organizations claimed.

The original plan called for 4-6 Air Cav. to fall in on another units aircraft and equipment in theater. Those orders would have sent the squadron from Beaumont, Texas. Amended deployment schedules because of the January troop surge changed the plan.

"To fly from Beaumont costs a lot more money," said Nicholson. "Just trying to get all the helicopters to Texas and all the maintenance problems...AMC (U.S. Army Materiel Command) was able to switch it to the Northwest."

The first idea was to leave from Tacoma, but the budget, not protesters, dictated departure from Aberdeen.

"It cuts down the time for the boat," Nicholson said. "Instead of going up the Puget Sound, the boat can come right down the coast and cut off one or two days."

Saving time and effort on the front end of a deployment means the squadron can concentrate on the business end. The unit will perform reconnaissance, screen, air movement and security missions in Iraq.

"Our OH-58 Vs will do reconnaissance for ground units, convoy security, route reconnaissance, area reconnaissance," said Nicholson. "We're armed so we can also provide weapons for the ground maneuver guys. We've also got 10 Black Hawks. They do logistics or resupply runs. They move people around the battlefield, called battlefield circulation. They also do some tactical flights where they stop, bring in aerial insertions where they bring in infantrymen to stop vehicles that might have a high-value target in it."

The 4-6 Air Cav. will initially fall under the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, a unit that was extended under the 15-month rule. After the 25th departs, 4-6 will take orders from the 1st Combat Aviation Brigade War Hawks, a highly decorated organization during the Vietnam War.

Along with its mission-essential task lists, the squadron has incorporated scenarios based on aircraft shot down in Iraq, into its training plan. Pilots from 4-6 Air Cav. also trained with 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division during its Mission Readiness Exercise on Fort Lewis in February.

"It was a role kind of like what we'll have in Iraq," Nicholson said, "but a bit different because we had the whole squadron in one spot. We were supporting one infantry brigade, but in Iraq we'll be supporting more than one. But it's the same role, same missions that we would do."

The advance party from the squadron will leave later in May with the main body following later. The 4-6 Air Cav. will arrive at Operation Iraqi Freedom after training for an undetermined time in Kuwait.