By Staff Sgt. Joel SalgadoFebruary 29, 2012
PODGORICA, Montenegro -- U.S. Army Europe deployed Soldiers and two Black Hawk helicopters to Montenegro Feb. 19 in response to a request for emergency assistance from NATO by the Montenegrin government, after heavy snowfalls left many people in the country stranded.
The aircraft and a support team of approximately 40 Soldiers from the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade are accompanied by a group of Army reservists from the 7th Civil Support Command's 361st Civil Affairs Brigade that are providing command and control for the operation, expected to continue through March 2.
The aviators and support crew come from the Alpha and Charlie Companies of the 1st Battalion, 214th Aviation Regiment, based respectively in Mannheim and Landstuhl, Germany, while the 361st is headquartered in Kaiserslautern, Germany. Collectively the group makes up a U.S. task force that is helping the Montenegrin National Emergency Operations Center and the Montenegrin Ministry of Defense distribute relief supplies and save lives, homes and infrastructure affected by the severe winter weather.
While the Soldiers arrived here Feb. 19, the helicopters touched down in Montenegro three day later. The pilots and crews began conducting relief operations the same day to deliver aid to people in areas cut off by the snow.
U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro Sue K. Brown and Montenegrin Minister of Defense Boro Vucinic were on hand to greet the team and the helicopters when they arrived.
"The United States is a strong partner and friend to Montenegro. We stand together with our NATO allies in providing support during this time of heavy snowfall that has put many persons and lives at risk in various parts of the country," Brown said during a discussion with reporters gathered to witness the Black Hawks' arrival.
The crews have had to brave the same harsh weather. Combating thick fog and heavy winds, they have successfully flown 15 missions to deliver nearly 44,000 pounds of supplies, and completed 8 medical evacuation operations across the country through thick fog and heavy winds, said Sgt. 1st Class Paul Caron, the senior intelligence analyst for the 361st and the task force's NCO in charge.
"Hands down, the weather has been our biggest challenge on this mission," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jeffery York, a Black Hawk pilot with 1-214th. "Poor visibility and low clouds in the mountains had grounded our crews for two days, and when those cleared, the turbulence returned. Holding a 9-ton helicopter at a 4-foot hover, with tree branches off the tail and high-tension power lines off the nose, is tense work even for veteran pilots."
The weather wasn't the only challenge the pilots faced. Montenegro is covered in mountainous terrain crisscrossed by valleys and canyons. The difficult landscape made for some very challenging flying.
"In the mountains, the terrain is unforgiving," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jerry Emmons, an instructor pilot with 1-214th. "The flying overall is very rewarding. It can be stressful at times, trying to negotiate cliff walls, valleys and canyons, but overall it only makes us better."
The crews said landing was another challenge. Some areas were blanketed by 10 or more feet of snow and surrounded by sheer cliffs, forcing pilots to hover as the teams delivered supplies. Medical evacuation missions have been even more difficult, with the crew having to use a hoist to lower doctors and flight medics into isolated villages.
"I've never had to take anyone down with me (on the hoist). I usually go down by myself and pick people up," said Sgt. Joseph Campbell, a flight medic with 1-214th. "Here, I had to take a doctor down with me. It definitely taxed me."
Despite the difficulties the crews faced, many said they feel the mission is rewarding and seem as proud of their efforts as the isolated citizens appear grateful for the aid the Soldiers have brought them.
"The biggest reward is knowing that we've made a difference in these people's lives," said Emmons. "We see it every time that we drop off supplies to them. It's evident in their body language. We see their spirits raise, the weight of being stranded comes off their shoulders, and they flash us smiles and waves. That's when we know we made a difference."
More images of the Montenegro operation can be found on the U.S. Army Europe Flickr site at www.flickr.com/photos/usarmyeurope_images, while additional links to images, videos and information is available on the U.S. Embassy Podgorica, Montenegro website at http://podgorica.usembassy.gov/index.html.