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The Vital Mission of U.S. Air Support in Iraq (VIDEO)Tim King Salem-News.com
Tim King is embedded with Oregon's 2/641 Aviation Support Group in Balad, Iraq and filed this report from the flightline where they operate.
(BALAD, Iraq) - Members of the Oregon National Guard have a big mission on their hands and minds over the next several months. Their tour of duty in Iraq is an aviation support mission. The 2/641 Aviation Support Group's specific responsibility, revolves around the C-23 Sherpa transport plane, known to these soldiers simply as "The Boxcar".
Major Brian Houston is a Blackhawk pilot who drew this unique mission that supports not helicopters, but large cargo planes and another type of high-speed Army transport planes known as "White Birds".
"Our mission here is to plan and coordinate the movement of personnel and supplies around the theater of Iraq and Kuwait using fixed wing aircraft. We're working hard, this is not our first deployment and by far not our last deployment, we're tired, but we're continuing our mission, we're doing well."
In his civilian life, Chief Warrant Officer Jerry Gillham is a city manager in Gresham, Oregon. In Iraq, he is the group's S-1 or Human Resources officer. He speaks well of these civilian soldiers here to fill a role that is extremely critical to the war effort.
"I can't get over, especially this particular group, from the commander all the way over to enlisted NCO's and soldiers, how professional and quick and actually competent and bright they are. To see how quickly these soldiers have caught on and are sitting and doing their jobs in just a matter of days, is actually quite impressive".
Sergeant first class Greg Kass is an Arizona National Guard soldier who joined the Oregon Guard deployment to broaden his skills in aviation education. I asked him if they prepare for and anticipate events like aircraft coming in with damage.
"We do prepare ourselves, for the most part, we have SOP's and we go over it, but when stuff actually happens that is when you have to break out the book and make sure you do everything step by step."
Oregon's 2 641 Aviation soldiers will carry on an ongoing mission that other soldiers have maintained, one that operates around the clock. It is a job that has no room for errors, and one that the Oregon Guard seems well suited for.
Specialist Elizabeth Deschamps is from the 244th Aviation Support Group that the 2/641 replaced. She commented on what the Oregon soldiers will see and deal with over the next year.
"I think it will be great, I think they are going to hit a lot of challenges but they are set up for success, the transition has gone really smooth so far, I hope it continues to go that way. They are going to have their own problems to work through and that is how they are going to learn. But right now it set up for them and they just have to carry it on."
Army supply Sergeant Cong Nguyen said the transition happened very fast.
"People said they were going to come in like a hurricane and they did come in quickly, they are taking over very quickly, there is only so much training that can be done before we have to give it up, but they are doing very well."
For some of these soldiers, Iraq is a new place. Others however, like Sergeant Stephen Mills, are seeing their second or even third deployment. Balad greeted him like a completely different place that what he remembered.
"It's a 360, Balad has come a long way, last time I came here there was nothing, so, it gives the soldiers an opportunity, you've got places to go to let things die down and get away from everything, so there are lots of different ways to keep the morale high."
Specialist Monica Johnson has an extra connection here; her dad was actually part of the same group in the Oregon Guard.
"Yeah, he was a first sergeant in the 641 before it became the 2/641, and he was actually a first sergeant at Fort Bragg and he actually trained soldiers before they went overseas, so it is a big pride thing, big shoes to fill, everyone here respects my dad and know that he was a really good soldier. He did a lot and helped out a lot of people so I've got that, 'hey gotta live up to that standard!'"
I asked these Oregon soldiers what their impressions were so far of the joint base at Balad.
"Living accommodations are very nice, the food is good, same as the other camps mostly, I haven't been to the outer FOBs yet but it's good," Sergeant Michelle Rudometkin said.
Monica Johnson said the temperatures are something she can deal with, "It's really just the learning process, sort of backtracking on what you thought it was supposed to be like. Everyone here is really nice. Outside the wire things might be different though, I don't know."
Another Specialist, Destiny Perez, agrees that the camp has a good layout, "It's awesome, for a deployment I have no complaints, we have everything we need right here in a small area."
This is the first overseas mission for Brianna Sanderlin, a staff sergeant from Oregon who at one time considered joining the Marines.
"It's a good mission, it's a good base. This is my first deployment so I don't have anything to compare it to, it's hot and it's dusty, but we have good working conditions and good living conditions when it comes down to it, so I really couldn't ask for more."
Greg Kass agrees, saying "You have two people in a room, awesome food, all you can eat for free, can't really complain."
I asked Brianna Sanderlin how it measures up to what she anticipated.
"Really the only thing I wasn't sure of was the heat. There was a guy who came over here before and he had a lot of pictures, so I knew what our offices looked like and I knew what the buildings looked like first, so it measures up pretty well but the heat is the only thing. You can expect it, but you really have to be in it to understand it."
Stephen Mills is another soldier who joined the Oregon mission from another state. Hailing from Georgia, he explained that the Oregon Guard is a very good group to have joined up with. As a person who has been here before, I asked him if he believes that kind of experience can go a long way, especially with the people who haven't been here before.
"Well yeah, a lot of people that haven't been here before, they really don't understand the whole concept, what you do deal with, especially the heat. When you tell them 130 degrees, they say 'no way' but yes way, there is."
I asked Monica Johnson how it matched up in comparison to what she expected. "Basically the only thing I was concerned about was the heat, and it is really not as bad as I thought. Coming out in 120 degree weather I was like 'OK', don't get me wrong, it's hot and I wouldn't want to be walking around in it or working in it all day, but it's definitely a lot easier to adjust to than I thought it was going to be."
Michelle Rudometkin agreed, saying, "It's not what I expected, it is less than what I expected but it is hot, it's OK."
Experience gained in the war theater during operations will leave these citizen soldier with knowledge that is hard to come by while working one weekend a month in the states.
Destiny Perez says the mission will absolutely accelerate her knowledge in this field.
"It kind of opens your eyes, because you're meshing in and working side by side with active duty soldiers. I don't want to say you're learning the Army way, but coming over here you have guidance to extend on what you already know about your job."
Oregon's 2 641 Aviation group is off to a running start, and by the looks of things, it will be a very successful mission.
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Produced by Tim King
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Tim King is a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor. Tim spent the winter of 2006/07 covering the war in Afghanistan, and he was in Iraq over the summer of 2008, reporting from the war while embedded with both the U.S. Army and the Marines.
Tim holds awards for reporting, photography, writing and editing, including the Silver Spoke Award by the National Coalition of Motorcyclists (2011), Excellence in Journalism Award by the Oregon Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs (2010), Oregon AP Award for Spot News Photographer of the Year (2004), First-place Electronic Media Award in Spot News, Las Vegas, (1998), Oregon AP Cooperation Award (1991); and several others including the 2005 Red Cross Good Neighborhood Award for reporting. Tim has several years of experience in network affiliate news TV stations, having worked as a reporter and photographer at NBC, ABC and FOX stations in Arizona, Nevada and Oregon. Tim was a member of the National Press Photographer's Association for several years and is a current member of the Orange County Press Club.
Serving the community in very real terms, Salem-News.com is the nation's only truly independent high traffic news Website. As News Editor, Tim among other things, is responsible for publishing the original content of 82 Salem-News.com writers. He reminds viewers that emails are easily missed and urges those trying to reach him, to please send a second email if the first goes unanswered. You can write to Tim at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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