Iraq — As troops leave, choppers stay

BAGHDAD — As U.S. com­bat troops leave Iraq, the heli­copters are stick­ing around.

2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment
Pho­to cred­it Spc. Roland Hale
A Chi­nook crew-chief with the 2nd Gen­er­al Sup­port Avi­a­tion Bat­tal­ion, 1st Avi­a­tion Reg­i­ment, talks with a civil­ian offi­cial, Aug. 15, dur­ing a rou­tine pas­sen­ger and sup­ply mis­sion. The bat­tal­ion has moved 45,000 per­son­nel in five months of deploy­ment.
Click to enlarge

The Army’s avi­a­tion branch is still work­ing at full speed here, mov­ing per­son­nel to points from which they can return to the states, and prepar­ing the Iraqi army to assume respon­si­bil­i­ty for their country’s skies. As the Iraqis take the lead, U.S. avi­a­tors are con­duct­ing what com­man­ders call sta­bil­i­ty operations. 

“Past deploy­ments have focused on com­bat and sup­port oper­a­tions — we are see­ing a tran­si­tion to Iraqi Secu­ri­ty Forces lead­ing on every lev­el and the U.S. forces tak­ing a sup­port and advi­so­ry role,” said Lt. Col. Christo­pher C. Prather, com­man­der of the 2nd Gen­er­al Sup­port Avi­a­tion Bat­tal­ion, 1st Avi­a­tion Reg­i­ment, and a Black Hawk pilot. 

Com­mand Sgt. Maj. Jake Wern­er, the battalion’s senior non­com­mis­sioned offi­cer, added that the begin­ning of sta­bil­i­ty oper­a­tions does not nec­es­sar­i­ly mean the end of offen­sive oper­a­tions in Iraq. Army avi­a­tion is still involved in train­ing the Iraqi Army in air to ground inte­gra­tion, the syn­chro­niza­tion of air and ground assets. 

But in the fifth month of his battalion’s deploy­ment, the need for offen­sive oper­a­tions in minimal. 

Notice­ably absent from the battalion’s roll-up of activ­i­ty is a tal­ly of air assaults, the fre­quen­cy of which has tapered off since the end of the troop surge. 

Instead, the Chi­nooks that were once charged with drop­ping troops into the fight are now used to get them away from it. The bat­tal­ion has moved 45,000 pas­sen­gers, two mil­lion pounds of car­go, and flown 880 mis­sions total­ing near­ly ten thou­sand flight hours. 

“Our [Chi­nooks] have been the pri­ma­ry rotary-wing assets used in the respon­si­ble draw­down of forces,” said Wern­er. “The heavy lift mis­sion will con­tin­ue to be in high demand after the troops lev­els decrease below 50,000 in Oper­a­tion New Dawn.” 

The bat­tal­ion has seen a reduced num­ber of med­ical evac­u­a­tions of wound­ed troops, said Prather. The bat­tal­ion has flown 632 mede­vac mis­sions and evac­u­at­ed 725 patients. 

The bat­tal­ion belongs to the 1st Infantry Divi­sion Com­bat Avi­a­tion Brigade from Fort Riley, Kan. The brigade recent­ly became an enhanced com­bat avi­a­tion brigade, a unique unit boast­ing dou­ble the amount of troops and air­craft of a typ­i­cal avi­a­tion unit. 

With more brigades leav­ing for Afghanistan, brigade is tak­ing on sole respon­si­bil­i­ty for Army avi­a­tion oper­a­tions in Iraq. The brigade cur­rent­ly sup­ports U.S. Divi­sions North and Cen­ter, and is sched­uled to become the only Army avi­a­tion asset in Iraq this September. 

In addi­tion to focus­ing on the draw­down of forces, the brigade is involved in train­ing Iraqi avi­a­tors to assume respon­si­bil­i­ty for their operations. 

“We part­ner with three Iraqi squadrons: two flight squadrons and an air traf­fic ser­vices squadron,” said Wern­er. “We work close­ly with them to con­duct part­nered oper­a­tions, plan­ning, and cul­tur­al exchanges.” 

Iraqi avi­a­tion is at a road mark in its his­to­ry. Fol­low­ing the U.S. military’s exam­ple, Iraqi avi­a­tion recent­ly switched from the Iraqi Air Force to the Iraqi Army. 

“As the Iraqi Air Force com­pletes the tran­si­tion into the Iraqi Army Direc­torate of Avi­a­tion, we can offer lessons learned as a branch,” said Wern­er. “U.S. Army avi­a­tion carved out a niche as our branch, as well, and has come a long way since 1984. We are hap­py to share what we have learned, and pass on those suc­cess­ful orga­ni­za­tion­al traits that we devel­oped as a branch.” 

The bat­tal­ion recent­ly start­ed fly­ing joint mis­sions with Iraqi avi­a­tors to meet this end. 

Iraqi avi­a­tion is already active in Iraq, but sel­dom gets involved with U.S. troops — Iraqis fly Iraqis, Amer­i­cans fly Amer­i­cans. This is chang­ing, how­ev­er, with con­tin­ued part­ner­ship events between the two organizations. 

The avi­a­tion brigade, includ­ing Prather’s bat­tal­ion, is sched­uled to leave Iraq next spring. 

“Anoth­er [bat­tal­ion] has been iden­ti­fied to con­tin­ue the mis­sion after our deploy­ment is com­plete,” said Wern­er. “The U.S. gov­ern­ment is com­mit­ted to the gov­ern­ment of Iraq, and will sup­port the efforts of a safe and secure Iraq.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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