CAMP KOREAN VILLAGE, Iraq --
When the Marines of 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 8, leave the safety of their base in western Iraq to conduct joint missions with the Iraqi Security Forces, they can do so with the confidence that if something goes wrong, help is only a call away.
Army National Guardsmen from Company C, 2nd Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment, headquartered in St. Paul, Minn. and Waterloo, Iowa are currently forward-based to provide medevac capability with their UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters.
Because the infantrymen of 2/25 conduct 24-hour operations, the soldiers of Company C maintain a high-alert readiness posture and practice flying both day and night missions to keep their skills honed, according to Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Scott J. Roberts of Farmington, Minn.
”Hopefully we give them (the Marines) peace of mind knowing that if they get injured that we’ll be coming for them, to get them to a higher level of care,” said Roberts.
With 17 years in the Guard’s aviation field, Roberts is the unit’s instructor pilot and frequently the aircraft commander on evacuation missions.
The injuries that Roberts has seen since arriving in Iraq in October run the gamut from shrapnel wounds caused by improvised explosive devices to troops with abscessed teeth. He has also evacuated Arabic interpreters and other third-country nationals serving with Coalition forces for medical emergencies such as strokes and heart attacks.
“As National Guardsmen, we usually have a lot more hands-on experience than active duty soldiers,” said Roberts, who pilots private jets for a large corporation in his civilian career. “Not only the pilots and crew members, but most of our medics have real-world experience that they bring with them from their civilian work in hospital trauma centers and EMT (emergency medical technician) careers. Many of our pilots have thousands more hours than our active duty counterparts because we fly on the civilian side every day for our jobs.”
This is Roberts’ first time working with Marines, but he said that soon after arriving here he was accepted into the fold.
“The Marines have treated us exceptionally well,” said Roberts. “On both the ground support and air sides, they have been very professional. It was a challenge to get used to Marine Corps aviation lingo, but they were patient and we picked it up.”
Capt. William Steuber, the 2/25 air officer from Rochester, N.Y., is the middle man between the infantryman and the Guardsmen who support them on missions.
“Having those helicopters within reach of wherever our troops are located in our AO (area of operations) is a tremendous asset,” said Steuber. “No matter what happens, we are within reach of a trauma center. Those aircraft really are an operational safety net. When doing ORM (operational risk management) planning, we look at a proposed idea and say, ‘Yeah, we can do that because we have the National Guard casevac (casualty evacuation) aircraft.’”
In addition to supporting the mobile infantrymen of 2/25 with real-world emergency preparedness, the pilots of Company C also take the Marines as passengers on training flights to familiarize them with the Blackhawk. These rides are a rare treat, as the agile Blackhawk does not exist in the Marine Corps’ aviation inventory.
This serves as a morale boost, especially for those troops who spend most of their deployment working seven days a week in an austere office environment on a forward operating base.
Lance Cpl. Michael Shapanus of Mansfield, Mass., joined the battalion in May as an individual augment from 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment. An infantryman by trade, Shapanus was assigned as a company clerk with Headquarters and Service Company, 2/25.
“I wasn’t too happy when I found out what I would be doing in Iraq, but that’s the way it goes sometimes,” said Shapanus. “You adapt and overcome.”
On Jan. 22, Shapanus and two of his H&S Company comrades took a break from the office to experience their first ride in a Blackhawk with the pilots of Company C.
“It was a great opportunity,” said Shapanus. “When we got up there, the pilot came over the radio and said, ‘We’re gonna give these boys a ride,’ and I was thinking, ‘I sure hope they know what they’re doing.’”
Fortunately for the Marines, Roberts and his crew do know what they’re doing. They took the Marines on what Shapanus called “a rollercoaster ride” through the desert, hugging the contours of the rocky hills and banking hard, down through the arid canyons, all the time exercising complete control of the nimble aircraft.
“Fortunately, I’m the type of guy who likes stuff like that,” said Shapanus, who didn’t need the plastic bag the Guardsmen had given him “just in case.”
According to Army National Guard Capt. Nathan Foster, of Woodbury, Minn., the Company C commanding officer, Guardsmen account for about fifty percent of all U.S. Army troops currently in Iraq.
Foster, 29, of Woodbury, Minn., explained that his Guardsmen have extensive civilian backgrounds in aviation operation and maintenance, computer systems, software engineering, and emergency medical care.
“They have a level and spectrum of expertise that you just don’t find anywhere else,” said Foster.
With this team of soldiers covering their backs, the Reserve Marines of 2/25 can conduct missions on the ground with the full knowledge that should they get in a jam, the Blackhawks are standing by, ready to support.