TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. - Army National Guard Aviation Soldiers from Company C, 1-171st Aviation Regiment based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, participated in the 1-14 Integrated Training Exercise (ITX) alongside Marine Reservists in Twentynine Palms June 5-19.
The 1-171st is a medical evacuation (medevac) unit whose primary mission is to pick up and transport casualties out of harm's way to a medical center for treatment.
According to the 1-171st commander, Maj. Thomas Dunn, the purpose of this year's annual training conducted at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms was two-fold. First, roughly half the company is preparing for a deployment to Kuwait next year and the unit is using this time to complete required training for the upcoming mobilization. Second, the medevac skills many in the unit honed during their last deployment to Afghanistan will be maintained.
"Obviously, you always want to be proficient at what you're doing. It's a really good opportunity to basically practice what we do in theater operations," Dunn said.
For the 1-171st Soldiers, training at Twentynine Palms offers them a realistic training environment. The terrain and climate of the training area is similar to deployment areas like Afghanistan or Kuwait and so is the pace of training, said Dunn.
"You're operating longer hours, 108 degrees outside, sandy, dry environment, you're out of your comfort zone, and you're dealing with new surroundings," Dunn said. "That definitely has been a big challenge, but these challenges have been good training."
For Soldiers new to the unit, this environment offered them a great opportunity to practice skills and integrate into the unit. Sgt. Tara Sawyer, a combat medic new to 1-171st, said this training allowed her to see how the unit would operate when deployed.
"Everyone says this is what it feels like to be in Afghanistan, and it's nice to see what the process is as a medic coming into the unit. It's kind of cool to see how it works from beginning to end," said Sawyer.In addition to the harsh physical environment, the training was realistic because of the multi-service joint operations, which is common when deployed overseas. Most of the Marines alongside the 1-171st Soldiers were Reservists from different areas of the country and this was the first time they worked with National Guard Soldiers.
"This is the first time any of us have worked with the Army National Guard," said Marine Sgt. Matthew Tourcey, a Reservist in the Landing Support Company, Combat Logistics Regiment, 4th Marine Logistics Group based in Savannah, Georgia.Moreover this was the first time Marine Reserve units trained alongside Soldiers in a joint training exercise at Twentynine Palms.
"For the Reserve component of the Marine Corps, we're supporting the 4th Marine Air Wing, and I know that this is the first time they've had Army National Guard out here doing this kind of exercise," said Dunn.
The Marines practiced calling in medical evacuation requests from the 1-171st UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crews. As the helicopters landed at the point of pick up, the Marines would load a simulated injured patient into the aircraft as expeditiously as safety would allow. The Marines participating in the exercise thought the training was useful."We're getting a lot of real world experience and practice for real world scenarios," said Marine 1st Lt. Michael Tyler Hopkins, a platoon commander from a New Orleans-based Marine Reserve unit.
Radio communication with the Marine ground units was the primary form of communication between the two services. According to Spc. Robert Chavez, a signal support specialist with 1-171st, the Marines performed well when making their medical evacuation requests."I think they've been doing a really good job," said Chavez. "They take their time, which gave whoever was copying down the nine-line (evacuation request) enough time to copy, which is a plus."
Despite the fact the Marines were capable of making coherent evacuation requests, Sgt. Amanda Montoya, 1-171st aviation operations specialist, believed the Marines could refine their skills more through this training exercise by placing more speed and emphasis on the first part of the nine lines of the evacuation request.
"As long as we have the first three lines, the helicopter can lift off," said Montoya. "Once we receive the request we really want to get the pilots out and we'll get the pertinent information to the pilots as they continue to submit the request."
Moreover, she said, the primary point of this exercise was to ensure that everyone used the communication tools correctly to get the medevac help out as quickly as possible to the correct area.
"I think it's good to train with everyone. It's better that everyone is on the same page regardless of service. The quicker you can get to that patient, the quicker you can get them into care, the better it'll be," said Montoya.
This exercise pushed the 1-171st into a deployment footing which meant a great deal of flight hours. The projected amount of flight hours was 180 at the beginning of exercise, but they were on pace to exceed that number as of June 11 said Dunn.
The high temperatures, sand, and long hours placed a toll on the crews, but it also puts a huge stress on the machines. According to Sgt. Michael Velasquez, a 1-171st helicopter repairer, in addition to routine maintenance there are several preventive maintenance inspections that are required to be performed on the helicopter depending on the amount of flight hours. For every flight hour, several man hours of maintenance is required.
Velasquez said the maintenance of helicopters is very fine tuned because a single grain of sand can jam the controls. He used a painters brush to remove grains of sand from the cockpit controls while Spc. Gregory Martinez, a 1-171st crew chief, used a syringe to lubricate the moving parts of the helicopter's rotor blades.
Overall, the joint training exercise allowed the Soldiers of 1-171st ample preparation for the upcoming mission to Kuwait. For those Soldiers in the unit who are not deploying, it allowed them to refresh, practice and maintain their skills as aviation medevac professionals. The Marines were able to familiarize themselves with medical evacuation requests and learn how to sync up with Army aviation equipment when they are in the field.