NORTH FORT HOOD, Texas – Flexibility and adaptability have been key for the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade in the lead-up to a 9-month deployment to the Middle East.
The brigade is poised to deploy to the region for the third time in 10 years. This time, the COVID-19 pandemic, civil disturbances and a record-breaking wildfire season have resulted in shifting timelines and heavy workloads. To top it all off, on the weekend CAB Soldiers were set to depart their home stations for a final train up and validation exercise at North Fort Hood, a freak blizzard hit the fort, causing power outages and water main breaks. The snowstorm delayed the CAB's arrival by three weeks. But in early March, North Fort Hood was back online and more than 1,100 brigade Soldiers arrived eager to complete their final training requirements before departing on their overseas mission.
"This is the first time we've actually brought all our Soldiers from nine different states together at once," said Col. Alan Gronewold, 40th Combat Aviation Brigade commander. "Normally, you would think that would be a pretty difficult challenge, but because of great leadership and great planning, everyone has come together fairly seamlessly. And as we talk to folks, everyone is all about being a part of the bigger Task Force and coming together as one unit."
Gronewold is from the Oregon Army National Guard. His command staff and headquarters company are from the California Army National Guard. The aviation arm of his brigade is the Washington Army National Guard-led 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment (General Support Aviation Battalion). The California Army National Guard's 640th Aviation Support Battalion (ASB) is responsible for the brigade's logistics, maintenance, communications and ground transportation.
In addition to California and Washington, the Task Force's battalions have elements from seven more states: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota and New Mexico.
The brigade's aerial assets include UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters that will perform full spectrum aviation operations —everything from air assault and medevac to heavy-lift transport. Once in country, the brigade will be joined by an active-duty Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter battalion.
Upon arrival at North Fort Hood, CAB Soldiers were placed in a 14-day quarantine to mitigate any spread of the COVID-19 virus. They must wear masks and take other precautions, such as frequent hand-washing and sanitizing of work areas and barracks, and they've been frequently tested for COVID-19. During the quarantine, they conducted regular duties and pre-deployment training.
Lt. Col. John King, commander of the 1-168th GSAB, said the COVID restrictions and the changes made to timelines and training schedules caused by the blizzard did not faze his Soldiers.
"In the state of Washington, we did COVID relief support early in 2020," King said. "We were activated for riots. We've fought wildfires. We pushed out two other Washington aviation units during the last calendar year for mobilization. The Soldiers of the 1-168 have been dealing with change and adapting to change for the past year.
"This past year has taught our Soldiers resiliency and to be very adaptive," King said. "Our battalion motto is, 'Ready when needed,' because we are a multifaceted battalion that's able to do a multitude of different missions, so we're excited to go over there and do the missions that we're designed to do."
At North Fort Hood, the brigade's various elements from nine states came together as Task Force Phoenix. The Soldiers of Task Force Phoenix have been training, working and living together as they will for the duration of their mission overseas.
Lt. Col. Christopher Renner, commander of the 640th ASB, said the training at North Fort Hood is going well.
"The 640th ASB keeps the aircraft flying, the brigade talking, the fuel flowing, and performs all the logistics functions that go with that," Renner said. "The training here is really important for all of us, as a battalion and a brigade, to basically start working together. We're all individually good at our jobs. The training here gives us a chance to work collectively before we deploy."
The train up includes local orientation flights, refueling and logistics operations, Soldier readiness training and aerial gunnery qualifications at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The training culminates with a collective exercise that involves all the functions the brigade will perform overseas.
The 166th Aviation Brigade, First Army - Division West has been facilitating the training at North Fort Hood and Fort Sill and will conduct the final validation of the Task Force.
"Approximately 50 percent of Army Aviation is National Guard and Reserves," said Col. Jennifer Reynolds, 166th Aviation Brigade commander. "Our main mission here is to provide observer coach/trainers to assist units that come through with whatever they need so that they leave here much more ready for their mission downrange than when they came in."
"The 166 has been extremely helpful in training us and getting us in the direction we need to go," Gronewold said.
Once validated by the 166th, the Soldiers of Task Force Phoenix will depart for the Middle East, where they will conduct aviation operations in support of Operation Inherent Resolve and Operation Spartan Shield.