FORT BELVOIR, Va. - The commander of an "exotic" Army National Guard aviation unit that is preparing for a year-long deployment to Iraq urged families to emphasize safety to their Soldiers who will be serving overseas.
"The Army will give us gear to protect ourselves, but that gear will only be of value if it is used and used correctly," said Lt. Col. Pat Weber during a deployment ceremony on Aug. 24. "If I could give you a mission, it would be to remind your loved ones of that fact each time you talk to them. We will keep after them in theater, and your reminders will help reinforce our guidance.
"You are as important to the success of our mission as your Soldiers that will deploy," added Weber at Davison Army Airfield, part of Fort Belvoir in northern Virginia.
Weber is leading the 65 or so aviators who are preparing to spend 2007 in Balad directing the operations of all Army fixed-wing passenger and cargo planes in Iraq.
They will leave for Fort Sill, Okla., for mobilization training in early September and begin their year of duty in Iraq with the 36th Combat Aviation Brigade by the end of this year, it was explained.
The unit consists of aviators from the Army National Guard's Operational Support Airlift Command (OSACOM) that is based at Davison. The command is the headquarters for four Army Guard regional flight centers and a focal point for 53 flight detachments. It operates more than 60 Army planes in 53 states and territories and flies around the world in support of the Department of Defense.
It is the first headquarters element from the National Guard Bureau, based in Arlington, Va., to be deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom.
It includes about 25 volunteers from the Guard Bureau, 30 from the Missouri Army Guard's 20th Combat Aviation Brigade, as well as 10 other individuals, explained Maj. Bill Smith. Some of the volunteers from 23 states are active Army and Individual Ready Reserve personnel.
Members of the Training Support Brigade at Fort Sill have said the OSACOM element is the "most exotic" unit they have ever mobilized, Weber said.
Some of them, including Smith, have already flown Army aircraft in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. Smith served in Kuwait for three months during the summer of 2003. OSACOM personnel and aircraft have been active in that theater throughout the Global War on Terrorism, he pointed out.
The fixed-wing mission is to fly as much cargo as possible throughout the country so that Soldiers do not have to transport it along Iraq's deadly roads or fly it at lower, more dangerous altitudes in helicopters. The planes also fly generals and other senior leaders around the country to improve their situational awareness of the battlefield.
Although smaller than most of the Air Force planes that fly in Iraq, the OSACOM aircraft have earned their keep, according to Col. Jackie Reaves, commander of the Operational Support Airlift Agency, OSACOM's higher headquarters at Davison.
Box-shaped C-23 "Sherpas" have flown more than 19,000 hours, carried more than 56,000 passengers and hauled more than 18 million pounds of cargo in Iraq and Kuwait since February 2004, Reaves said during the ceremony in a hanger where a huge American flag was the backdrop.
Smaller twin-engine C-12s have flown more than eight thousand hours, carried more than 11 thousand passengers and hauled more than 400,000 pounds of cargo in Kuwait and Afghanistan since March 2003, Reaves added.
"The litany of laudatory comments by combatant commanders in theater more than validates our presence and worth, especially when the operative term consistently being used is ‘indispensable,'" Reaves said.
During the ceremony, Capt. David Bartelsmeyer and 1st Sgt. Javier Acosta from the headquarters company of the 20th Combat Aviation Brigade presented Weber and OSACOM Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmy Mills with a Missouri state flag as a token of that state's dedication and commitment to the Iraq mission.
Weber presented Bartelsmeyer with an OSACOM print for the Missouri adjutant general, Maj. Gen. King Sidwell, to represent the command's commitment to Missouri's Soldiers and families involved in the deployment.
Reaves presented the West Virginia state flag to the OSACOM unit's junior ranking Soldier, Spc. Joseph Garland, to represent the 23 state flags that will be flown at the OSACOM headquarters in Balad.
And Maj. Dudley Capps and Capt. Steve Sawyer were presented Certificates of Appreciation on behalf of the National Guard Bureau's action officers who have helped OSACOM prepare for the deployment.
Reaves also extended his "utmost thanks to the families of our warriors."
"Your sacrifices during this time of separation will be many," he told them. "Your willingness to allow your loved ones to go into harm's way places you on the top rung of the selfless-service ladder."