News: Flying High with the Stars
Story by Staff Sgt. Michel Sauret
By Staff Sgt. Michel A. Sauret
354th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
CAMP BUEHRING, Kuwait – What do the first lady, Jessica Simpson and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders have in common?
They have all flown with the 1-168th Aviation Battalion stationed here in Kuwait in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The 1-168th has been here since August 2007. They serve as a general support battalion, transporting VIPs and senior leaders into areas around Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. They have escorted leaders such as Sens. John McCain, Joe Liberman, Colin Powel and supplemented the President's own aviation unit. Plus, ever week they fly military leaders and generals ... the true stars of the battlefield.
"We're very fortunate because we feel like we're part of history," said 1st Lt. Jason Miller, pilot and maintenance platoon leader, originally out of Shelton, Wash. "Part of our mission here is supporting the key political leaders and military leaders that are making history as we're living it and witness it first hand. You see the results of it come out in the news."
The aviation battalion, also known as the Raptors, is a joint task force composed of National Guard and Navy Servicemembers.
The National Guard troops are originally from Idaho and Washington. Their troops make up the pilots and flight crews along with the maintenance companies. The Navy component, the 25 15th Naval Air Ambulance Detachment, provides medevac support.
The Raptors also worked with USO programs by transporting celebrities and VIPs to morale events for Servicemembers in Kuwait.
"When we take [celebrities] up in one of our helicopter flights ... they start acting like kids at a fair on the merry-go-round ride," Miller said. "It motivates the celebrities that much more ... so when it's showtime for them, they put in that bit extra in their performance."
The 1-168th has flown comedian Carlos Mancia, rock band Disturbed, the Pussycat Dolls, and helped with Operation Myspace among other assignments. They have also helped organize visits with the PGA Tour and Chuck Norris.
"All of a sudden they're here, right here right now," Miller said. "It almost makes [Servicemembers] feel like they're celebrities for a day. It not only boosts their morale, it gets their enthusiasm going. It totally rejuvenates people ... It's a huge high."
During their visits, celebrities spend time with Servicemembers, take photos and perform private shows on stage just for them. Some even sleep in the same living quarters as Soldiers and serve food in the chow line to those who serve in the fight against terrorism.
"The job has its benefits," said Staff Sgt. Tyler Bramble, squad leader and flight instructor originally out of Maridian, Idaho, but he admitted the deployment came with its own set of challenges.
When the unit first came to Kuwait, they could bring only so many of their own aircrafts. Mostly they fell in on equipment already in place, and much of it needed serious maintenance to get them back into operation.
"The guys rose to the occasion," said Staff Sgt. Michael Luna of his maintenance crew. "It's unbelievable."
Luna is the quality and production control NCO, originally of Tacoma, Wash. and said another challenge was incorporating fresh Soldiers into the unit for the deployment. A good number of them learned Blackhawks maintenance from scratch, and the repairs needed were many. Some of the new Soldiers had come straight out of school, while others transferred from different mechanical fields.
"They had never touched a Blackhawk before, basically," Luna said. "Today I have E-4's doing staff sergeant jobs. They're amazing kids ... they were pretty much our life savers."
Of course, maintenance cannot be overlooked when transporting personnel. Especially when they have such a great influence over thousands of Servicemembers' lives.
"A lot of times the maintenance guys don't get enough credit that they deserve," Miller said. "They're the ones keeping the aircraft in the air, keeping them safe and reliable. The last thing you want to have is an engine go down and have a general of a battlefield go down with it."
The stakes are high when flying such high-profile personnel. A single sandstorm could have much greater repercussions than first imagined. A loosened bolt could drastically change the face of a fight. The everyday Soldier relies on the intel of leaders riding in Blackhawks across the desert.
"This is not like back home," Bramble said. "When we're here, everyday you got these guys depending on the information you're putting down to them."
With that weight of responsibility, it can be easy for flight crews to get overly excited. Except these Raptors understand the need for calm.
"I think in our line of work we try not to get too excited," Miller said. "We try to keep a level head ... We have the lives in our hands of people who are making the mission happening here, the leaders who are making all the shots."
With that kind of mindset, flying with starred generals and celebrities becomes just another mission to lead the fight against terrorism.