By Staff Sgt. Les Newport
Indiana National Guard
BAGHDAD, Iraq - A surveillance team of the 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team operating near the perimeter of Camp Liberty near Baghdad provides security over watch on main supply routes, using a mix of the latest and not-so-new technology. The detachment operates the Rapid Aerostat Initial Deployment system.
1st Lt. Jim Hensel, detachment commander, says the system is very simple, basically a camera on a balloon. Specifically, the balloon is an aerostat, a stationary balloon permanently tethered in place as opposed to a blimp or dirigible that is usually powered by a motor and navigable.
But simple doesn't mean ineffective. The RAID operators can observe supply routes which run through densely populated areas, covering a much larger area than guards in watch towers, and sometimes even more effectively than dismounted patrols.
Hensel is one of only a handful of the detachment that has prior intelligence experience. But the Ft. Wayne native, a military intelligence officer with 152nd Cavalry Bn., Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Targeting Acquisition, says his troops have taken to the new mission.
"Right now, we have the longest operating balloon in theater," said Hensel. "I think they are proud of that."
One of these Soldiers, just recently assigned to the unit, is Pfc. Nathaniel Woerner, of Indianapolis. Woerner came to the unit with the long term goal of entering the active duty special forces. His time spent observing operations from a distance has only increased his aspirations.
"Not everyone gets this (mission), an ability to see outside the wall," said Woerner.
Woerner said he knows he has set an ambitious goal and spends much of his free time conditioning for the physical demands he would face in special operations training. But the Indiana National Guardsman is also working to sharpen his mind, enrolling in an online sociology course. He can talk at length about how the theories he studies apply to the scenes he can see played out just beyond the perimeter of the installation.
Most concerning for Woerner is the stark contrast between the conflict that works to undermine progress in Iraq, and the temperament of the people of Iraq he sees daily on the supply routes he surveys: "They're so friendly," said Woerner. "How can people so friendly have so much chaos?"
A fellow Soldier, Spc. Josh Trautman, says the technology of the RAID system is a resource that can help reduce that chaos by freeing up more Soldiers to focus on counterinsurgency missions and sustainable security.
"When we can take some of the emphasis off security, they can direct more attention to others areas," said Trautman, a full-time nursing student studying anesthetics.
The 24/7 mission can grow challenging when there is nothing to report, but Trautman says that can change quickly.
"This room fills up pretty quick," said Trautman.
According to Trautman, the smallest indication of trouble generates a lot of attention.
"That's good. That means we have people who care and are paying attention... keeping people safe," said Trautman.
Recently, the unit thought it had become the target of hostile action when tracer rounds from small arms fire were observed near the aerostat, but after a quick check with higher headquarters they learned the rounds were the result of celebratory fire after the Iraqi national soccer team won an important match.
"I guess they do that," Trautman said with a shrug and a smile.
Hensel said that because of the unique nature of the mission, the unit receives a lot of attention, playing host to a frequent dignitaries and senior officials: "Just about every battalion and brigade commander wants to see the capability."
Hensel said a recent visit from Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, Chief of National Guard Bureau was a highlight for the unit.
"We were excited about that. We received coins, and it made (the unit) feel good to know that someone was interested enough to come and see what they're doing," said Hensel.
Hensel said recent security gains by the Iraqi government and a trending towards normalcy have made his primary mission, to provide actionable intelligence to units operating in his area, less demanding.
"There's been a significant drop," said Hensel of the reportable incidents in his area. "They find a couple of IEDs... but it's improved."
For that, Hensel said the unit is grateful, since the operators have hundreds of fellow 76th BCT Soldiers providing convoy security on the supply routes.
"They feel like they're doing a great service here. Every one of them, they feel like they're making a difference," said Hensel.
This work, Nighthawk surveillance team provides security, spurs progress, by SSG Les Newport, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.