BAGHDAD — In Iraq, there are hundreds of aircraft in the sky every day; landing, taking off, and patrolling.
It's the job of the sentinel radar teams assigned to Multi-National Division — Baghdad, operating in relative obscurity, to monitor and make sure the skies are safe.
At Forward Operating Base Hammer, on the far eastern outskirts of Baghdad, that team consists of three Soldiers from 26th Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Fires Brigade, who, on a rotating basis, keep track of the spinning radar.
"We keep track of helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles...to make sure they don't hit each other," said Staff Sgt. Valentine Smith, a radar mechanic. "We're kinda like aircraft controllers...there are a lot of birds flying around up there, a lot of them."
The sophisticated radar system interlocks with other radars positioned throughout Baghdad to provide full coverage of aircraft, or birds, in the sky down to the smallest detail.
"The radar pings a bird and asks, 'Are you friendly or not?'" said Smith, adding that it also describes the type of aircraft.
These Soldiers knew they were coming to Iraq to operate a radar system that none of them had previously worked on, but they have transitioned successfully.
"The hardest challenge for me was the software, but between the three of us, we figure it out pretty well," explained Smith, from Yonkers, N.Y.
Spc. Antoine Maines, a radar operator, worked on similar machines, but this was a first time for him with the radar.
"For me, the transition was a little easier because it's the same thing, it just spins 360 degrees," said Maines, from Rapids City, S.D., describing the rotating portable radar. "We just adapt and overcome."
Before coming here, Soldiers went through a cursory two-week course on the system, giving them the confidence to operate the machinery and keep it running 24 hours a day.
"It's weird, it keeps track of everything," added Maines. "We know what we're doing and the impact that we're having, but the average Soldier doesn't know...We are like the guys behind the curtain."
In this case, the curtain is large camouflage netting concealing multiple generators and a complex radar control center that wouldn't solicit a second glance from Soldiers.
The transition to this job has been the most extreme for field artillery meteorological crewmember Sgt. Leon Praxton.
"The biggest thing was just getting here to Iraq and us doing the job," admitted Praxton. "I just shadowed my non-commissioned officer in charge when I first started working on it and that made for a smooth transition."
For optimistic and flexible Soldiers like this sentinel radar crew, the shift was pretty painless, added Praxton.
"It's different from our military occupational specialty, but it's not hard to do," explained Praxton, a native of Houston. "If something goes wrong, that's when it's hard, but we have a lot of support from division...and we rely on our wits and instincts."
Being able to track helicopters throughout Baghdad can have a serious effect on saving lives if an aircraft ever goes down and Praxton is proud to be able to help his fellow service members.
"Nowadays, with the danger of traveling in a convoy, everybody uses CH-47 Chinooks or UH-60 Black Hawks to hop from FOB to FOB, and we're a little piece of the puzzle to keep people safe," said Smith with a smile. "As long as we're doing our job nobody realizes it, so that's a good thing."
This work, Radar crew keeps their eyes on the skies, by MSG Mark Burrell, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.