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NEWS | Jan. 15, 2013

Reservists stand ready to help homeland as part of DCRF mission

By Senior Airman Jason J. Brown 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Since Sept. 11, 2011, the U.S. Army Reserve has mobilized more than 200,000 Soldiers in support of operations around the globe, including Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and New Dawn. However, the need for skilled Soldiers is occasionally warranted within our own borders in response to terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

To meet this need, the Soldiers of Bravo and Delta Companies, 5th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment stand ready and on-call as part of the Defense CBRN Response Force (DCRF), a 5,200-person task force built to assist civilian first responders to save lives, relieve human suffering and facilitate response operations following catastrophic chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) or natural disaster events.

The Soldiers of B. and D. Co. have served on DCRF since Oct. 1, 2011, when they received a two-year assignment to provide up to eight CH-47 Chinook helicopters in support of recovery and relief efforts anywhere within the United States. Upon order, the unit will deploy its forces within 24 hours, calling in more than 150 Reservists to serve as needed.

The companies run a full-time staff of approximately 25 Soldiers performing daily duties and accomplishing flying missions tasked by other agencies during the week. Of these, 10 are Active Guard Reserve Soldiers working their normal full-time shifts, with the remaining Soldiers activated on Active Duty Operation Support, or ADOS, orders in support of DCRF.

Army Reserve Chief Warrant Officer 2 Tyler Thompson, a CH-47 pilot and B. Co. operations officer, said while the unit has not yet been called upon under DCRF, the Soldiers are "ready to go when called upon."

"We were prepared for 'Superstorm Sandy' a few months ago, even though we didn't wind up getting called," said Thompson. "We'd had our routes built, called hotels in the New York and New Jersey areas, had our pilots and crew on-call and had started to pack things. We heard about the damage and destruction on the news, and took the initiative to get ready to go.

"A big part of our planning is finding out what airports in the affected area could support, figuring out who's operational," he continued. "Some of the airports may have been damaged or can't operate as normal, so we called to make sure we found airports that had fuel and could host us to land and establish a tactical operations center and launch from there to accomplish our mission."

To streamline response times, Thompson built 12 binders filled with flight plans in the months leading up to the start of their tasking. The binders include comprehensive information about aviation support facilities across the country that can support the team in their travels.

"For example, if there's an emergency somewhere in Kansas, we know we have an ASF out there, so the books have routes, flight plans and load plans for each and every aircraft," he said. "It's something I can grab and go. I don't need to sit down and plan that flight again - I already have it ready to roll."

The CH-47 Chinooks can carry up to 50,000 pounds, hauling anything from relief supplies like pallets of water and non-perishable food to serving as casualty evacuation aircraft. The unit previously demonstrated the airframe's civil support value during Hurricane Katrina relief operations in New Orleans in September 2005.

"We can move pallets of water, pallets of [meals, ready to eat]. We can lift and reposition concrete barriers and move debris out of the way. We can even serve as a CASEVAC, as we can put 24 litters on each aircraft to move patients. It's an extremely versatile aircraft," Thompson explained. "We can fly faster and at higher altitude than other airframes, flying up to 10,000 feet at optimal performance. We can even carry auxiliary fuel tanks that allow us to be in the air longer."

Sergeant 1st Class Ronnie Hurst, B. Co. enlisted standardization instructor for crews, said the training and preparation that goes into supporting the DCRF mission makes the unit's Soldiers "among the most proficient" in the Army Reserve.

"Everybody imagines the Reserve as 'one weekend a month, two weeks a year.' Our guys have at least another 60 days of training annually to stay proficient," he said. "That ends up making our proficiency rate higher than average across the board. More of us are doing our jobs or training on a daily basis.

"We're operating like an active duty unit in everything we're doing. A lot of us have active duty experience in the past," Hurst continued. "It's extremely beneficial, because when you have to be ready to respond around the clock, you learn what kind of people you have."

While Soldiers will execute the DCRF tasks as they are ordered, they don't succeed without a little help. Hurst credited the civilian employees of the ASF at Felker Army Airfield for keeping the CH-47 fleet ready to go at a moment's notice.

"The biggest challenge is keeping our aircraft ready, and you've got to applaud our civilian maintainers here that work to keep those aircraft ready to go 24/7," he said. "We have to continue flying to get our proficiency, execute mission taskings we receive from other units throughout the week and have a sister company preparing for a deployment to Afghanistan. We couldn't possibly do what we do without their dedication to keeping our aircraft ready."

Thompson and Hurst said the always-on-call nature of the DCRF mission adds a wrinkle into the lives of Soldiers serving in the battalion, as they need to consider their responsibilities when making off-the-clock plans.

"In some ways, I have to build my life around it. If I want to go somewhere for a week on vacation, I need to ensure before I go that someone can fill in for me in case something happens, or that I can get on a plane, fly back immediately and be a part of that first force package," Thompson said. "We know that any extra costs associated to cutting a vacation short to get back in time are our responsibility. We understand that we need to be able to fulfill our obligations."

Despite the immense responsibility that comes with responding immediately at any given time, Thompson said serving the homeland is a rewarding experience.

"It's an honor to be involved and it's a great experience as we continue to fly and train throughout the mission," he said. "We haven't been called yet, and this is a good thing. We're ready to go, but we don't want anything to happen that we would be needed for. An army is great, but you never want to actually have to use it."