Aviation Support Soldiers Keep Helicopters Flying in Iraq
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2008 When Command Sgt. Maj. Keith C. Dawson sees a formation of Army helicopters pass overhead in Baghdad, he knows it is likely that some of his soldiers are working to keep those aircraft aloft.
After AH-64 Apache, UH-60 Blackhawk or CH-47 Chinook helicopters sustain battle damage or are submitted for routine maintenance, 603rd Aviation Support Battalion mechanics “turn those repairs around quickly to get those aircraft back into the fight,” Dawson said today from Iraq during a telephone interview.
Dawson is the 603rd’s senior noncommissioned officer. The battalion is a component of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade posted at Baghdad International Airport. Dawson and his combat support troops deployed to Iraq in May 2007 as part of the “surge” of troops design to disrupt insurgent activity.
Other soldiers in Dawson’s supply and service battalion fix or drive trucks laden with fuel, food, ammunition, parts and other supplies, stock and administer warehouses, cook food, and provide medical treatment, calibration and other services, he said.
These soldiers’ jobs are just as important as the work performed by the rotary-wing mechanics, Dawson pointed out, noting the Army depends upon its logistics system in order to be able to function. Since their arrival in Baghdad in May, Dawson said his soldiers have performed about 115 extensive helicopter inspections.
The rotary-wing mechanics also have completed more than 5,300 work orders of different types, he said.
“Of course, some of that (work) does include the battle-damage repair,” he noted.
Dawson said his soldiers have pumped more than 5 million gallons of aviation fuel and handled more than 818 tons of ammunition.
“And, my transportation people have already logged over 37,000 miles” during fuel- and parts-delivery runs since May, Dawson said. The 603rd’s supply-parts warehouse has handled more than 92,000 supply-request orders, he added.
Dawson said his support soldiers sometimes feel forgotten amid copious news reports highlighting the actions of infantry soldiers fighting and chasing al Qaeda and other insurgents across the Iraqi landscape.
Infantry soldiers deserve all the publicity they get, Dawson pointed out. Yet, he noted, “It takes my folks to maintain those Apaches to keep that air cover overhead” for the infantry.
Morale in the 603rd is good, Dawson said, noting the unit’s reenlistment rate is running between 75 to 85 percent. About 15 soldiers, he said, are waiting to reenlist.
Many junior enlisted soldiers in his unit have performed previous tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan, noted Dawson, who is himself a 26-year Army veteran.
“We have (privates first class) and very young specialists who came to this deployment with a combat patch,” Dawson pointed out.
Some junior enlisted soldiers and younger NCOs in his unit are mulling leaving the Army, Dawson said, citing their stated desire to start a family without the distraction of deployments.
Dawson said he tells his soldiers the Army offers a good, solid career with a generous retirement package.
Staying Army provides other important benefits, the command sergeant major pointed out.
“If they do get out and they go to work in some civilian organization, although they may very well like their job, they will never feel a bond to coworkers as they do here in the military,” Dawson explained. “They’ll never get this kind of a ‘connection’ in any other job that they choose to do.”