MISSION TO AFGHANISTAN: Deployed to the front lines
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHANK, Afghanistan — The whirling sounds of huge helicopter blades piercing the fragile Afghanistan sky emanate a certain amount of power over a land torn by war since the late 1970s when the Soviet army invaded the country.Since late 2001 after terrorists hijacked four passenger jets — ramming two into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon, while crashing a fourth in a western Pennsylvania field after passengers overpowered the hijackers — the United States considered Afghanistan a breeding ground for terrorism.For the past 12 years, units have deployed and left Afghanistan, some numerous times including those from the Silver State. Bravo Company, 189th General Support Aviation Battalion, a unit consisting of Chinook CH-47D helicopters, left Reno during the late winter and arrived in country during the spring after further training in Texas. Now three-quarters finished with its deployment, the Nevada Army National Guard company will re-deploy to the United States sometime within the next 60 days from Forward Operating Base Shank, a major staging base southwest of the capital Kabul and nearer to insurgent activity against NATO forces.This has also been a bittersweet deployment for several pilots and crew members who served at Kandahar Air Field in 2005-2006. In September 2005, an insurgent rocket propelled grenade (RPG) shot down a Chinook helicopter, killing five guardsmen including two from Nevada.Company’s second deploymentCompany commander Capt. Michael Bordallo has considered the deployment a success for the Nevada aviators and crew who deployed to Afghanistan, their second call-up since 2005-2006.“The mission primarily for us has been that of general support. That’s with night vision goggles and daytime general support,” the 32-year-old Bordallo explained in his small office located in a corner of the command post building, less than 200 yards from the flight line.Bordallo, who is married but has no children, initially enlisted in the Army and served four years active duty. He spent time with the 101st Airborne Division at Ft. Campbell, Ky. After leaving the service, he moved to Las Vegas, received his bachelor’s degree from Nevada State College and then began graduate studies at UNLV. The Vacaville, Calif., native also discovered he missed the military and joined the Nevada Army National Guard where he completed Officer Candidate School at the Nevada Guard’s school house at Stead and then attended flight school at Ft. Rucker, Ala.In addition to conducting general support movements, Bordallo said the 50-member Bravo Company has performed missions to transport special operations soldiers from one point to another, but since the operations were classified as secret, Bordallo cannot discuss them.Additionally, about the same number of Montana aviators and crew members deployed with Nevada, but most of those soldiers are at another field.No matter the mission, Bordallo said the CH47D Chinook helicopter performs magnificently in Afghanistan.“This aircraft is so capable in this environment,” Bordallo explained, noting the helicopter and the Nevada crews can perform missions in a high-altitude environment. FOB Shank, for example, sits in a high-desert valley of 6,600 feet surrounded by mountain peaks towering more than 10,000 feet.The mission has expanded for Chinook companies like the Nevada Army National Guard unit.“The Chinooks used to be a division asset. We would move beans and bullets,” Bordallo said.Now, the CH47Ds take a more direct role in supporting Task Force operations.“In this war and environment, the Chinook is just it. What they got is a unit where the guys from Nevada are used to dust, dark and high altitude,” said Bordallo, who has been company commander for two years.Bordallo praises his aviators and mechanics who keep the “birds” operational. He also praises his team because they have trained in an environment similar to that of Afghanistan. Nevada, with its lofty peaks and desert terrain, has been used by components of every service to train for duty in Afghanistan. Bordallo firmly believes the environment has given the Silver State soldiers an edge against similar aviation units from Connecticut or Pennsylvania, which have rolling hills, not jutting mountains reaching out to the sky.“It’s not the same training environment,” Bordallo quickly points out.Yet, what makes the playing field even may be the tired Chinooks, most of which belonged to Hawaii’s National Guard but are now entering their third rotation with a Guard aviation company. Some CH47s, though, have been in country — and specifically FOB Shank — for at least four rotations.Eventually, the CH47Fs, which are being flown by another unit at Shank, will replace the 47Ds. Bordallo said these helicopters have a higher level of technological systems and rely on more digital components. Nevada, for example, will receive its allotment of 47Fs in 2015.Successful missionBordallo enjoys his stint as company commander and says living conditions for his soldiers have been more than adequate. Further south at Kandahar Air Field, one of the largest coalition military installations in Afghanistan, Bordallo said a detachment of Nevada and Montana soldiers must hop on the bus for a 45-minute ride each way from their living quarters to the field. Most wake up at 3 a.m. and are on the bus in an hour.Because of Shank’s size, Nevada guardsmen do not encounter the same logistical headaches.“We can roll out of our tents and walk five minutes to the flight line,” Bordallo said. “We have creature comforts … satellite AFN repeater dishes in some tents … for an FOB, this is not too shabby.”The dining hall is also a five-minute walk from the 189th’s command post, but Shank’s small post exchange sits on the other side of the installation, a 10-minute drive.As the unit begins to wind down its mission, Bordallo said morale remains high although the soldiers are tired and feel angst about returning home early next year; yet, Bordallo touts the overall mission a success.“Given where we are and the environment we fly in, I consider this a success,” Bordallo said.Impressing the Task ForceLt. Col. Charles “Chuck” Rambo has served in the Army for 17 years. As a young boy, Rambo, the battalion commander for Task Force Eagle Assault that is part of the 5th Battalion, 101st Combat AviationBrigade, also spent time at Ft. Campbell when his father was assigned there.This marks Rambo’s fourth deployment to a war zone.His praise of the 189th is as high as any he would give to an active component unit.“They are as good as any unit I have here. I would not survive without them, and their capability provided to ground units is invaluable,” he said from the TFcommand building, a short walk from Bravo Company’s command post.Since the United States became involved in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq 10 years ago, he said a major training gap existed between active Army and the National Guard units. Because of the Guard’s multiple deployments and combat experience, Rambo said what the citizen-soldiers bring to the war zone is unmatched, and he has relied on the 189th since the unit deployed in country before the 101st arrived.“They had been in theater for two months before us. We were the new kids on the street,” Rambo said. “They are a very professional organization, and we had no worries in making them part of our team.”When asked if the Bravo Company had to prove itself to the 101st, Rambo thought for a minute and leaned forward at his desk. “No, we had to prove ourselves to them.”Doing more with lessThe mission has been a success despite the number of soldiers being sent home early to meet drawdown requirements established by the Pentagon. In early October, the company trimmed a handful of aviators and mechanics, that, despite FOB Shank begin close to the war. Bordallo said the reductions have been significant and pose challenges for both the company and its higher headquarters.“We had to send home six mechanics,” Bordallo said. “That’s substantial for our 10 helicopters. Chinooks are high maintenance, but I had no say. The decision came down in an operations order from division. The 101st came over with 800 soldiers less the 82nd Airborne, but the missions don’t lessen it.”As company commander, though he carries out the orders of higher command.The final countdownThe countdown to leave Afghanistan, though, is on for coming home. Bordallo calls the final two months as “calm optimism” but insists his soldiers are not letting their guard down. Missions must still be executed successfully. Bordallo’s goal is for everyone to return home safe.“We pick up soldiers from the field all the time. When we lift the landing gears up from a COB, there’s a sigh of relief from the soldiers … screams, claps, yells. … you can just feel the sense of relief. We got a job to do,” Bordallo added.As his crews pluck soldiers up from other bases, so, too, will Nevada guardsmen face challenges when they return home. Bordallo said coming home from a war zone presents challenges for both his soldiers and their families.