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American Forces Press Service

Screaming Eagles Retrieve Aircraft at Jacksonville Port>

By Pfc. Dallas Walker, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

JACKSONVILLE, Fla., Feb. 18, 2004 -- Things have come full circle for the soldiers of 8th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment.

Just over a year ago at Jacksonville, they loaded the helicopters of the "Screaming Eagle" 101st Airborne Division on cargo vessels bound for Kuwait.

This week, these same aircraft arrived back at Jacksonville, and many of the same soldiers, now combat-hardened, were waiting for them.

The USNS Benavidez arrived the afternoon of Feb. 15 after a three-week voyage from the Middle East, carrying 19 CH-47D Chinook helicopters, 38 Black Hawk helicopters, 502 pieces of rolling stock and 182 containers of equipment.

The Benavidez is the first of several ships scheduled to arrive here by the end of March carrying the bulk of the division's equipment, all of which saw extensive service in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The ship sailed from Kuwait to the United States as part of the redeployment of the 101st Airborne Division to Fort Campbell, Ky.

"There is a lot of preparation to be done with rolling stock (vehicles) and air frames," Patterson said. "This is our bread and butter. This is what we train for and why we have a transportation battalion."

Close to 200 Fort Campbell soldiers are working at the port during the high- risk mission battling rain, cold and heavy winds.

"The weather has definitely been a factor in this mission," said Spc. Joshua Swanson from B Company, 8th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment. "As a matter of fact, it has been slowing down progress on the Chinooks, because with higher winds, you have a higher risk and more people are required to stabilize them. It's a little bit harder to do."

The soldiers at the port are playing a key role in getting the helicopters ready for the long flight home to Fort Campbell. "Our mission is to recover the aircraft, clean them and put them back together so they can fly back to Fort Campbell," said Sgt. Shanta Hal, also from 8th Battalion's B Company.

The battalion's part of the port operation wouldn't be possible without the help of another 101st Airborne Division unit. The 106th Transportation Battalion is serving as the reception support battalion for the division and oversees all activities at the port for the 101st.

"We are executing our division deployment plan," said Lt. Col. Randy Patterson, battalion commander. "Being able to deploy is a perishable skill and a critical task."

The Benavidez will be unloaded within four days of docking at the Jacksonville port, leaving the soldiers with the task of preparing the aircraft and equipment for the return to Fort Campbell, Patterson said.

Over the next few days, maintenance crews will work to return Black Hawks and Chinooks to flying condition.

"After we clean them and restore the rotors, the pilots will come and do their ground runs and test the aircraft to make sure all the systems are good," said Sgt. Robert Whitecotton from the 8th Battalion's A Company. "When we get the OK from the pilots and the paperwork is done, they will fly back to Fort Campbell."

The helicopters will fly from the port to Naval Air Station Jacksonville for final staging. Once all maintenance is complete, the helicopters will make the flight home to Fort Campbell, Patterson said.

Meanwhile, work at the port will continue, Patterson said. Containers and rolling stock will move to Fort Campbell by train. The first of five trains is scheduled to roll out of Jacksonville Feb. 20, Patterson said. The port operation should be completed by the end of March, said he added.

(Army Pfc. Dallas Walker is assigned to the Fort Campbell public affairs office, as is James Hinnant, who also contributed to this article.)

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