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Airborne staff connects ground forces

by Army Sgt. Alexandra Hemmerly-Brown
210th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

5/9/2007 - BALAD AIR BASE/LOGISTICS SUPPORT AREA ANACONDA, Iraq (AFNEWS) -- Convoys going on patrols in Iraq can run into problems when they lose communication.

Communication is an integral factor in ensuring servicemembers' safety while on the roads. It can be the difference between mission success and failure.

Unknown to many road-faring warriors, a lifeline is already in place, listening in on them from above.

"If we hear somebody who doesn't know we are there, but keeps repeatedly calling a forward operating base that isn't answering, we will answer," said Maj. Dean Catalano, Joint Airborne Battle Staff detachment commander. "A lot of them don't realize we are even up there."

The Joint Airborne Battle Staff is a joint-service communications unit whose sole purpose is to listen in on convoys on the ground and to give assistance to those units when needed. They act as the go-between for convoys and the bases they need to reach.

"Basically, we're 911 operators at 20,000 feet," said Army Staff Sgt. William Parchim, an indirect fire mortarman with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, attached to the battle staff unit. "A lot of times, there are dead areas where units cannot communicate, and that is where the battle staff comes in. We make sure those units are able to communicate with someone."

The unit is augmented with servicemembers from almost every branch of the military. Additionally, they are carried aloft and positioned for their mission in C-130 Hercules aircraft operated by the 777th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, a combat aerial delivery squadron based at Balad Air Base, Iraq. While they fly, they monitor several radio channels at a time and relay calls ranging from routine radio checks to medical evacuation requests.

The team's mission has been in existence for less than a year, Major Catalano said.

Before Multi-National Force-Iraq established the unit, aircraft flying above convoys sometimes would receive communications from the troops on the ground asking for help, he said. It was only by chance those planes were at the right place at the right time. The aircrews were able to use their communications equipment to help out. Soon it was recognized as a full-time need.

Sergeant Parchim, on his third deployment in Iraq, is familiar with being on the receiving end of communications help. An infantryman by trade, he has been in convoys when they needed to call upward for support.

"Having been on both sides, now that I'm with the battle staff, I understand the importance of the communications aspect," he said.

The sergeant said the alternative to the battle staff support probably would be more communications outposts on the ground which would have to be manned, meaning more lives at risk.

"Our personnel here are doing the job, I estimate, of several hundred," he said.

Each team member is either a 'battle-staffer' or a 'tech.' The battle staff members are the actual operators who speak to convoys and relay reports, while the technicians ensure the equipment is operating properly.

Occasionally, while in flight, the team can run into problems with communication, which is why they have experienced technicians on board, said Navy Chief Petty Officer David Bell, a battle staff member of the team.

Some of the interferences include altitude problems and weather problems such as rain or sand storms. The team members always work as fast as they can to side-step these issues and return to full operating capacity in order to help their comrades on the ground.

"I think the most important part of this mission is saving lives," Chief Bell said. "If we can save one life, then it's worth it."

The only team of its kind in Iraq, unit members take pride in the helping hand they give, said Major Catalano.

"Everybody on this team realizes how important this is to guys on the ground," he said.

As demonstrated by Sergeant Parchim, who knows from experience, the job of the 'eye in the sky' is one that keeps ground troops safe and helps them in times of trouble.

"The best part of my job is knowing we are saving lives and providing a valuable asset for troops who are more often than not in trouble and don't have anybody else to talk to," the sergeant said.

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