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American Forces Press Service

Aviation Support Soldiers Fill Infantry Role in Iraq

American Forces Press Service

CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE SPEICHER, Iraq, Sept. 18, 2009 – The soldiers of the 277th Aviation Support Battalion, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade’s quick-reaction force are responsible for the safety of the troops and civilians operating here.

It’s an unusual role for the aviation troops -- a mixed crew of drivers, mechanics, medics, fuel and ammunition handlers -- who stepped up to a mission usually tasked to infantry units.

“This is a nonstandard mission for the 277th ASB,” said Army Staff Sgt. Kevin O’Neal, platoon sergeant for the force. “QRF is usually up to the land-owning unit within the theater of operations, but back in 2005 they started tasking the tenant aviation brigade to do it for the simple fact that there weren’t enough infantry units assigned here to [Contingency Operating Base] Speicher.”

On the surface, the quick reaction force’s mission is fairly simple: to quickly react to anything that happens in or around the base. But the reality is much more complex. Their tasks include pulling physical security, responding to indirect fire, assisting convoys attacked by improvised explosive devices, searching vehicles at traffic control points and providing security escorts for Iraqi police.

To prepare for this deployment, the team had to learn infantry tactics and practice soldiering skills many of them hadn’t used since basic combat training.

O’Neal is proud of the way his platoon rose to the challenge, he said.

“This is one of the best platoons I’ve ever had,” he said. “The guys have gone from not understanding the concept of urban operations to being able to go out and do a mounted patrol, which is probably one of the hardest missions to do,” he said. “The soldiers and NCOs, they ensure everyone has a clear understanding of the [techniques, tactics and procedures] we set in. It’s amazing as a leader to see soldiers who don’t have the infantry background evolve and understand it.”

O’Neal estimates his team has responded to about 30 quick-reaction force missions involving indirect fires or IED attacks. But as the country has stabilized and violence lessened, the focus has shifted from being reactive to being proactive. Now, the majority of their operations are humanitarian, civil-affairs type missions. The soldiers visit Iraqi villages to conduct sewage, water, electricity, academics, trash, medical, transportation and agriculture analyses.

“Basically, we go out and assess the situation where the townspeople are; what they need, how the coalition forces or the government of Iraq can better support the populace,” O’Neal explained.

“We do a lot of missions like that,” he said. “Some towns have nothing; they’re asking for wells, for schools. We hand out books; in Al-Salam, we’ve handed out over a thousand books to school children; we’ve dug two wells up north for two different villages.”

O’Neal added that the force also is installing a well in a southern village and they helped obtain seeds at a reduced rate for two seed factories.

It’s during these operations that O’Neal believes U.S. soldiers can have the greatest impact on Iraqi civilians and help develop a lasting peace in the region.

“I keep on the soldiers about putting their best foot forward,” O’Neal said. “I was here in 2003, and we steamrolled through. Now it’s a time of change; we have to build up Iraq to stabilize the Middle East. I know that this platoon is making a difference out there.

“As a responsible nation, we’re trying to help them rebuild,” he continued. “I think it’s important that we’re out there showing them this is what we’re going to do; we’re going to bring our knowledge and experience. It’s all about being a good ambassador.”

Interacting with the locals has put the quick-reaction force soldiers in a unique position to notice the country’s changes over the past year.

“In the year that we’ve been here, there has been progress, you can tell,” Army Staff Sgt. Dwayne Gow said. “The attitude towards us has changed, due to the fact that we’ve gone places where they hadn’t seen an American soldier before, and now they know we’re in the area to help them out if they have any issues or problems.”

Another change came with the June 30 signing of the status-of-forces agreement that made Iraqi forces responsible for leading coalition missions outside the wire. For the quick-reaction force team, that means working closely with the Iraqi police.

“We work very well with the [Iraqi police], actually,” Gow said. “They’re very easy to get along with; you can tell they’re eager to take control of their own area and do what they think is necessary. They take us along with them if they need extra security, or if we have to go out and escort people for projects, things like that. We have no problem communicating with them.

“It’s a good thing that the Iraqis are taking more control, because this is their country,” he continued. “As for us going out with them, and assisting them, whatever will help them stand on their own two feet. I think our job is very important, because it protects our soldiers on the [contingency operating base] and it helps the local nationals. If they have an issue or a problem, they know they can come to us for help.”

For O’Neal, who was here during the initial invasion in 2003 but plans on retiring when he returns to the United Sates, being a part of the quick-reaction force means ending his career on a high note, he said.

“I hope I leave Iraq better than we found it - I believe I do,” O’Neal said. “This is my last [deployment]. I’m retiring after this, so yes, that’s something I think about every day. Maybe I can tell my grandkids -- maybe that’s my legacy -- I helped improve this country.

“I hope my soldiers can say the same thing,” he added. “They might not understand it now because for most of them, this is their first or second deployment, and I don’t think they realize the significance of what they’re doing.

“Maybe two years, three years, 10 years from now they’ll understand what they’ve done as a nation,” he said. “When we first got here, we took out their leader, took out their infrastructure. And yet here, six years later, it’s almost completely rebuilt. We’re doing great things over here.”

(From a Multinational Corps Iraq news release.)

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