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Satellite Soldiers Connect Fast:New York Army National Guard Signal Soldiers Meet a Challenge

June 8, 2011

By Spc. J. P. Lawrence, 42nd Infantry Division, New York Army National Guard

FORT DRUM " They said it couldn’t be done. They said the New York Army National Guard Signal Soldiers didn’t have the skills yet. But Maj. Tim Brown knew better.

Brown, communications officer for the 369th Sustainment Brigade, knew his team of 20 Soldiers from the 369th and the 101st Signal Battalion, had the training, the skills, and the leadership to get the Army’s Joint Network Node and Satellite Transportable Terminal system (JNN-STT) up and running in six hours.

This communications task normally takes days, not hours, to complete.

“The (instructors) told us no Active, Reserve, or National Guard Unit ever set it up so quickly, “Brown said.

But by the end of the six hours, the JNN-STT system connected an estimated 135 devices and 45 phones for New York National Guard Soldiers training at Fort Drum.

“They were one of the best units that I ever worked with,” said Court Heffron a field service representative (FRS) training Soldiers on the equipment. “They know their jobs. We didn’t have to do their job for them.”

The Soldiers, at Fort Drum for annual training, had learned over the last four months how to use the new system. Putting it in service for real"and providing service to other training Guard units-- would be the test of what they had learned.

“To tell the truth,” Brown said, “the FSRs, when I asked them for advice on whether or not this mission is even possible " taking our equipment straight from issuing to make it work " they had their doubts.”

“ They advised me against it. Too tough a mission. Go through the train-up first. On the other hand, I found a couple FSRs who said, “No unit ever, ever does that,” and they were intrigued to find the result,” Brown recalled.

“I knew the guys, and I knew what they were capable of, and everyone agreed that this was the best group of people to do this with,” Brown said. “It’s a remarkable story in that we just rolled out of training and got into the field. Normally, the Army has ‘crawl, walk, run,’ and we just skipped right to running.”

Like a television satellite on steroids, the JNN-STT breaks down into two parts: the JNN, which acts as a digital switchboard; and the STT, or satellite dish. When activated on the battlefield, the JNN-STT system allows units a quick connection to satellites providing Internet, phone, and other communication networks " but only if its crew has the appropriate training required to use it.

What the group did have, however, was understanding of what they needed to do. Each Soldier was given a role based on their strengths.

“When I was putting together the team, I had to carefully choose who my expert was for each piece of equipment,” Brown said. “I had a STT operator who was the best in her class, a JNN operator who was the best in his class, and so on.”

Then, with two weeks left, Brown organized after-class meetings that sometimes ran well past midnight, just to talk about the plan and everyone’s roles. “Everybody had to understand the big picture,” Brown recounted, “so they knew how important their part was.”

The last of these meetings came the night before the big mission. With his Soldiers assembled, Brown told them of what some of the FSRs had told him. “Nobody thinks you can do this,” Brown told his Soldiers. “The FSRs said we’re crazy for trying it.”

The next day, Sgt. Mercy Ameyaw walked up to her station and began connecting her part of Fort Drum to the outside world.

But as Ameyaw, a signals Soldier with the 101st Signal Battalion, flipped through her 50-page tome of satellite locations, she found something that stopped her in her tracks.

“Acquiring the satellite was harder than I thought,” Ameyaw said. “I’m looking to make sure I’m not grasping onto the wrong satellite.

When the JNN-STT works, a signal fires from the unit up to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit before flashing back down to Earth. In this case, the Soldiers were trying to find the satellite that would connect them to Fort Gordon, Ga., home of the United States Army Signal Corps.

The signal has to go to the right satellite first, however, and space is a crowded place. Ameyaw was afraid she was aiming at the wrong piece of sky. Taking matters into her own hands, she shot an azimuth 22,000 miles into space.

“Sometimes, depending on the conditions, you don’t find the satellite, so you have to manually sit there and move the STT over, tick by tick, until you land at the satellite at full strength,” said Ameyaw.

The rest of the team continued work on the system, splitting up to configure the routers, find the satellite and make sure every link links up. Working together was essential.

“The number one thing was communication,” Ameyaw said. “The number two thing was … communication.”

A few phone calls confirmed their success. Their total time: six hours, a time considerably less than the four to five days some other units take.

“It’s a great accomplishment. It would have been a lot harder, but I had a great team,” said Staff Sgt. Keith Boyd of the 101st Signal Battalion. “When you work together as a team, when you have good leadership, you can pretty much accomplish anything.”

Boyd added that the feeling of accomplishment was fleeting in the face of the bigger mission. “I’d like to say I kicked my feet back and had a cigar,” he said, laughing, “but no, we went back to work.”

Ameyaw, who called setting up the STT one of her best missions, agreed.

“You know that the mission is not over. You can’t ever totally relax. It’s an amazing feeling when you’re done, but there’s always more,” she said.



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