Tag Archives: U.S. Army

Never forget

By Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras
Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul

QALAT CITY, Afghanistan — It was a day like any other, but one I’ll never forget; it was beautiful, with the sun rising behind the New York City skyline. I was a seventh grader sitting in class waiting for my teacher to call attendance.

Nothing seemed different from the day prior. Children were in the corner rushing to finish last night’s homework as the teacher was walking in with her bag full of books in her right hand and coffee in her left.

“One of my students says he just saw a plane go in the twin towers,” says Michele Mortoral with worry in her voice as she is rushing into my class.

“Tell him to stop kidding around,” jokingly says Jane Lynch, my seventh grade teacher.

My classmates are rushing to the windows to see one of the twin towers on fire, with dark smoke rising into the beautiful blue sky. The sky is beginning to turn gray, as if it is about to rain. My friends are beginning to panic and the teachers are trying to calm us to the best of their ability. There is fear and worry in the room. I am staring out the window wondering; “Why is this happening…Did the pilot fall asleep…Isn’t there a co-pilot?”

We are starting to wonder where our families are. I’m worrying about where my father could be. He is a messenger and does trips between North Jersey and New York City daily. There are days where he has to go in and out of New York City about six times a day. My mother is at her restaurant taking orders, like every other morning.

The teachers at Lincoln School are working really hard trying to continue class to keep it off our minds, but there is no way that is possible. I switch classes, from homeroom to math class. Ms. Rachel Mullane is teaching in front of the class.

Some of my classmates are staring out the window, looking at one of the twin towers burning the sky with smoke like a lit cigar. Some of them are actually paying attention in class, not understanding how big and historical this is. The rest, like me, are sitting at our desks worrying about our families.

“There is the other one,” someone yells, while pointing out the window. His pointing finger freezes in mid-air while his arm slowly shifts from left to right. He is following the plane like a sniper following a target. The class is in complete shock and very quiet, just watching.

At 9:03 a.m., I am watching a Boeing 767 hit tower two in front of my eyes. I am 12-years-old and my eyes are completely dry and focused, but at least ten other pairs of eyes are tearing. My classmates begin to panic. They feel like running out of the classroom, but Mullane is blocking the classroom door so no one can leave class. Safety is a teacher’s responsibility so it’s understandable.

“Attention!” says a familiar voice over the loudspeaker, “We are under attack but we need to remain calm.”

The voice is Michael Ventolo, my principal and a very happy person, but in his tone, I know this is too serious to think of him as a happy person behind the microphone. Fear and worry have just thickened the air. I can smell it.

“Grovert Fuentes” says Mullane, “Your mother is downstairs. Pack your books, you can go home.” I am relieved to know that my mother is well and I can go home with my mother and little brothers. One of my brothers is five and in kindergarten, in the same school as me. My two-year-old brother is at home with the babysitter.

The look my mother has on her face, I have never seen before. She is a brave woman with lots of courage. Her face reassures me that this is a serious situation.

On the ride home, my mother is telling me how worried she is about my father. She can’t get in touch with him. She’s taking red lights and breaking the speed limit. We arrive home and continue calling my father, but no answer. The cell phone towers are down and we can’t get through. The calls that can get through are giving us the busy tone.

For the next few hours, my mother and I are glued to the television, waiting to hear details. At 9:37 a.m., we find out that the Pentagon is also hit. We do not know what to do, nor what to expect, but we do know that the president is about to come on TV and make a speech.

“Today we’ve had a national tragedy,” says the President of the United States, George W. Bush. “Two airplanes have crashed into the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack on our country.”

Finally, around 11 a.m., my father calls to tell us he is safe, and has just exited the Lincoln Tunnel, but is stuck in New York City. He is also telling us that traffic is frozen and many people are abandoning their vehicles to run through the tunnel, to the New Jersey side.

5 p.m. comes around and my father comes home. Our family is united and we are happy to see each other again.

A decade later, I am away from my family again.

I am a combat photographer standing on Afghan soil with plenty of Taliban around me. Some ask me why I volunteered for this deployment. On Feb. 21, 2010, shortly after my return from Iraq, U.S. Army Sgt. Marcos Antonio Gorra died in the line of combat. He was a hometown friend, who died on this same soil I stand on today. He died for freedom and for those towers.

I’ve been exposed to explosives, rockets, and gunfire, yet, I’m still glad to be where I am now; I’m defending what I saw 10 years ago and trying to keep the fight on their soil instead of ours.

Many ask me my reason for joining and I say, “My biggest reason is because of 9/11. It is a day that I will never forget.”

Photo: U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Grovert Fuentes-Contreras, a combat photographer assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul, stands on top of Alexander’s Castle in Qalat City, Afghanistan, July 17, 2011. (Courtesy photo)

Sixty-Three, and Still Flexible

By Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, IV, U.S. Army, Commanding General of the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan in Kabul, Afghanistan

On the 63rd birthday of the Air Force as an independent service, I am reminded of one word – flexibility.  The Airmen serving in Afghanistan as a part of the NATO Training Mission prove this concept.  Air Force personnel are providing a critical capability for their Afghan partners– performing administration for the Coalition and Joint force, being advisors to the Ministries of Interior and Defense, and being instructors for English, airframe maintenance, and flight operations.

The efforts and impacts of this incredible service by our Airmen have created dividends that can be seen not only inside Afghanistan, but throughout the region as well.  As adverse weather caused the rivers to rise, flooding Southern Afghanistan, it was the Afghan Air Force that provided search and rescue and humanitarian support.  When the waters rose in Pakistan to kill thousands and displace millions, the Afghan Air Force sent four helicopters to support their brothers and sisters to the East.  Completely independent of Coalition personnel, they planned and executed 377 sorties, transported 1,904 passengers to safety, rescued 120 flood victims, and transported 188.5 tons of relief supplies.  All together, their support saved thousands of lives, feeding 200,000 families for a week. NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan Change of Command Ceremony
As professional and dedicated professionals, our Airmen are serving as an example for leadership and mission accomplishment.  These efforts show that the U.S. Air Force is more than merely about traditional air power.  This evolution was identified by the father of the modern Air Force, General Billy Mitchell, 86 years ago.  He said that “In the development of air power, one has to look ahead and not backward and figure out what is going to happen, not too much of what has happened.”  The future that we see today in Afghanistan is the development of the Afghan National Security Force.  Only when they are a professional force that can serve and protect the Afghan people will our mission be accomplished. 

The tip of the spear in this effort are trainers like those Airmen developing the Afghan Air Force – as the Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said recently, “no trainers, no transition.”  Our Airmen are critical to this effort, adding to the distinguished history of their Service.  This is truly the mission of our generation, and the Airmen of NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan are rising to the occasion.  Happy Birthday Air Force, and well done.

PHOTO: Brig. Gen. David W. Allvin, Commanding General, Incoming Commander, NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan, left; Brig. Gen. Michael Boera, Outgoing Commander, NATO Air Training
Command-Afghanistan; Lt. Gen. Gilmary Hostage, Commander, U.S. Air Forces Central Command; and Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, Commanding General, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan. NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan Change of Command Ceremony, Sep 7, 2010, US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class David Quillen.

Combat Camera — Overhead Imagery

As part of their airborne mission, the 55th Signal Combat Camera Company has started training with aviation units.  The Combat Camera Company operates and maintains combat camera imagery systems in support of strategic, operational and tactical theater objectives of military operations.  Lieutenant Colonel Kjäll Gopaul, Deputy Director of the Joint and Air Staff Liaison Office, highlights a recent airborne training event and its Total Force integration. 

It was hot – brutally so — and the Marshalling Area Control Officer (MACO) for the paradrop exercise was starting his pre-jump mantra. 

“I am Sergeant First Class Rodrick Jackson, and I will now provide your MACO brief….” 

The blistering 102° heat was oppressive and made it hard to focus on anything for very long.

“Drop altitude will be 1500 feet AGL….six  drops per pass…”

The combined weight of the combat gear with the main and reserve parachutes made it increasingly difficult to stand.

“Direction of flight is northwest … first jumper — we want you to make it to the ‘X’ on the drop zone…”

Drinking water helped, but it required extra effort to concentrate on everything being said. 

“Any questions?…Line up in chalk order!”

As the temperature rose to record highs at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, on 7 July, 34 Soldiers soared closer to a blazing sun on wings of silk to reach new heights of their own.  In an airborne exercise that played out like a textbook Total Force success story, the 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera) from Fort Meade led a team of Reserve and National Guard units in the groundbreaking paradrop of personnel from a helicopter onto the sun-scorched Bowling Green Drop Zone.   The ambitious event had been weeks in the making, and was flawlessly executed in just a matter of hours by the air-ground cooperative.  With each pass over the drop zone, a short staccato of six streamers burst downward from the Black Hawk helicopter, softly blossoming into parachutes in the aircraft’s wake and gracefully alighting on the rolling greenway.

Captain Rock Stevens, the Executive Officer for the 55th  Signal Company (Combat Camera), highlighted the significance of the training.  “Today’s exercise was a historic moment for the 55th, since it was the first Combat Camera-led airborne operation.  This was a huge step forward – a proof of concept demonstrating that our unit can lead air operations involving rotary or fixed wing aircraft.  Now we can step it up with slingloads or follow-on missions.  In combat, we support all combat arms — providing commanders with a battlefield perspective of the front line.  While we’re sometimes considered an after-thought, now we’ve shown that we can be part of the main effort – defeating enemy propaganda and running air operations.”  

Lieutenant Colonel John Harris, commander, 114th Signal Battalion, noted the almost symbiotic nature of the exercise’s planning and execution.  “There are actually a lot of small units in the area that have an airborne mission and need this training.  But since no one unit is large enough, it takes our informal ‘Mid-Atlantic Airborne Coalition’ to get organized and pull something like this off.  And by working together, we all maintain proficiency on our airborne mission essential tasks.” 

Lieutenant Colonel Harris underscored the value of proficiency training saying, “The 55th Combat Camera has a real need to keep their skills current — we had 24 Soldiers jump today.  Our combat camera teams support the Rangers, the 82nd Airborne Division, and special operations units; and as more of our missions involve integrating with these types of forces, training like today’s jump ensures that we can support them.  This exercise fostered team building; the same units we jumped with today — Operational Detachment Alpha Special Operations Forces, riggers, Civil Affairs, and aviation — are the types that we’ll work with in the future:  Definitely, this was the beginning of embedded training with units that we’ll support.” 

Specialist Christopher Baker, a combat photographer for the 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera), also emphasized the credibility this training provides when embedded with other organizations.   “We deploy with multiple units, and sometimes they don’t think we do a lot because we a carry a camera.  But if you have jump wings or an Air Assault badge, they look at you like you have more to offer to the mission.  They put more stock in you. This builds up a rapport and camaraderie with the guys that you’re going out with.” 

And the 55th Signal Company is “going out” a lot!  Major Tyler Shelbert, the company commander, described the unit’s high operational tempo.  “About a third of the company is deployed at any time for Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and various other contingency operations.  In fact, we just had 22 Soldiers return from Iraq, and another 20 are getting ready to go Afghanistan right now.  Increasingly more of our Soldiers are being embedded with front line units, which places a pretty heavy demand on the limited airborne authorized billets in the company.” 

One of the unit’s high-demand paratroopers, Specialist Derrick Tolliver, an all-wheel mechanic, described the experience of parachuting from a helicopter rather than a C-130 cargo plane.  “I last jumped about 3 weeks ago out of a C-130, and it’s totally different.  On a C-130, you sit on a bench seat inside a cramped, closed aircraft, push your way to the door to jump out, and then get snapped around by the shock of the opening parachute.  With a Black Hawk, you sit in the open doorway the whole time, with your legs just flying in the breeze and simply push yourself off the edge.  And you don’t have that initial shock; instead, it’s a very smooth opening.  I think it’s better because it’s simpler.” 

Specialist Baker echoed similar sentiments about the heliborne jump.  “This is my first time out of a Black Hawk.  It was eye-opening… it’s different.  In a C-130, you never see out the door until you jump out; you just follow everyone else in a line to exit the aircraft —there’s no thought process.  But in a Black Hawk, you sit there on the edge and watch the landscape and drop zone develop in front of you.  So this was my first time actually seeing what I was jumping into.  It makes you think more about the jump.” 

Providing that new perspective was a UH-60 Black Hawk aircrew from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, of the Virginia Army National Guard’s Army Aviation Support Facility at Sandston.  Major W. Keith Nunnally, the battalion operations officer and one of the mission’s pilots, remarked on how smoothly the exercise was executed. “It was a typical summer day with a low breeze — a little hot perhaps — and the drops happened effortlessly.  Training also went very well for the aircrew.   This was our first time training with these units, since we usually support jumps at Fort Bragg or the Rigger School at Fort Lee.   Since tactical jumps are normally conducted by the Air Force, you’ll find that this is not a typical task for most Army aviation units.  That said, paradrops are part of our Commander’s Task List for selected members of our unit to maintain proficiency, and this exercise provided a good training opportunity for us.”  

In addition, some Soldiers of the 55th Signal Company who are going to Air Assault School soon received slingload instruction on the DZ to have a leg up before arriving at the course.  Sergeant Jason Bushong, multi-media team leader, 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera), thought the hands-on preparation was useful.  “This was our second prep class today.  Last month we learned about aircraft capabilities, mission planning, and rigged a HMMWV slingload.   This time we practiced the hand-and-arm signals that guide a helicopter, set up a tactical landing zone incorporating glide-slope ratios, and rehearsed how the ground crew and aircrew work together to accomplish the slingload.  You can read the manual, but that can be pretty dry.  Getting hands-on training is beneficial since it fills in some of the gaps you hadn’t thought of.” 

Major Shelbert summed up the reason for the exercise’s success with one word, “Flexibility… We had a solid plan and were able to adjust to some minor, last-minute changes.  To coordinate the execution of 5 diverse organizations and pull all of this together is quite an experience.  It was good working with the other units and learning from each other about improving our airborne operations.”

Photo caption, upper left: SFC Roderick Jackson of the 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera), 114th Signal Battalion, performs a jump master personnel inspection on a soldier during an airborne operation at Fort A.P. Hill Va. on July 7, 2010. This was the 55th’s first time hosting their own Airborne Operation in the history of the unit. (U.S. Army photo by PFC Brian Kohl) 

Photo caption, middle right: Soldiers of the 55th Signal Company (Combat Combat) take off in a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from HHC/2-224 Aviation for an airborne operation at Fort A.P. Hill Va. on July 7, 2010. (U.S. Army photo by CPL Benjamin Boren) 

Photo caption, middle left: Soldiers of the 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera) prepare to board a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from HHC/2-224 Aviation for an airborne operation at Fort A.P. Hill Va. on July 7, 2010. (U.S. Army photo by CPL Benjamin Boren)

Photo caption, bottom right: Soldiers of the 55th Signal Company (Combat Combat) take off in a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from HHC/2-224 Aviation for an airborne operation at Fort A.P. Hill Va. on July 7, 2010.  (U.S. Army photo by CPL Benjamin Boren)

Happy Birthday, Army!

For 235 years, the United States Army has truly been the strength of our nation.  And today, I believe it is the best it has ever been.

One of the great privileges of this job is visiting our men and women in uniform, including our Soldiers, who serve around the world.  From Fort Hood to Kandahar and posts and FOBs in between, I am proud of and grateful for the courage you and your families display and the sacrifices you make every day.  You embody  what “Army Strong” is all about.

In a year that has seen historic progress in Iraq, a renewed effort in Afghanistan and a superb response to the humanitarian crisis following Haiti’s earthquake, the Army’s fighting spirit, resilience, and adaptability proved critical.  You brought fear to the enemy, hope to the destitute and security to your fellow citizens.  You proved in word and in deed that sometimes we defend our national interests best when we help others defend theirs.

I am also ever mindful of the commitment we must make to the fallen, our wounded warriors, and their families.  Their sacrifices are as profound as they are enduring, and we will always honor those who have given so much to our Army, our country, and the world.

On behalf of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Happy 235th birthday to our Army and our Army Families.  Hooah!

– Adm. Mike Mullen

Remembering the Fallen–A Soldier Comes Home

In the past, we’ve brought you blog posts about fallen servicemembers. These stories are a reminder and tribute to the men and women who make the ultimate sacrifice while serving our country. While the media usually covers stories about the fallen heroes, other events sometimes push aside the importance of recognizing the military. Below is a background paragraph about a letter (full text below) that was published in the Washington Post about Lt. Brian Bradshaw, 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Airborne Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, who was killed in Afghanistan on June 25. The letter comes from Capt. James Adair and Master Sgt. Paul Riley of the Georgia Air National Guard, who flew Lt. Bradshaw from a forward base to Bagram Air Base for his final flight home.

“On July 5, The Post published a letter from Martha Gillis of Springfield, whose nephew, Lt. Brian Bradshaw, was killed in Afghanistan on June 25, the day that Michael Jackson died. The letter criticized the extensive media coverage of Jackson’s death compared with the brief coverage of Lt. Bradshaw’s death. Among the responses was the following letter, written July 9 by an Air National Guard pilot and a fellow member of the crew that flew Lt. Bradshaw’s body from a forward base in Afghanistan to Bagram Air Base. Capt. James Adair, one of the plane’s pilots, asked the editorial page staff to forward the letter to the Bradshaw family. He and Brian Bradshaw’s parents then agreed to publication of these excerpts.”

Full letter by the Guardsmen:

Dear Bradshaw Family,

We were crew members on the C-130 that flew in to pick up Lt. Brian Bradshaw after he was killed. We are Georgia Air National Guardsmen deployed to Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom. We support the front-line troops by flying them food, water, fuel, ammunition and just about anything they need to fight. On occasion we have the privilege to begin the final journey home for our fallen troops. Below are the details to the best of our memory about what happened after Brian’s death.

We landed using night-vision goggles. Because of the blackout conditions, it seemed as if it was the darkest part of the night. As we turned off the runway to position our plane, we saw what appeared to be hundreds of soldiers from Brian’s company standing in formation in the darkness. Once we were parked, members of his unit asked us to shut down our engines. This is not normal operating procedure for that location. We are to keep the aircraft’s power on in case of maintenance or concerns about the hostile environment. The plane has an extremely loud self-contained power unit. Again, we were asked whether there was any way to turn that off for the ceremony that was going to take place. We readily complied after one of our crew members was able to find a power cart nearby. Another aircraft that landed after us was asked to do the same. We were able to shut down and keep lighting in the back of the aircraft, which was the only light in the surrounding area. We configured the back of the plane to receive Brian and hurried off to stand in the formation as he was carried aboard.

Brian’s whole company had marched to the site with their colors flying prior to our arrival. His platoon lined both sides of our aircraft’s ramp while the rest were standing behind them. As the ambulance approached, the formation was called to attention. As Brian passed the formation, members shouted “Present arms” and everyone saluted. The salute was held until he was placed inside the aircraft and then the senior commanders, the sergeant major and the chaplain spoke a few words.

Afterward, we prepared to take off and head back to our base. His death was so sudden that there was no time to complete the paperwork needed to transfer him. We were only given his name, Lt. Brian Bradshaw. With that we accepted the transfer. Members of Brian’s unit approached us and thanked us for coming to get him and helping with the ceremony. They explained what happened and how much his loss was felt. Everyone we talked to spoke well of him — his character, his accomplishments and how well they liked him. Before closing up the back of the aircraft, one of Brian’s men, with tears running down his face, said, “That’s my platoon leader, please take care of him.”

We taxied back on the runway, and, as we began rolling for takeoff, I looked to my right. Brian’s platoon had not moved from where they were standing in the darkness. As we rolled past, his men saluted him one more time; their way to honor him one last time as best they could. We will never forget this.
We completed the short flight back to Bagram Air Base. After landing, we began to gather our things. As they carried Brian to the waiting vehicle, the people in the area, unaware of our mission, stopped what they were doing and snapped to attention. Those of us on the aircraft did the same. Four soldiers who had flown back with us lined the ramp once again and saluted as he passed by. We went back to post-flight duties only after he was driven out of sight.

Later that day, there was another ceremony. It was Bagram’s way to pay tribute. Senior leadership and other personnel from all branches lined the path that Brian was to take to be placed on the airplane flying him out of Afghanistan. A detail of soldiers, with their weapons, lined either side of the ramp just as his platoon did hours before. A band played as he was carried past the formation and onto the waiting aircraft. Again, men and women stood at attention and saluted as Brian passed by. Another service was performed after he was placed on the aircraft.

For one brief moment, the war stopped to honor Lt. Brian Bradshaw. This is the case for all of the fallen in Afghanistan. It is our way of recognizing the sacrifice and loss of our brothers and sisters in arms. Though there may not have been any media coverage, Brian’s death did not go unnoticed. You are not alone with your grief. We mourn Brian’s loss and celebrate his life with you. Brian is a true hero, and he will not be forgotten by those who served with him.

We hope knowing the events that happened after Brian’s death can provide you some comfort.

Capt. James Adair
Master Sgt. Paul Riley
GA ANG 774 EAS Deployed
Please click here to see additional links. Our thanks go to the Guardsmen for providing their services to Lt. Bradshaw, and also for sharing such a heartfelt story with the rest of the world. And of course, our deepest respect to Lt. Bradshaw for his sacrifice.