Written by Spc. Jennifer Andersson
Task Force Thunder Public Affairs
Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan – The 100-degree heat of Afghanistan differed drastically from what the soldiers of Team Denali (1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment) left behind at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
They joined Task Force Thunder (159th Combat Aviation Brigade) at three forward operating bases to bolster aviation assets in southern Afghanistan, beginning in June.
While they are attached to Task Force Lift (7th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment), Team Denali, composed of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, and Companies B (The Sugar Bears) and D, is technically self-sustaining.
“We came out here with Delta Company,” said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Davis of St. Augustine, FL, the first sergeant for B/1-52. “We brought maintenance with us. We brought shops personnel, to include [human resources], [movement operations] and some back shops personnel to help out.”
A CH-47D Chinook helicopter unit is always in demand, he said.
“Generators, trucks, whatever you need – we can carry it all,” he said. “It is the workhorse of the Army. Everybody says [Chinooks are] the one thing they wish they could get more of in Afghanistan because of the altitude, the heat and the distances you have to fly.”
In August 2010, the Sugar Bears deployed as part of Task Force Denali for four months on a humanitarian assistance assignment to earthquake-stricken Pakistan. They transported more than 40,000 people and 10 million tons of life-sustainment supplies.
In May 2011, the American Helicopter Society-International awarded the unit the Capt. William J. Kossler Award for the year’s greatest achievement in worldwide operation of rotary-wing aircraft for their role in the Pakistan relief effort.
They returned to Alaska in December, just in time for the coldest of the sub-zero degree weather Alaska offers.
Only weeks upon return from Pakistan they learned they were being deployed – 95 days later – to southern Afghanistan in response to a request for additional forces.
But rather than deploying them for the typical 12 months, the Army honored the time in Pakistan as a part of their one-year tour.
Not only were they to prepare their own company for pre-deployment training, they were responsible for training crews from other units and incorporate those units into their night-vision goggles and air assault training.
“We also had to train 36 additional CH-47D Chinook flight crews from all over the place – Korea, Honduras, and two National Guard units from Maryland and New York,” said Maj. Rick Sweet of Detroit, the Team Denali commander. “They flew out here with us, but went on to [Regional Command] – East.”
They spent 61 of those days doing their flight training in Seattle.
“It’s not like we could do [night vision goggles] training when the sun is up 24 hours,”said Capt. Robert Bender, the detachment commander for B/1-52 at FOB Tarin Kowt. “With such a short notice, trying to get everybody trained while packing for the deployment along with training at Fort Lewis was pretty tricky,” he said.
But these soldiers are professionals. Despite the challenges, they were able to pull together and deploy quickly.
Due to their deployment cycle, it seems Team Denali is the polar opposite of snowbirds – they winter in Alaska and summer in the desert.
“It took about two weeks to get adjusted to the heat here,” Davis said. “We were already used to the sunlight because, when we were leaving, it was almost 24 hours of sunlight a day.”
Despite the difference in climate, the majority of Team Denali was up, running and ready for their first mission within a week and a half of arrival, Davis said.
“It takes about three or four days to get the airplane built up. Then we test-fly them, check all the systems, make sure everything’s good and they’re ready to run,” said Staff Sgt. Billy Kennedy of Austell, GA, a CH-47 Chinook flight engineer for the Sugar Bears.
Most units will do a relief-in-place before a transfer of authority. Since Team Denali is not replacing another unit – they are simply an additional asset to TF Thunder – there is no RIP to be done.
“It makes this easier,” Davis said. “We’re falling in on a unit that’s already established here. We’re just adding to your team, so we just plus up what you already have.”
For the most part, Alaska and Afghanistan share very similar topographical features, including altitude, said Sgt. William Rose of Ormand Beach, FL, a flight engineer for the Sugar Bears.
“We’re used to mountainous terrain in Alaska,” he said. “We’re used to turbulence coming off different ridgelines. It’s normal for us. Without even seeing any references, we know there is going to be turbulence over there because it’s right next to that ridgeline.”
“There is a difference, though, between landing in snow and landing in the dust,” said Davis. “It’s harder to land in the snow because you have no visual reference – it’s complete whiteout – there are no shadows. [Landing here] uses different techniques.”
Whether Alaska or Afghanistan, home is where the heart is, and Team Denali quickly warmed up to Task Force Thunder’s climate.
“At each of the FOB locations, we have been welcomed with open arms, and immediately felt like part of the group,” Davis said.