HELENA – Dozens of Montana Army National Guard soldiers were at work Monday and Tuesday in the hills of Fort Harrison, just outside Helena.
The members of the 1-189th General Support Aviation Battalion went through a “personnel recovery” exercise. The training is based on what soldiers might need to do if a helicopter went down in a dangerous area.
“We’re always training for the bad day,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Brian Lovaas. “In the military, we never assume that everything’s going to go real well, so this is one of those bad day scenarios.”
The training is now taking on additional importance, as the battalion learned last year that they would be deployed this fall.
Spc. Justin Arnold will serve as a door gunner on a Black Hawk helicopter. This was his first time going through the personnel recovery training.
“The bottom line is to be able to get out of a sticky situation as safely as we can, with as many of us as we can,” he said.
On Monday, about 15 four-person teams took part in the exercises. They began with several hours of practicing techniques they might need in an emergency situation, including land navigation, communication and signaling, first aid, and putting on equipment like gas masks and protective suits.
After the initial training, the soldiers made their way through a “lane” – a roughly 1.3-mile overland course, where they had to make their way to safety, using the emergency gear they would have in a crisis.
“Getting used to, ‘Hey, if I had 15 seconds to leave this helicopter and get out,’ if it was on fire or whatever the scenario that might be that makes them leave the helicopter, what would they grab – and if they had to grab it, would it be enough to make it out there for three days?” Lovaas said.
There were added twists to make the situation more realistic. Some members of the battalion were selected to act as injured soldiers, who were then airlifted out by helicopter. The soldiers also had to practice recognizing improvised explosive devices, deal with simulated gunfire and evade search dogs that were trying to find them.
“We always focus on the individual tasks – that every soldier knows how to operate a radio, navigate via map – but really what they end up taking out of it is that it’s a team,” said Lt. Col. Paul Fowler, the battalion commander. “So they have to rely on each other, and they all go in and come out as one team.”
The battalion includes about 250 soldiers, from aviation crews to other supporting positions. Once deployed, they can provide a variety of services, including transportation, medical evacuations and more.
Fowler said the battalion will have nearly a full year to prepare for their deployment. He said the training they’ll receive – including exercises like this – will ensure they’re ready for any situation they could face overseas.
“There’s always anxiety, but we put our soldiers through this training to build their confidence, to ensure their safety,” he said. “That’s exactly why we train.”
“This is why we do this, to go and do things for our country, and this training helps us accomplish our missions,” he said.
Fowler said the battalion will hold a two-week annual training session in August. They expect to be deployed in the fall.
Aviation crews have to receive this kind of personnel recovery training every year. Military leaders approved this specific exercise to count as part of the battalion’s required pre-deployment training.
-Jonathon Ambarian reporting for MTN News