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Task Force Saber deploys to Iraq after prolonged preparations

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Lt. Col. Nicholas R. Snelson, Task Force Saber commander, and Command Sgt. Maj. Scott Bailey, Task Force Saber sergeant major, case the 6th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, colors during the unit's July 17 deployment ceremony.

David Bedard
Fort Wainwright PAO

Task Force Saber, consisting of 6th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment; D Company, 123rd Aviation Regiment; and B Company, 209th Aviation Support Battalion (Aviation Intermediate Maintenance), deployed to Iraq Saturday after three years of preparation.

A July 17 deployment ceremony marked the culmination of the Task Force’s efforts when Lt. Col. Nicholas Snelson, 6-17th commander, and Command Sgt. Maj. Scott Bailey, 6-17th sergeant major, cased the squadron colors, signifying their release from U.S. Army Alaska pursuant to their integration into Multi-National Corps-Iraq. The task force will uncase the colors upon their assumption of the unit’s area of responsibility.

Retired Sgt. 1st Class Robert Decker, who deployed to Vietnam with 6-17th’s predecessor, F Troop, 17th Cavalry Regiment, was on hand to offer remarks during the ceremony.

“(F Troop veterans) are so proud to see the troopers of the 17th Cav., Task Force Saber, going off to do the nation’s work to secure this country,” Decker said.

The mission of the 6-17th is to deploy worldwide to carry out reconnaissance and security operations as a member of the air-ground team.

“We provide air-ground integration, which is aviation support consisting primarily of reconnaissance and security missions, but we also have an assault mission with the UH-60 company Delta, 123rd, that is deploying with us,” Snelson said.

The 6-17th provides the nucleus of the task force, with three troops of OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed reconnaissance helicopters, an aviation unit maintenance troop and a ground support troop. D/123rd provides an air assault capability, and B/209th provides maintenance support beyond the organic capabilities of the squadron.

According to Maj. David Barber, squadron operations officer, the task force’s journey to deployment began three years ago in Hawaii when the unit, formerly known as 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment “Three Quarter,” was given orders to relocate to Alaska and reflag as the 6-17th. He said Soldiers who were scheduled to PCS during the move were allowed to do so.

To further exacerbate personnel shortages, 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, was scheduled to deploy to Iraq and was therefore backfilled with many of 6-17th’s Soldiers.

The 6-17th moved to Fort Wainwright in spring 2006 with a cadre of 126 Soldiers. Barber said much of the unit’s equipment, including helicopters, was transferred to other units in Hawaii to make the squadron easier to relocate. Then the real challenges began.

“It was like we were deployed when we came up here, because we didn’t have what we needed to support ourselves,” said Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Foster, a B Troop platoon sergeant.

Foster said there were personnel, organizational and equipment shortfalls, but maintenance challenges proved especially daunting because Fort Wainwright lacked the institutional support necessary to keep Kiowa helicopters flying at the time.

Ingenuity and frequent visits to local hardware stores ensured the few helicopters the squadron had stayed in the mission-capable status necessary to fly the required hours to keep the unit within Army standards of readiness.

A 6th Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, OH-58D Kiowa Warrior flies over the Chena River in July 2007.Soon enough, all of the institutional requirements began to fall into place, and the Army took notice of the squadron’s needs.

“The squeaky wheel gets the oil,” Barber said. “We showed up on a patch chart and got the flow of equipment…and personnel.”

Barber said the unit received all new personnel, most fresh out of initial entry training with whole graduating classes reporting to Fort Wainwright to join the unit.

Another challenge was adapting to arctic conditions, Barber said.

Unlike UH-60 or CH-47 cargo helicopters, the much smaller Kiowa helicopters don’t have robust heaters capable of withstanding subzero temperatures. The conditions required special planning and preparation.

“Alaska has its own special requirements as far as environmental protection clothing,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Gunter Lugg, 6-17th aviation life support equipment officer.

The squadron was required to adhere to USARAK standards, and each pilot had to carry the same amount of arctic survival gear as their cargo helicopter counterparts, which created a problem with storing the equipment. Lugg said he and his colleagues came up with the idea to vacuum pack the equipment to make it fit.

Another problem was the standard Army flight crew uniform proved inadequate for the cold Alaska temperatures. The Extended Cold Weather Clothing System was inappropriate because it was not fire-retardant. Lugg said they came to the rescue again by working with Massif Mountain Gear, who made fire-retardant Nomex layering systems rated to 50 below zero.

The arctic capabilities of the OH-58D also had to be addressed. Lugg said in order to land on muskeg and uneven, snowy terrain, the Kiowa had to be fitted with skis to give it flotation. Landes Airglas of Anchorage, who designed and built skis for UH-60s and CH-47s, worked with the squadron to quickly furnish the skis for immediate operations.

Additionally, the helicopter’s battery proved inadequate for arctic conditions, Lugg said. The squadron procured dry-cell batteries, which are rated to 40 below zero and were later standardized for all Kiowa units.

With many of the personnel and equipment concerns addressed, the squadron leadership could focus on preparing the unit for future deployments. The unit trained in several exercises in the Yukon and Donnelly Training areas and through deployments to Joint Task Force-North, the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., and the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.

Barber said the emphasis varied during the two training center rotations. The squadron focused on staff training during the unit’s August 2007 NTC rotation, but the training that tied everything together was accomplished during the squadron’s deployment to JRTC in February.

“(At JRTC), we really fine-tuned what we discovered on our leader’s recon of Iraq,” Snelson said. “So how we flew, how we engaged the enemy, how we communicated with ground forces was exactly how we are going to do it in Iraq.”

The preparations have not been isolated to the task force Soldiers. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Timothy Mayhak, rear detachment commander, has been working with Lori Landrum, Family Readiness Group advisor, to prepare families and FRGs for deployment.

“We have spent the time to get the families ready,” Snelson said. “Because the more a Soldier can focus on what he is doing and know that his family is taken care of, the more he can focus and get the mission done.”

Capt. Damien Boffardi, F Troop, 6-17th commander, said although the Soldiers were going to miss home, they were ready to accomplish the mission.

“Of course we are going to miss family, but I couldn’t be happier going with these guys,” he said. “They are going to do great and wonderful things.”