AL ASAD, Iraq -- Joint operations in the U.S. military are evolving as each service's capabilities are integrated together, forming a partnership to accomplish missions in all operational environments.
The ongoing combat operations being conducted by the armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq reinforce the importance of this wave of change. Riding the wave's crest are the soldiers with the Virginia Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, who officially began operations in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq Feb. 25 under the command of Marine Aircraft Group 16 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.
On their first deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Punishers are the first Army aviation battalion to operate under a Marine aviation command during the war.
The soldiers and Marines did not enter into the history-making fellowship without first getting to know one another. The battalion began the process of integrating themselves and their UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters into Marine aviation through their attendance at Exercise Desert Talon aboard Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz.
"During the exercise we were able to discover hiccups involving our flight operations," commented Lt. Col. Robert E. McMillin, commanding officer, 2-224th AVN. "This was especially important before coming to a combat environment."
Having traded the sands of the Southwest for those of the Al Anbar Province, the battalion's participation in the exercise was critical to their necessity to learn how the Marine Corps does business.
"I don't know if I can strongly enough express how overwhelmingly positive our working relationship with the Marine command has been," said McMillin, a Powhatan, Va., native. "They have bent over backwards to support us, given us an equal spot at the table which speaks to the confidence they have in us. There was a little trepidation the first week or two, but now everybody is fully engaged in the mission and keeping their heads on a swivel because it is dangerous out here."
According to Master Sgt. Martin J. Prior, operations chief, 2-224th AVN, the soldiers settled in pretty quickly, but Iraq is a totally different work environment and pace than what they are used to.
"The constant flight operations and schedule are more challenging for us. Many of our people don't have anything to compare this experience to," said Prior, a Manchester, Conn., native. "Things are improving though, we're getting plenty of action, plenty of missions and everybody is beginning to understand the scope of their jobs."
The soldiers may be newcomers to Iraq, but bring a great degree of experience in their skills to the fight for democracy.
Dozens of the battalion's pilots, crew members and aircraft maintainers have decades of experience, spending many of their years in the military assigned to the battalion, noted McMillin.
"Our pilots have an average of over 2,000 hours flying experience and our crews have been flying together for years as well," said McMillin. "In addition to the hours of flying time, the vast majority of us have been together in the battalion for years with very little turnover."
The battalion differs from the Marine aviation units it shares the skies of Iraq with. The Marine units fly aircraft 20, 30, and 40 years old and are piloted and maintained by relatively young men and women who have quickly become old hands at their jobs in the fast-paced environment of active duty Marine aviation. The soldiers are generally older, but fly UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, a new airframe in comparison to the Marine aircraft.
"The Blackhawk is an incredible airframe. We are fast, smaller than Marine CH-46 Sea Knights and CH-53E Super Stallions, but there is still a lot of power in the airframe. It allows us to carry out varied missions," said McMillin. "It's a very good tactical aircraft, especially for air assault, but we're more involved with raids, passengers and cargo. We are ready to carry anything from (bags of donated) blood to detainees."