Monday, January 26, 2009

An Aviator’s Perspective

I work in the Operations Section of Task Force 449 and fly an AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter. My normal duties include both traditional administrative work as well as getting the opportunity to get out of the office and fly.

Our Tactical Operations Center (TOC) staff includes a great group of Soldiers, who provide 24 hour coverage including: radio operators, battle managers, airspace surveillance managers, weather forecasters and intelligence officers. These Soldiers continually monitor all aviation operations with some of the best technology in the world.

But my desk job just keeps me going until my next opportunity to fly. I typically fly one of our regularly scheduled missions with our subordinate attack helicopter battalions. This gives me the opportunity to fly with some of the best Soldiers and pilots in the Army. Some of these pilots have flown multiple missions per week for over a year and some have been in Iraq for multiple deployments. These Soldiers/pilots are the best the Army has to offer. In addition to the great people, the aircraft is amazing and seeing Iraq from the air is truly exhilarating.

I have been deployed twice and have been able to fly in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Iraq is not as mountainous and has much less vegetation than Afghanistan. Iraq also has more people and is more developed. Fortunately, today’s Iraq is a lot safer than it was only a year ago. The security environment continues to rapidly improve and the Iraqi people are assuming responsibility for their own security. Most of our missions are reconnaissance and security missions. I have had the opportunity to see a great deal of the country. I have flown over the crossed sabers in Baghdad, the gates of Ishtar, and the ancient city of Babylon, where one of the seven ancient wonders of the world once existed.

One of the reasons I continue to serve are the bonds that I continue building with the many people in which I serve. This “Band of Brothers” includes Soldiers in the TOC; aviators I fly with; and friends I spend time with in the off hours. For example, Chief Warrant Officer Reeves is a pilot, who I have flown with for over 14 years. I work with Lieutenant Judkins, a Battle Captain in the TOC. Jay McKeown is our legal officer and my running partner. The trust and respect that I have for my teammates on this deployment is very typical of many generations of Soldiers.

All this excitement and service does come with sacrifice. In my most difficult times, I only have to remember my great wife who somehow manages a home in Cary with our three children. I am grateful for the love and support at home that I, and all of our Soldiers, continue to receive. I also have a great employer, GlaxoSmithKline, that has provided job security through two deployments and great people to work with.

This deployment has reminded me what a unique and critical role the N.C. National Guard provides our nation. I am grateful to have the opportunity to serve with such great people.

Maj. Jason Weaver and Chief Warrant Officer Calhoun pose in front of an Apache helicopter before their flight in Iraq.

Maj. Jason Weaver, an Apache helicopter pilot with Task Force 449, has been in the N.C. National Guard for more than 18 years.

Monday, January 19, 2009

How does the commander make decisions to counter the enemy?

Intelligence officers and analyst provide to the commander a picture of the enemy situation. Some of the indicators in which create this picture includes the following items: location, size, likely courses of actions, etc. Analyst are taught magical tricks at the “Home of Intelligence”, located at Ft Huachuca, AZ and we are not allowed to use crystal balls on any deployments, so we look to TTP’s (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures) along with historical data to make assessments as to what to expect from the enemy.

We have a fairly small intelligence team that began forming around May 2008. Everyone has their own strengths, helping our team to gel. This is the first time the majority of us have ever been apart of an Aviation unit, so to be successful we depend on our Aviators, especially our boss; who is a Pilot. He explains what it’s like to fly helicopters. He brings the entire picture together by sharing what he sees from the air, to include a ground perspective, which helps us support Soldiers on the ground.

This job requires a lot of reading, memorization, attention to detail, analytical and briefing skills. And you will definitely get your “Power Point Ranger” tab! Every analyst in our section will be an expert on building briefings in Microsoft Power Point. This is simply because it is a tool that helps present a picture to the commander. But don’t worry because if you are not up to par on any of these skills, trust that you will be by the end of a month working with our “Super Cool” team!

Due to the nature of our job, we have to maintain our SA. The Intel section is responsible for working 24 hours a day. So in any given day, I can work anywhere from 9-12 hours, thirteen days straight and then a well deserved off day on day fourteen.

At the start of my shift, I get an update on the past 24 hours from one of the analysts. After that I start preparing for the morning CUB a.k.a. Commander’s Update Brief. Throughout the night there may be additional requirements that will come up that are mission specific. Many times we may be responsible for requesting Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles (UAV) feeds to the Tactical Operation Center (TOC) in addition to updating the entire TOC crew with the current threat picture. After I brief the Colonel and my boss on the last 24/48 hours my shift is over.

After work I try to work out. I have recently started the P90X work out program that centers on muscle confusion and diet control. We will see if it works in 90 days! After working out, I grab a shower and attempt to sleep until my “Friend/ battle buddy” from college wakes me for dinner chow. I return to my CHU (housing unit) for more sleep and then I’m back up at 12:30 a.m. getting ready for work. Because of the time difference between Iraq and the States, I’m able to call home prior to my shift and my family is just getting home from school and work.

During my free time, I try to make time to hang out in the local coffee shop with friends and co-workers, read, study for the GMAT exam, and watch movies. One of my personal goals is to watch every Disney movie/cartoon ever made!

Captain La Tonya Smith

From: Eutaw, AL and I am currently living in Baghdad, Iraq (Over the last 3 years I have lived in Greensboro, N.C., Ft Benning, GA., Ft Huachuca, AZ and Alexandria, VA)

Reason for joining the National Guard:
• Education benefits!
• Meet new WEIRD people!
• Free Travel!
• Service to Country!

Military Background:
• Joined the National Guard under the Simultaneous Membership Program in 2002
• Graduated/Commissioned as a 2LT from Marion Military Institute (Military Junior College) Early Commissioning Program May 2003
• Since July 2008, I served as a J2 Watch Officer at the National Guard Bureau Joint Operations Coordination Center (JoCC) in Arlington, VA.
• This is my first OCONUS deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom since joining the National Guard
• I have deployed to support several US Homeland defense missions to include:
o Hurricane Katrina - Hammonds, LA
o California Wildfires - Sacramento, CA
o Hurricane Dean - St Croix, VI

Civilian Career:
• UNEMPLOYED!!! Waiting for Grad School and deciding what I want to be when I grow up!

Capt. La Tonya Smith, an intelligence officer with Task Force 449 Aviation Brigade, is serving in Baghdad, Iraq. Smith has been in the Army National Guard since 2002 and is on her first deployment.

Col. Paul Barbee, Task Force 449 Aviation Brigade Commander, awards Capt. La Tonya Smith a combat patch for her dedicated service in a combat zone, at a ceremony in Baghdad, January 17.

N.C. Army National Guard members, with Task Force 449, completed a 3.72 mile run in honor of the National Guard birthday of 372 years. Capt. La Tonya Smith (pictured far right, Runner 2727) showed her spirit for the
Guard and participated in the run.

Monday, January 12, 2009

What Do We Do?

Take an air traffic controller, your local hospital medical helicopter, logistics and supply companies and the NASA Command Center, combine all the jobs and you get an Aviation Brigade.

This is the first time I have been with an aviation unit. My original responsibility for the brigade was to be one of the field artillery fire support officers; however, the campaign has changed since my last deployment back in 2004, because we are not firing a lot of artillery rounds or rockets, I have been appointed a Battle Captain for the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). We oversee helicopter (primarily UH-60 Black Hawks and AH-64D Apaches) movement within the friendly skies over the southern portion of Iraq. We also track Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). My primary mission is to carry out the execution phase of the current 24 hours of operation. We provide heavy weapon team support, troop movement via air, live feed video coverage over major routes and hot spots, and finally we provide medical support to the local ground units dealing with urgent medical issues.

In any given day, I work eight hour shifts, seven days a week. We try to work in a day off every few weeks. Of course, I just took my first day off since we got here in early November. After work, I try to call my family (wife, son and daughter) and then go to the gym. After the gym, I am back to chow again for a good meal and maybe a little hand scooped ice cream. After chow, I make my 155 step count-run from my housing unit to the shower and then it is time to check email and talk with my family via Skype. I hook up my IPOD around midnight and crash out to start the day all over again.

To pass time, I also link up by our river front property (drainage ditch with muddy water) and have a cigar with some buddies. Other evenings, I may play ping pong or pool or stop by local shops to get one of the newest movie releases from the big screen.

Changes from this deployment and last deployment- It has been night and day. When I was here in 2004, I was sleeping in a tent and eating out of a food trailer with tons of flies. We had boiled green eggs and ham, and had to burn our own waste. Now, we have civilian contractors handling most of our life support. We get steak on Fridays, real fried eggs and all the pop tarts in the world. You will never believe we also have a stir fry station, sandwich bar and dessert section, with ice cream and all kinds of pastries. We have to be careful not to put on the deployment 15.
I must say technology is amazing. This week alone, I have been able to reconnect with friends from my first deployment- my Iraqi interpreter, who is still supporting the U.S. military; my old logistics and maintenance officers from the Iraqi Army; along with a Colonel who is now working as a U.S. liaison between the Iraqi Army and the local government. I have also been in touch with a few locals who supported us in 2004 with local purchases. They are doing well and still supporting the U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Family- I must say the real heroes are the spouses and family members back in the states, who help maintain the day to day activities (bills, daycare, shopping, school, doctor appointments, etc.), while maintaining their own full-time jobs. My wife has had a lot of sleepless nights with our two kids. She is the Director of Catering at one of the big hotels in Charlotte and also keeps up her full time job raising our kids. She has done great with both jobs! A person may be able to do this for a week or two, but my wife has done this for 18 months, and now another year, which can be really tough. We have had a lot of friends and neighbors, who have jumped in to help, which is a blessing. Most of the needs are last minute-sick child, dead car battery, trash can flipping over in the middle of the street...when it is pouring down rain and my wife is in her business suit, trying to get the kids off to school, etc. Hats off to those who support us, so we can focus on our mission here!

General Charles C. Campbell, The United States Army Forces Command, Commanding General, takes time during his visit to Task Force 449’s Brigade Headquarters in Baghdad, Dec 16, and speaks with Task Force 449 Battle Captain, Cpt. Michael L. Verdi. General Campbell stressed the importance of the Battle Captain position, a job that requires tremendous information management, multi-tasking and leadership skills. The General thanked Verdi for his brief update on TF 449’s daily operations and for his service. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Jasmine N. Walthall)

Capt. Michael Verdi stands in front of one of Saddam's lakes in Baghdad, Iraq. Verdi was able to tour some of Saddam's palaces and see a few lakes, while visiting Baghdad.

Capt. Michael Verdi takes a few hours, for himself, one afternoon and fly fishes in one of Saddam's lakes, near the Victory Over America (VOA) palace.

Captain Michael Verdi
From: High Point, NC, currently lives in Mt. Holly/Mt Island lake (last 10 years)

Military Background:
• Been in National Guard since 1992 and is an artilleryman.
• Since June 2003, he has served as a range officer at Camp Butner Training Site in Butner, N.C.
• While in the Guard, competed in various rifle and shooting matches.
• Deployed with the 30th Brigade Combat Team in Operation Iraqi Freedom 03-05 with the 1/113th Field Artillery Unit, located out of Charlotte, N.C.

Civilian Career:
• Implementation Manager for Teachers’ Insurance, Annuities Association-College Retirement Education Fund (TIAA-CREF), located out of Charlotte, N.C. Thanks for being so supportive. I appreciate your support and willingness to create policies and benefits to assist Guardsmen, like me.

Monday, January 5, 2009

My All Expense Paid “Trip”???

Well, well, well, I have ended up on another one of those all expense paid trips courtesy of Uncle Sam. (Awe-some!) This adventure all began September 2008 in Morrisville, NC and upon my arrival in Baghdad, it is STILL amazing me, and it’s early yet. You see, once we got started on this deployment, I was chosen to do a job that has certainly taken me OUT of my comfort zone. I have often been told that if doing a certain job doesn’t make your stomach turn in knots, then it’s not really worth doing at all. Well, now I can honestly say that I have experienced that feeling first hand for the first time in a long time! Normally I would be working in Flight Operations doing what I do best which is tracking aircraft and flight crews but NO! Not this time! I hear a voice say to me somewhere along the way, “SGT Fortune, you have been selected to be the Colonel’s Executive Assistant.” (Whoa! I hope and pray that I don’t disappoint! And I emphasize the pray part.) Of course, in good old Army tradition I got a “bonus!” It turns out that not only do I work for the Colonel, but I also got myself two Lieutenant Colonels and one Command Sergeant Major! (All of whom are wonderful to work for.) It certainly isn’t a bad thing, just a tad overwhelming at first. (That military rank can get pretty “heavy” when it’s staring you back in the face ya’ know…) Now, I would not describe myself as being a “people” person but if I ever needed to be one, now would be the time. So far, this experience has really shown me that I can bend like “Gumby” and “adjust fire”; however and whenever necessary, and yes, be a “people” person…no chance for boredom here! My days consist of scheduling appointments for all of the above mentioned leaders, VTCs, (Video Tele-Conferences), moving necessary paperwork through the Chain of Command and then, by golly, the phone rings and what comes out of the blue? A what?! A who?? A visit from the General! ?? Whew! I have to follow Protocol (all the do’s and don’ts) and make sure that all things, as well as people are in order for this VIP visit. It can be quite a rush, other times it can be quite intimidating, but in the end, things always come together, because we all work as a team to make it happen.

Now talk about being out of your comfort zone. Never in a million years would I have expected to EVER have to, or NEED to use a pressure washer, discover the difference between drill bits for masonry and drill bits for wood, and squeeze a little bit of “graffiti” in there somewhere as well. (The Command Section needs a sign to know where they are supposed to park….). If anything, I will be of better use to my husband, who I would like to mention is also here with me, by being more “handy” around the house.

With this deployment just getting off to a blazing start, I have discovered that there isn’t a whole lot that I can’t do. In the end, I am just thankful that I am privileged enough to be a small spoke in this big wheel that we call the Army. Holidays such as Christmas and New Year’s have already come and gone here for us, but if I am not able to be at home to celebrate them with my “blood” relatives, then I will be thankful that I was able to share the holidays with my military family. I am here for a reason, it’s not for me to question why I am here, but how I can take my small contribution and make life better for someone else.

Sgt. Audra Fortune, a flight operations specialist with Task Force 449 Aviation Brigade, is deployed to Baghdad, Iraq and currently works as an executive assistant for the Brigade Commander and his senior staff. Once her tour is complete, she will return home to working in flight operations.

Sgt. Audra Fortune and husband, CW5 Richard Fortune, both residents of Kinston, N.C., are currently assigned to Task Force 449 Aviation Brigade and deployed in Baghdad, Iraq. This North Carolina Army National Guard couple is on their second deployment and will return home next fall.