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War Games Offer Dose of Reality

Since 1991's Desert Storm revealed a lack of preparedness, the military has staged a rescue exercise in Nevada each year.

September 14, 2003|Sandra Chereb | Associated Press Writer

FALLON, Nev. — A cloud of dust engulfed the Army Reserve Black Hawk helicopters as members of a special operations team leaped out and quickly surveyed the punishing landscape.

Nearby, one Navy pilot lay tied in the tangled wreckage of a downed aircraft. Another pilot was missing.

A ragtag group of hostile rebels, some armed with 50mm guns atop Humvees, patrolled the perimeter of the abandoned embassy in the desert compound, firing sporadically as the rescue mission unfolded under a blistering sun.

Although the combat scenario played out in the Nevada desert 7,300 miles from the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, its roots were seeded in the shifting sands of the Middle East 12 years ago during Desert Storm.

The realities that U.S. fighting forces confronted there have led officials to stage the military's largest desert rescue exercise each year at Naval Air Station Fallon, 60 miles east of Reno.

One thing the military has learned is the need for better communication among the different branches, said Lt. Col. Boyd Collins, public affairs officer for the Army Reserve Command at Ft. McPherson, Ga.

"The problem in the past," Collins said, "is that the Navy uses different language than, say, the Army or the Air Force. These exercises are designed to bring everyone together."

Recognizing that specialized training is needed for search-and-rescue efforts, the military also is forming designated teams for such missions, Collins said.

Organized by the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center -- home to the "Top Gun" aviator school at the Fallon base -- the goal of the Desert Rescue exercise is to train teams to recover air crews shot down in hostile territory.

"It's the first time the Army's been involved," said Staff Sgt. Raymond Toper, an active Army reservist from Clearwater, Fla. "We've got a lot of catching up to do."

Toper's unit, C Company of the 1st Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment -- nicknamed the Ghostriders -- is the Army's first designated search-and-rescue outfit.

"Combat search and rescue is very new to the Army," said Capt. James Fitzgerald III, the Ghostriders' commander.

Eleven members of the unit flew to the desert naval base with three new Black Hawk helicopters for the August exercises.

"Operating in the sand and the dust ... having joint training is excellent," said Chief Warrant Officer Seth Johansen, who flew reconnaissance planes and spent eight months in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. "We're still getting up to speed."

Johansen and Fitzgerald are among the unit's full-time reservists. Others, such as Sgt. Tom Zawiza and Chief Warrant Officer John Ault, have other careers, performing military duties on weekends and during annual two-week training stints.

Zawiza is a service manager at his brother's concrete company in Ft. Myers, Fla. Ault is a police officer in Tallahassee, Fla.

Like other reservists and the National Guard, the soldiers know they could be called into active service.

"When you join, you have to expect that," said Ault, who has flown with the reserves since 1994.

In all, about 800 personnel from 15 different active and reserve units participated in Desert Rescue, coming from as far away as the East Coast, including the Florida group, the 41st Rescue Squadron from Moody Air Force Base in Georgia and the Connecticut Air National Guard's 118th Fighter Squadron, said Lt. Derrick Handley, warfare center spokesman.

The 10-day training course included classroom instruction and up to six field exercises a day involving various scenarios.

The missions were observed by instructors at the warfare center and some were monitored through tracking devices to be recreated afterward. After each mission, the crews were scrutinized on what went wrong, what they did right, and what could have been done differently, Handley said.

Dusk was settling when the Ghostwriters' Black Hawks lifted off from the base. Flying from 30 to 300 feet above the jagged desert floor, they flew south, then veered east of Walker Lake through a deep canyon in the sagebrush-covered mountains.

"This reminds me of Desert Storm," Sgt. 1st Class Oscar Gomez, a postal worker from Deltona, Fla., wrote on a dry eraser board in a note to Toper, the whir of the chopper blades drowning out any chance of conversation.

On a hillside tucked behind a ridge, the pilots and crew practiced touch-and-go landings. The steep, rocky terrain provided new challenges for pilots more accustomed to the flat terrain of their home states.

As darkness fell, the crew donned night-vision goggles. Flying without lights, perceptions dimmed by the eerie green glow of the optic gear, the landings were bumpy -- but no less off their mark.

"This is a real challenge at any skill level," said Chief Warrant Officer Lanny Morrison, a pilot with 11,000 hours of flight time.

*

Two days later, the practice mission took on heightened intensity.

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