Schenectady County

Soldiers train for Iraq tour

Tom Balogh had planned to spend his free time this summer on his boat.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Tom Balogh had planned to spend his free time this summer on his boat.

The 45-year-old Albany resident bought the craft from his close friend Kevin Ferreira of Rotterdam last year and had looked forward to cruising the Mohawk. Instead, the Army National Guard staff sergeant and crew chief will spend his summer cruising with an M240 machine gun at the door of a Black Hawk helicopter, among 30 UH-60 Black Hawks headed for Iraq sometime before the fall.

And Ferreira, a major in the Guard, will spend his tour ensuring that the roughly 450 soldiers deploying with the 3rd Battalion, 142nd Aviation Regiment are prepared for the rigors of a combat zone. The mission will mark the first time the entire unit

has been mobilized since they traveled to Bosnia in 2002 and the only time they’ve made the trip together to Iraq.

But even if he had a choice of companions, Balogh said it would be the members of the 3rd Battalion, 142nd Aviation. Though the divorced father of two said he’ll miss his children and his boat, his friends will be coming along for the ride.

“If I gotta go, this is the family I want to be with,” he said, as a handful of soldiers prepared for a training mission at Fort Drum late Tuesday afternoon.

In all, the unit will provide about 300 soldiers from bases at Albany International Airport and Ronkonkoma on Long Island. Another group from Missouri will round out the unit, which will spend about 10 months stationed at an air base outside of Balad.

Part of the mission is to move more soldiers and supplies through the air instead of on the ground, where they are targets for attack. Col. Al Ricci, unit commander, said moving resources will be a primary focus; more than three-quarters of the 30 helicopters will fly on a daily basis.

“We’re going to keep soldiers off the ground and move them to operations,” he said.

This month, the unit is doing its annual training at Fort Drum; two months at Fort Sill in Oklahoma will follow before leaving for the Middle East. The advance training is part of a new Army initiative to limit Reserve and National Guard mobilizations to no more than a year.

Spirits were high among the local members of the unit this week, as they entered their second week of intense training.

Ricci, 46, said many of the soldiers are fired up over the prospect of putting years of training and exercises to the test. He said the unit will at last be able to utilize all of the helicopter’s capabilities.

“They’re excited because these helicopters are a great asset, and we don’t get to use them to their fullest potential stateside,” he said.

Pilots used to flying two or three hours a week will be faced with spending up to nine hours in the cockpit overseas.

“We will probably launch and fly 12 times what we usually fly here in a year,” he said. “That’s hard to replicate here.”

Crew chiefs like Balogh took to the air over the weekend to try their hand at hitting ground targets with 7.62 mm rounds fired from the door gun of a hovering Black Hawk. Others practiced putting on their gas masks in a chamber filling with tear gas.

Pvt. David Murray, 20, of Albany, had a chance to experience what it might feel like if he were in a Humvee struck by a roadside bomb. He and three other soldiers in full combat gear were belted into a Humvee body and then jolted 180 degrees in the dark.

All around the vehicle simulation, the sound of screams and bomb explosions blared, as strobe lights simulated the muzzle flash of small arms fire. Inside the overturned Humvee, Murray tugged off his belt and then hustled his fellow soldiers out of the vehicle; the effort was enough to get him a nod of approval by the simulation trainers.

The prospect of facing a real roadside bomb or rocket-propelled grenade made the second-year aircraft electrician a little bit anxious but didn’t diminish his excitement over the deployment.

“I’m a little nervous,” he confessed. “But I’m sure that will go away once we get there.”

Spc. Jacob Beck, 24, of Amsterdam, seemed similarly committed. The recent Utica College graduate will become a full-time soldier in June.

“We’re putting it all to use after all these years,” he said.

Pvt. Chris Stout, 21, of Troy, was among nearly three dozen members of the unit when they traveled to Honduras in 2006, yet hasn’t worked in a combat zone before. However, he said any of his anxiety over the deployment is tempered by members of the close-knit unit joining him overseas.

“It shouldn’t be that bad,” he shrugged. “We’ve got a good group of guys, and that’s all that matters in the end.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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