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Helicopter soldiers in Iraq find each day a test

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Editor's note: Doug Grindle, our Marlborough community reporter, has returned to the Middle East and is currently embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq. While there, he plans to send us articles whenever he can to provide our readers with glimpses of what is going on in the region.

As always, we are grateful to Doug and other journalists like him who put themselves in harm's way so that those of us safe at home can be well-informed.

Baghdad, Iraq – A Blackhawk helicopter of the 2-147th Aviation Battalion circles low over the city of Baghdad. Below there is the hustle of a crowded city. Cars churn through busy intersections; people walk through markets and bicycle down the streets.

The helicopter is traveling over 100 miles an hour at 250 or so feet above ground, and the streets, which are walled by two- and three-story buildings, are canyons that swallow people as quickly as they are revealed, as the helicopter passes over their heads.

A Blackhawk helicopter of the 2-147 Aviation Battalion flies over Baghdad. PHOTO/DOUG GRINDLE A Blackhawk helicopter of the 2-147 Aviation Battalion flies over Baghdad. PHOTO/DOUG GRINDLE Soldiers in the 2-147th say Baghdad is bustling as they have never seen it before, that the streets have become more crowded, and the people more willing to venture out, since the unit arrived in August 2007.

Certainly the streets are more crowded with cars. Since the invasion, the number of cars in Baghdad has almost doubled, according to Americans advising the Iraqi police. Ordinary Iraqis have returned to markets over the past six months, as security has improved and attacks dropped. That trend has not reversed, despite several car bombs over the past few weeks that have killed dozens in cities such as Baghdad and Amariyah.

The Blackhawk eases its nose up, banks sharply and comes in to land at the helipad in the Green Zone in downtown Baghdad. The helicopter flairs, settles and jolts to a halt on the concrete. The passengers scramble out of the back, sheltering their faces from the wash of the whirling rotor blades.

But even as the situation improves, the threat is continuing and real. Each Blackhawk is manned by four people: two pilots, a crew chief and a gunner; the latter each handle a machine gun that is fired from their open hatches. The crew is acutely aware that Baghdad remains one of the most dangerous places in Iraq. Besides insurgent fire, there is danger from manmade obstacles such as signal towers and poor weather such as sand storms.

"We fly so low [that] there are the same dangers as in the U.S. There are towers, poles and wires," explained Cpt. Marc Rassler, of Minneapolis, Minn. "And we are conscious of the situation and the enemy."

Gunfire from rifles and machine guns, rocket propelled grenades, and missiles remain a threat to the low-flying helicopters.

The Blackhawks wait a few minutes, as the passengers offload and new ones settle into the newly emptied seats. The new occupants strap in, and the pilots rev the engines. The noise of the rotors grows to a steady roar, and once the vehicle comes off the ground it claws for the sky, avoiding the signal tower standing a hundred yards to the right of the flight path.

The helicopter heads for Victory Base Complex, which is a five-minute flight to the west and is built around the dilapidated shell of Baghdad International Airport.

The aircrew say each day is a test.

"It's tough. It takes a lot of physical endurance," said Sgt. Mike Bergin of Fort Lewis, Wash. "It'll test your mettle, both mental and physical. You need to think on your feet and decide with less than perfect information."

The crews of this two-ship flight will make six stops before getting back to base after five hours of flight. They don't see any enemy activity. In fact, the risk of enemy fire on any single day is slight for these transport helicopters. Incidents do happen – a machine gun fired on a helicopter in this battalion three weeks ago, and the rounds would have posed a significant problem for the crew if they had hit – but they happen infrequently. This battalion makes over 20 such flights a day, and it has not suff ered any casualties.

But that is grim consolation to soldiers who strap themselves into their helicopter and fly into the Iraqi skies every day. It only has to go wrong once. Many crew members have a simple coping mechanism.

"There are always dangers," Rassler said, "but if we focus on them we would become a bundle of nerves."

It is best to put the threats out of one's mind, he added, even as the crew remains aware of the possibility and does what it can to limit their exposure to them.

Short URL: http://www.communityadvocate.com/?p=1904

Posted by on Feb 29 2008. Filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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