SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
The call comes in to the Tactical Operation Center (TOC) without warning: A U.S. military member has been injured in an operation taking place off the coast of Honduras and requires an immediate medical evacuation (MEDEVAC). The aircrew instantly springs into action--the pilots, crew chief and flight medic quickly gather the available information on the location and condition of the victim before sprinting to a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter that is ready for takeoff. Less than 20 minutes after the initial MEDEVAC request was received, the helicopter is off the ground and headed for the Honduran coast to conduct an over-water hoist mission to aid the injured service member and transport him to a medical care facility.
This scenario is just one of several undertaken by Joint Task Force-Bravo's 1-228th Aviation Regiment during a week-long Collective Training Exercise (CTE) conducted by the unit, Nov. 16-22.
For the exercise, the 1-228th set up a tactical field operating location at Mocoron, a remote Honduran military outpost located in the Department of Gracias a Dios, Honduras. Members of the unit lived in field conditions, sleeping in tents and eating Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), while launching missions and dealing with multiple exercise and real-world scenarios.
"A Collective Training Exercise takes all our subordinate unit tasks and collects them together at the battalion level so we can perform our mission essential tasks," said Maj. Kenneth Ferguson, 1-228th Aviation Regiment Operations Officer. "The purpose of this exercise was to put some stress on our systems, both operationally as well as logistically."
Ferguson said the idea behind the exercise was to put the members of the battalion in a position that replicated a real-world scenario, where both the logistical and tactical planning had to be done within a limited window of time.
"Only a few members of the battalion were read into the plan for this exercise," said Ferguson. "They formed a 'white cell' which commanded and controlled and set up the scenarios for the exercise. No one else knew what the mission was until three days prior to launch. That caused us to go into a 72-hour planning cycle, which is our standard timeline and it caused us to exercise all our elements, from operations to logistics, to have the appropriate package positioned, loaded, and pushed out to the field in order to sustain the battalion for a week."
By taking the entire unit into the field for the exercise, the 1-228th was able to present new challenges that aren't typically seen when operating from an established base.
"The staff doesn't normally get the tactical play when we are operating out of a garrison environment," said Lt. Col. E.J. Irvin, 1-228th Aviation Regiment Commander. "The biggest part of this exercise wasn't to execute the aviation piece in a tactical environment; we do that on a daily basis. It was to get the staff involved in the planning process and the sustainment and logistical support in a tactical environment."
Throughout the exercise, scenarios were injected with the direct intention of placing the staff in situations where they had to make decisions that were outside the realm of their typical day-to-day operations.
"I wanted to stress the staff's capabilities and force them to think outside the box and consider courses of action that normally wouldn't make sense," said Irvin. "With certain exercise injects, you have the opportunity to basically control the scenario and make sure they think down a certain lane so they have that experience. That way, if and when it happens for real, they have the experience to do that."
During the week, members of the 1-228th conducted operations ranging from medical evacuations (MEDEVACS) to downed aircraft scenarios to personnel inserts to formation flying operations. Along with the training operations, the unit constructed the exercise in a way that allowed them to meet multiple objectives, both training and real-world.
"The way we try to run this is to get at least two, if not three objectives achieved anytime we put aircraft in the air. That way we are achieving multiple goals and getting more bang for the buck," said Ferguson. "Coming out here, we set up this scenario in such a way that we could do three or four real-world reconnaissance missions because we needed to train on the task of doing point and area reconnaissance. We were able to get training on that for pilots who hadn't done it in awhile, as well as provide information to our J3 (operations) and J2 (intelligence) which will be useful for a real-world scenario."
In addition to the training and real-world scenarios, the exercise also allowed Joint Task Force-Bravo to work with the Honduran military to assist in providing stability in the Department of Gracias a Dios.
"We chose objectives in an area where there is a need for stability," said Ferguson. "By operating and doing training flights as well as real-world reconnaissance flights and other missions within this area, we are able to provide a presence and assist in providing stability during a critical week leading up to the Honduran elections. It is good to have coverage here on a periodic basis to show our Honduran partners that we are serious about our relationship with them and that we can enhance their capacity to operate."
Irvin said the teamwork of Joint Task Force-Bravo was key to the success of the CTE.
"I am impressed with the way the team has operated," said Irvin. "When I say team, I don't mean just the 1-228th. We've had great support from the Army Forces Battalion (ARFOR) in helping us with the refueling piece, and the Joint Task Force-Bravo Commander sent people out here to help run the SWE-Dish, which allows us to maintain connectivity with the rear. It all validates what we are doing, and we couldn't do it without them. It is definitely a total team effort."
While the exercise focused on training and validating the capability of the 1-228th to support and execute the mission, Irvin said there are some other lessons the members of the unit will take away from the operation.
"It is to ensure we don't make the same mistake twice," said Irvin. "But not just the mistakes, it's also to capture the things we have done well and sustain those things. That is the most important thing, so that we aren't relearning all the time. We capture what we do well and learn what we can tweak to become even better and more efficient."
Col. Thomas Boccardi, Joint Task Force-Bravo commander, said he was pleased with the 1-228th's planning and execution of the exercise.
"It all starts with discipline, and they are a very disciplined unit," said Boccardi. "They marched toward some very specific training objectives they wanted to accomplish out there. It's not all single-ship operations, and it's not always pilot or co-pilot. It has to do with who is on the left and right of you. They built a multi-echelon training exercise that had depth not only for individual task, but collective tasks and mission tasks. And they didn't just do it here--they went out in the field at Mocoron. There is an operational aspect to it. When they started the exercise, they put their entire training plan under a simulation of real world events."
The exercise was built to provide not only tactical training, but validation of the 1-228th's systems in both operations and logistics. Both Irvin and Ferguson agreed that the exercise achieved that goal while validating the 1-228th's mission essential taskings.
"We know as a battalion, working together as a team of teams, that we can launch anywhere in the area of operations (AOR) and know exactly what package we need to take to sustain ourselves," said Ferguson. "We know how to do mission planning from an austere environment and that we can accomplish the mission."
"This exercise experience is invaluable," said Irvin. "I don't know that this battalion has ever gone out into the field in this manner just to train. We have executed real world, but now I am absolutely confident that no matter what the task or how large the task, whether it be the entire battalion or just a couple of ships, that I can launch the battalion to go execute in support of Joint Task Force-Bravo and U.S. Southern Command."