ARLINGTON, Va. --- Ask commanders on the ground either in Iraq or Afghanistan what the absolute “must have” item is this year, and more than anything else, most will tell you they want a small, tactical, unmanned aerial vehicle (TUAV) called the Shadow, along with the trained Soldiers to operate it.
Army National Guard Soldiers from both Maryland and Pennsylvania are responding to that need, and have been mobilized for up to two years to learn to fly and maintain this highly sought after piece of battlefield equipment.
Twenty-four Soldiers from Maryland’s 629th Military Intelligence Battalion as well as 20 Soldiers from Pennsylvania’s 56th Infantry Brigade are currently undergoing an extensive training program at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., before being deployed overseas sometime later this year.
“I’m really looking forward to this mission,” said Spc. William J. Sowa, who was called away from his job as an intelligence analyst assistant at the National Ground Intelligence Center in central Virginia. “I’m very proud to be flying these UAV’s.”
Sowa, who spent some active duty time in the Air Force before joining the Maryland Guard, said he likens his mission as a UAV pilot to that of the Air Force’s famous flying sergeants of World War II.
“It has been a long time since an NCO has climbed into an airplane and flown a combat mission in a war,” said Sowa. “UAV pilots don’t actually climb into a cockpit and take off,” he said, “but we are flying that aircraft. It is the closest an Army enlisted soldier can get to piloting an aircraft in a combat environment, and I think that is a really high honor.”
Each Shadow TUAV system consists of four air vehicles, two ground control stations and associated components and support equipment. Each UAV is intended to provide coverage of a brigade area of interest for up to four hours at 50 kilometers from the launch and recovery site and its highly sophisticated camera system can identify vehicles up to 8,000 feet above ground.
“It’s a lifesaving device,” said Staff Sgt. Gabriel Golden of Hagarstown, Md. “It’s a way to keep people from getting killed on the battlefield, and this piece of equipment is much easier to replace than someone’s life,” said Golden.
Lt. Col John Kelleher of the office of the assistant secretary of the Army, said in Operation Iraqi Freedom the Shadow has been flown at more than four times its projected operational tempo and commanders continue to ask for more UAV’s.
Army officials are working hard to meet this demand.
In a training program that would normally take 23 weeks and three days to complete, these Army National Guard Soldiers have been told they need to fully qualified and mission ready in just over 16 weeks.
“It’s very hectic. I’ve already been to the two-way shooting range once,” said Golden, “but this is a different environment. I’m just waiting to do my part.”
During the course, Soldiers receive instruction from FAA certified instructors on flight line operations, military intelligence, preflight operations as well as several weeks of actual flight training - the equivalent of 34 undergraduate college credit hours.
“They are handling it extremely well,” said Charles M. Rossman, chief instructor at the U.S. Army UAV Training Center. “We were given an end date for this group of soldiers and in order to meet that date we had to make things happen.”
Soldiers are currently scheduled to complete their training and graduate on June 3.
Rossman said the Army currently has fewer than 300 trained UAV pilots in the force and these citizen soldiers are the first to receive this training and equipment.
Operating under a newly created Mobilization Program of Instruction, these Maryland and Pennsylvania Army National Guard Soldiers are in training 12 hours a day, six days a week, said Rossman.
“These National Guard Soldiers are seasoned and mature; they have been through all these things before and they recognize the importance of what they are doing,” said instructor Jerry Dryer. “They step up to the plate and know exactly what is expected of them and the meet and exceed that in every way.”
“We’re set up, we have a mission and we know what we’re doing,” said Sgt. David Bogle, a King of Prussia, Pa., native and Pennsylvania Guardsman. “That is what keeps you awake at 6:30 p.m., on a Saturday night after 12 hours of power point slides.”
“That’s what the National Guard is,” said Spc. Thomas W. Gregg, “We’re more mature, and we’ve had a lot more life experiences than most Soldiers.”
Gregg, a University of Maryland student who was just one semester away from a degree in History and Ancient Studies and married just ten days before being mobilized, compares his deployment to that of the character Odysseus in Homer’s The Odyssey. “I have my loved ones back home waiting for me and I have to go through this odyssey before I can come back.”
In what will likely be a two-year mobilize, train, deploy scenario, these Maryland and Pennsylvania Army National Guard Soldiers are part of a historic transformation initiative announced last spring by Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, the chief of the National Guard Bureau.
Blum said America insists on a relevant, reliable and ready National Guard that is transformed for the 21st century. “We, the Guard, must provide the kind of forces that America needs.”
“The National Guard is a real breath of fresh air to work with,” said Dryer. “They bring real world experiences with their jobs back home in terms of performance, in terms of logistics and in terms of knowing what it takes to make things happen.”