By spring, thousands of our local soldiers will be on the other side of the world in support of Iraqi freedom. The men and women of the Third Infantry will deploy soon for one year as they return to the fight. WTOC's Dal Cannady spent a few days with them in central Louisiana as they trained.
From early morning to evening, soldiers of the 1-3 Aviation Regiment practice everything they could possibly do in Iraq. Each time, they try to do it faster, safer, smoother than the time before. They say the realism of Folk Polk's Joint Readiness Training Center makes the razor's edge of their combat skills even sharper.
"It has basically taken us to our limits as far as testing what we can do over there and expect over there," said Capt. John Crotzer. "The maintenance that has to happen. The crews planning their missions, every aspect of maintenance to keep the unit on its feet on a daily basis. The soldiers work 24/7."
Across the field, crews for each aircraft move through their paces to anticipate anything they'll face. The Blackhawks will serve as the people movers for small units. The Apaches are the well-armed fighters.
"As far as rotary aircraft on the battlefield, the Apache brings everything to the table," said CW2 Steve Sheahan. "We've got 30 millimeter guns, rocket weaponry and Hellfire missile systems. Not only are we able to bring those to the battlefield, we're able to use them to protect everyone on the ground, the convoys, the soldiers on the ground, the infantry guys the tank guys. Those guys are our customers."
Compared to the ground forces, the aviation duties may seem safe way up in the air. But as they ride with each of the convoys, they're a vulnerable target to insurgents on the ground.
That's why they practice take off quick take-offs and landings to reduce the target on their backs. In a timed drill, a Chinook crew gets their assignment to pick up wounded on the other side of flight line.
In seconds, they load the injured and lift off as they race toward medical help. With observers watching closely, crews attend to them as the Chinook travels at a speed that would earn you a speeding ticket on the Autobahn.
After they drop off their passengers, the Chinook heads back to base to check its time. At day's end, pilots and crew leaders gather to review everything they did in search of ways to do it better.
Commanders say this mission is just as dangerous but just as vital as their last trip to Iraq. "There's still an insurgency we'll continue to battle," said Lt. Col. Pedro Almeida. "That's our focus. Our mission will be to bring stability and security to the region as democracy continues to build and develop."
Over the whir of helicopter rotors, Almeida says they'll protect that democracy until the Iraqis can protect it themselves, from either the ground or the air or both.
If you don't appreciate what those soldiers do, just imagine doing your job at high speed hundreds of feet off the ground. Coming up tomorrow night, we'll hear from those soldiers about the toughest challenge of all, being gone from home for a year and how their families play a key role in their mental toughness as they return to the fight.