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Fort Bragg Aviators Travel Far to Find the Uncomfortable

FORT PICKETT, Va. -- Hovering above a training area in southern Virginia, a soldier peered down the barrel of a machine gun, scanning the ground for targets.

On command, he opened fire on a boat grounded in a clearing surrounded by pines.

Then, as the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crossed over another clearing, a series of green silhouettes came into view.

"Friendly forces, do not engage," the soldier was told as he moved his weapon away from the targets.

In the next clearing, a truck sat atop a hill. In it, the soldier was told fictional adversaries were moving in to attack the aforementioned allies.

In seconds, the ground in front of the truck erupted, drawing a violent line of dust and dirt to the vehicle.

The scene, and others similar to it, repeated itself dozens of times throughout the course of a week-long exercise earlier this month.

Crews from the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, aboard Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters, took turns testing their weapons skills as part of an annual certification.

The exercise also was a way for the brigade to practice skills that have become a focus point for a unit preparing for fights that could be different from the deployments that aviation units have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In those wars, experienced Army aviators frequently deployed and grew accustomed to the same battlegrounds, airfields and hangars on forward operating bases.

Since returning from their latest deployment to Afghanistan last summer, the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade has worked hard to ensure its soldiers regularly face the unfamiliar.

The brigade has made repeated trips off the installation to find that unfamiliar terrain.

The 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion, which led the training at Fort Pickett, Virginia, also has trained at Marine Corps Outlying Airfield Atlantic on the North Carolina coast.

In addition to training at Fort Bragg, all of the brigade's battalions have experienced training away from their home post, traveling to Camp Lejeune and other points in eastern North Carolina, or flying into Virginia.

Elements of the brigade also have trained in Texas and California, and ongoing training has a portion of the 3rd Battalion at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, officials said. Future training will take parts of the brigade to Fort Polk, Louisiana.

The regular exercises on unfamiliar training lands has spawned a common phrase among the unit.

"We want to be comfortable being uncomfortable," said Maj. Crispin J. Burke, operations officer for the 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion.

The "uncomfortable" was easy to envision in Virginia.

The soldiers who were the first to arrive at Fort Pickett's Blackstone Army Airfield described the land that would become their headquarters as "an open muddy field."

But within hours, the field along the airfield's edge was transformed into a complicated tent city, with camouflage netting covering the network of tents serving as sleeping quarters and operational centers.

Soldiers from the battalion and sister units, the 2nd Aviation Assault Battalion and 122nd Aviation Support Battalion, set up the tent city in a matter of hours.

Spc. Samuel Rees, a crew chief for B Company, 2nd Aviation Assault Battalion, said the training was more intensive than what would occur at Fort Bragg.

"It's a lot of work to get out here and get it all together," he said.

"The change of scenery is nice," Rees said. "It's a lot more work, but there's good training value."

Others agreed.

First Lt. Alexander Kraft, a flight leader in B Company, 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion, said showing soldiers they can operate in austere conditions proves they can perform anywhere, if needed.

"You get a taste of what a real mission could be like," Kraft said. "Psychologically, it's really beneficial to be in this open muddy field but still maintain the same operational level."

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Tony Wozniak, a pilot with 3rd Battalion, said flying through national airspace to reach Fort Pickett, then flying to and from the ranges near civilian property, requires a lot more coordination and planning than flying on Fort Bragg.

"The more we can get off Bragg and simulate the better," Wozniak said. "It's a very good training tool for everybody involved. And it's just nice to get away from Bragg and get into unfamiliar territory."

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Brett Ely agreed.

"It's good for our guys to get out of their comfort zone," he said. "It's definitely good to mix it up. It kind of raises the stress level and the complexity."

While training, the battalion's soldiers flexed all their muscles.

Flight medics conducted training for soldiers across the battalion, while juggling real-world and training missions.

And the battalion's support company kept the unit going.

"Out mission is to feed, fix and fuel our battalion," said Capt. Chad Tyson, commander of E Company, the 3rd Battalion's forward support company.

Tyson said his soldiers were feeding a little more than 300 troops, keeping generators running and fueling a near-constant rotation of helicopters.

Being away from home means those soldiers have to solve problems on their own, instead of relying on the benefits they have at Fort Bragg.

"My guys are trained to be able to set up anywhere," Tyson said. "The biggest challenge out here is the logistics."

"Any time we come out here and train there's always something to learn," he said. "There's definitely value to that."

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