We are now embedded with the Task Force 34 – a mixture of different units that include members of the Louisiana National Guard. The brigade is broken down into battalions and the battalions into companies. We are working with, Task Force Voodoo, the 244th battalion code name. The companies within it have picked superheroes to identify themselves. Patches on their uniforms and painted logos on the flight line add character to the drab surroundings.
The Battalions tasks include supporting other battalions from the skies in Blackhawks, moving troops, civilian and contractors around (air taxi service) and conducting air assault missions which involves moving troops into sensitive areas to carry out offensive maneuvers. The battalion also does humanitarian missions when need arises. Assault missions are top secret, so we have only been able to accompany the Guard on Baghdad taxi runs. The Blackhawks aren’t like the taxis I’m used to, so it has been exhilerating to see and photograph Baghdad from the skies while making a ring run around the bases.
Most of the 244th have served in Iraq before. Many were deployed in New Orleans during Katrina. The Guard speak of the improvements they have seen since the early part of the war and the missions they were on after Katrina. Colonel Bosetta reminds his troops to stay vigilant as their deployment is almost over but it is still dangerous territory to fly over. He pointed out that the Louisiana Army National Guard air crews were unsung heroes during the rescue operations after Katrina. They rescued over 10,000 people off rooftops using blackhawks that were able to hold up to thirty people at a time.
Movement by helicopter is the most efficient and safest way to get around Iraq. It costs $6000 an hour to operate the Blackhawk so it’s safe to say, it isn’t the cheapest. There are hundreds of blackhawks in the air, weather permitting. For them to fly by day the standard is 2 miles visibility, at night less so. Captain T. Slayton of the Minnesota National Guard is a financial advisor by trade, and a weatherman for the 34th Brigade. He chuckled when asked about the difficulty of his job predicating weather here. From the time he makes a call until the time a pilot looks out across the runway, the dust conditions can change.
Seeing Baghdad from above reveals how large and full of life the city is. Like most capital cities, it is sprawling. Moving around in armored vehicles limits ones visibility, as do the protective T-walls along main streets. From the sky one can see much movement, active markets and lots of traffic. The scars of the city are also visible; whole swatches of land are still devastated from the war. The pilots made sure to point out some of Baghdad’s landmarks and get us in close so we could shoot. SGT. Derusk stressed how much better the city looks to him now then did during his first tour. To me, it looks pretty bleak, though full of life.
General McKinley (chief of the National Guard bureau) visited the base to check in with the troops and make a first hand assessment of where things stand in Iraq. During an unscheduled interview he granted us, he gave us a brief history of the guard and talked about their importance to America. Since 9/11 almost every member of the Guard has been called up to serve on foreign ground and in the next years he doesn’t see their role abroad lessening. He gave us both a coin (a momentum with his name and signature on it), a military tradition to show appreciation. These coins come in handy at any bars near military bases. Especially one from a four star general as the person with a coin from the highest ranking soldier never pays for drinks. I am not one to hold on to souvenirs, but I’ll keep this one.
When I asked here if there was anything quirky on the base, Sgt. Hoke, a public affairs representative, took us to a graveyard of broken planes and tanks . Graffiti covered broken Migs and totaled armored vehicles added literary context to Iraq. It is all about who you are, who your family is, who love and where you are from.
to read more about the the Louisiana Army National
Guard air crews click this link- http://www.TaskForce34.org/