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Eyes on Syrian border, US troops stand ready to defend Turkey's skies

A Patriot missile launcher of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Air Defense Artillery, stands ready at a Turkish army base in Gaziantep, Turkey.

GAZIANTEP, Turkey — Inside his cramped command post perched high above this southern Turkish city, 1st Lt. Brandon Burgess keeps a steady eye on the radar, looking for anything soaring high and fast.

He’s known as the “button pusher,” the guy who will release multimillion-dollar Patriot missiles into the sky should anything come screeching overhead from war-ravaged Syria.

“It’s a huge responsibility. I’m in there defending the sky,” said Burgess, a tactical control officer with 3rd Battalion, 2nd Air Defense Artillery’s Battery C, located less than 80 miles from Aleppo, a major hot spot in Syria’s bloody civil war.

It has been eight months since two Patriot missile batteries from the unit deployed to Turkey from Fort Sill, Okla., as part of a NATO effort to defend Turkish airspace from potential missile strikes from Syria, which is embroiled in a 2½-year-old conflict.

Last year, Turkey called on NATO to send anti-missile Patriot batteries to help protect its airspace after a spate of cross-border shelling from Syria. The U.S., Germany and the Netherlands obliged, with each nation sending two batteries to protect the air above about 3.5 million people in southern Turkey.

Now, NATO must decide whether it will continue with the mission and determine who will man it.

“Decisions regarding the future of NATO’s deployment of Patriots to augment the air defences of southern Turkey have not yet been made,” said Lt. Col Jay Janzen, a spokesman at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, in a statement.

Over the next few months, NATO, along with Turkey and the nations contributing the batteries, will assess the security situation and determine any further requirements, he said.

“All decisions will be taken in light of NATO’s strong commitment to protect and defend Turkey,” Janzen said.

For its part, the U.S. team of about 400 troops is close to wrapping up its year deployment in Gaziantep, a city of 1.5 million people that is just 40 miles from the Syrian border, a place where war refugees cross over daily in a bid to escape the violence.

“There a have been some things that have put us on edge,” said Lt. Col. John Dawber, the U.S. commander on the ground in Gaziantep. “It’s a complex threat spectrum.”

While no missiles have crossed into Turkey, there have been some close calls, as soldiers eye the radar and watch as rockets make sudden breaks away from the border area. With Syrian jets routinely bombing rebel strongholds — Aleppo is one of the main sites for aerial bombardment and rockets flying through the air on a regular basis — the Patriot batteries’ high-powered radars are tracking it all.

“It sees anything that flies. It’s really high-fidelity stuff,” said Capt. Andrew Simons, commander of Battery C. “You have to be ready for anything.”

“It’ll nuke you,” added Staff Sgt. Brandon O’Brien, referring to powerful waves of radiation that project from the missile tracking device. “Drop a bag of popcorn in front of it and it’ll be cooked before it hits the ground.”

Needless to say, no one walks in front of a Patriot battery’s radar.

While the Americans’ primary mission is to defend Gaziantep from ballistic missiles, the unit keeps its eyes out for any aerial threat to the city they are charged to protect. That means 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operations. For Burgess and his “button-pushing” counterpart in Battery B — 1st Lt. Lenora Earley — that means 24-hour on-and-off shifts in the Engagement Control Station, eyes fixed on the radar.

Because of the unit’s heightened state of alert, it also means around-the-clock days for everyone else in the field. It’s an unprecedented pace of work for an air defense unit, according to Sgt. 1st Class Henry Scott, who serves as the first sergeant for Battery B.

“We’re rewriting Army doctrine,” Scott said. “No one [in air defense] has ever done this before.”

The primary challenge is keeping all the pieces working under the heavy strain. Each Patriot launcher — there are 12 on site — comes with its own high-powered generators that are unaccustomed to around-the-clock activation. That means technicians are constantly monitoring, tweaking and cleaning the system to keep it running.

“Maintenance. That’s the main obstacle,” Scott said.

Whenever there’s trouble, a “hot team” roles out in a Humvee to get the machines in order.

“It’s a great job. It changes every day,” said Patriot reloader Pvt. Alexis Ruzylo, who is on her first deployment and helps keep the equipment running.

The long hours can take their toll though. So can the day-to-day monotony of working on an isolated Turkish army base, where many of the usual amenities of an American base are missing. As the tour nears its end, part of the job of noncommissioned officers is keeping troops focused.

“It’s about keeping morale up and not getting too complacent,” said Sgt. Tina Streible.

Conditions on the base have steadily improved. There’s Internet access for the soldiers as well as a gym and dining facility.

For his part, Dawber is pleased with how soldiers have handled the work load. While some young troops on their first deployment feel the hardships, the commander says he reminds them there are troops operating in much tougher environments.

“This is my fifth deployment. It’s the first one I’ve done where we’re living in an actual building,” Dawber said.

There are other things that make the mission in Gaziantep unique.

“Very rarely do you see the asset you’re defending like we can here,” said Capt. Tarik Jones, commander of Battery B. “That’s not normally the case. Here, we have the city right in front of us.”

Added O’Brien: “You have a chance to enjoy the scenery and protect the sky.”

Vandiver.john@stripes.com

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