FORT BLISS, Texas (Tribune News Service) — A Fort Bliss aviation squadron that teams Apache helicopters and reconnaissance drones is making a big impact supporting the training of Iraqi security forces in their fight against Islamic State extremists, its commander said.
About 450 soldiers from Fort Bliss’ 3rd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Armored Division Combat Aviation Brigade deployed to the Middle East in August.
The Heavy Cav, as the heavy attack-reconnaissance squadron is nicknamed, is doing split operations in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. About 150 of its soldiers are in Iraq and about 300 are in other locations in the region, said Lt. Col. R.J. Garcia, the squadron commander and leader of a larger aviation task force in the Middle East.
In Iraq, the 3-6 Cav is providing air transportation for coalition trainers from 12 countries, including the United States, who are helping to train Iraqi security forces in their efforts to retake portions of their country from the Islamic State, Garcia said.
Soldiers from the 3-6 Cav also move supplies by air and are working directly with the Iraqi Army Aviation Corps to train Iraqi aviators too, he added.
“It’s a phenomenal mission to see the greater 12-nation coalition come together to support the Iraqi security forces,” Garcia said in a telephone interview from Iraq. “It’s really unbelievable when you look across everything we do to support them and then watching them do it.”
The coalition headquarters in Iraq has also enlisted the 3-6 Cav to use its nonweaponized Shadow drones to do reconnaissance work that supports the Iraqi security forces and the coalition’s efforts against the Islamic State, Garcia said.
The Shadow drones have the ability to help find Islamic State fighters, share their video and send that information to the Iraqi army, Garcia said.
“It’s a good news story for Army aviation and what we bring to the fight,” Garcia said.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, the squadron is concentrating on training with regional partner nations and with sister services like the U.S. Navy.
The 3-6 Cav replaced sister unit, 4th Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment, which returned to Fort Bliss in August from the Middle East and reflagged to the 1st Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment upon arriving back home.
The Heavy Cav is expected to stay in the Middle East until late April.
In Iraq, about 500 trainers from a dozen partner nations are working together to “build the capacity of the Iraqi security forces” and train them in military tactics, Garcia said.
So far, about 20,000 Iraqi security forces have been trained by the coalition in the past year.
“The results have been phenomenal,” Garcia said, citing the Iraqis retaking the city of Ramadi from Islamic State control.
The Heavy Cav has joined forces with the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade from the California National Guard to form a larger aviation task force under Garcia’s command in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. That partnership has added Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters to the 3-6 Cav’s repertoire.
The 3-6 Cav and its larger task force have been playing an integral role in Iraq, Garcia said.
“Without us, there is no ability to move passengers and people and the security of the coalition forces would be degraded,” he said.
Squadron Command Sgt. Maj. Terri Clavon said coalition troops are doing a much different role in Iraq than when they engaged in combat operations in the past.
“It is almost like a rebuilding initiative,” Clavon said from Iraq. “We were here in earnest in years past and worked side by side and did joint missions with our Iraqi partners. We are here in a different capacity this time. We are working closely to ensure they are well prepared to defeat ISIL and regain the sovereignty of their country.”
Making the mission a little easier is knowing that they have the support of their families and the community back home at Fort Bliss and El Paso, Clavon said.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, 3-6 Cav soldiers are training with the militaries from partner nations like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Iraq, said Maj. Mike Gourgues, the 3-6 Cav’s executive officer.
They have also been doing interoperability training with the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard, he said. Interoperability is the ability to work and communicate together.
In addition, they have also been doing decisive-action training with U.S. ground forces that are in the region, Gourgues said.
“Our job, at the end of the day, is to stay ready for any contingency our nation needs us to support,” Gourgues said.
“We all want to accomplish our mission as professional cavalrymen and return home with honor,” Gourgues said. “Every trooper misses home but the strength of our families and rear-detachment soldiers allows us to stay focused on the mission we are doing here.”
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