McEntire chopper unit's yearlong tour ending

ccrumbo@thestate.comOctober 21, 2009 

Complete coverage of South Carolina at War

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- Thoughts of returning home to loved ones and Saturdays filled with college football are on the minds of some of the 60 S.C. National Guard soldiers serving in an Army helicopter unit in Afghanistan.

The troops, members of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter unit based at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, are just weeks away from the end of a yearlong deployment.

"The money's good, but I just want to get back home and be with my wife," said Staff Sgt. Paul Peek of Eastover, an aircraft maintainer.

Peek and his fellow soldiers are writing an important chapter in Army history: They are members of the first Chinook helicopter unit to be organized, staffed and deployed to a combat zone in less than three years.

Most have flown other helicopters or have been deployed before. But the Afghan mission has been one of the most challenging deployments, the soldiers of Detachment 1, Company B, 2nd Battalion, 238th Aviation Regiment added.

"We've set records for flight hours and total missions," said Chief Warrant Officer Carson Hayslip, a pilot from Columbia. "We had 7,000 hours of flight time halfway through the deployment."

Typically, a Chinook unit might take twice as long - a year - to reach that mark.

Hayslip, who flew an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter in 2003 when his Guard unit was in Kosovo, said there is little comparison between the two countries.

"This is a little tougher than Kosovo, that's for sure," Hayslip said. "The terrain and altitude here are more challenging."

While mountainous, Kosovo's highest peak is about 8,700 feet above sea level, far below the average 15,000-feet peaks common in Afghanistan's Hindu Kush mountains.

The gangly, two-rotor Chinook is the poster child of Army recruiting ads. It also is the service's workhorse, shuttling troops and hauling cargo - sometimes hooked to slings below its belly.

"People always ask the question about, 'How many troops can a Chinook hold?'" said Sgt. 1st Class Gregory Castles of Winnsboro, an unabashed Clemson football booster. "We say, 'Always one more.'"

The Chinooks' ability to lift heavy loads is crucial for the Army as soldiers push into Afghanistan's mountains.

Each Chinook has seats for 33 soldiers, can haul up to 25,000 pounds of gear or move vehicles - even howitzer artillery pieces - up and down a mountain.

"I'd like to think we're a welcome sight," Castles said.

Chinooks are called on to resupply troops at remote outposts, accessible only by air or donkey trains.

"They count on us for food, water and ammo, and not necessarily in that order," said Spc. Tommy Hurt, a Chinook crew chief from Blacksburg.

When the S.C. soldiers arrived in Afghanistan in January, the guardsmen were spilt into three groups. One group remained at Bagram; the other two moved to bases in eastern regions of Afghanistan.

Now, they are ready to go home.

That trip, just weeks away, will be a long overdue homecoming for Cpl. Brian Richards of Woodrow.

Richards was mobilized in January 2007, deploying to Afghanistan with the Guard's 218th Brigade Combat Team as a member of the security forces battalion.

Richards returned home with the 218th in May 2008 but left again, about a month later, for Fort Rucker, Ala. There, he spent 2 1/2 months training to be a gunner on a Chinook.

Richards was home a few weeks before he deployed again in November 2008 as a member of the Chinook unit.

"For a Guard guy, being away nearly three years is a long time," Richards said. "I'm looking forward to going home."

Other soldiers are making a list of the things they want to do.

Castles, the Clemson booster, hopes to land tickets for the Tigers annual battle with their intrastate rival, the University of South Carolina.

Peek said he had plenty on his to-do list.

"I started some projects, and I'm anxious to get back to finish them," Peek said. "I've had a whole year to plan them."

Peek also put the deployment into perspective for South Carolinians accustomed to the mild, usually snowless winters of their native state.

"We got here in mid-January and have watched the snow melt off the mountains. I'll be glad to get out of here before it snows again."

Reach Crumbo at (803) 771-8503.

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