With most of the 82nd Airborne Division’s soldiers back home at Fort Bragg from deployments in Afghanistan, the division is now getting back the last of its luggage.
That includes about 35 helicopters and about 300 packing containers that arrived by ship from Spain at the state port in Wilmington early Friday morning, all belonging to the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade. The brigade recently returned from a year-long deployment to eastern Afghanistan. Its shipful of goods should catch up with it on post by the end of the week.
During the course of the war in Afghanistan, the Army has sent more than uncounted thousands of pieces of equipment that, as troops withdraw, have to be reckoned with: brought back to the United States or sold or given to the Afghan government or other security partners.
On the East Coast, most of what was sent over will come back the same way it went out, through a military port at Charleston, S.C., or through the Port of Savannah in Georgia.
But Maj. Todd Tarnoff of the 841st Transportation Battalion, based in Charleston, who coordinates the movement of the deployed gear through these and other ports, wanted to bring the 82nd CAB’s gear through Wilmington for several reasons.
It gives the port a share of Defense Department business; when dealing with so many aircraft, it’s more convenient for the Fort Bragg-based pilots to fly 45 minutes home from Wilmington than a couple of hours or more from Charleston or Savannah; and it gives the 841st a chance to train for one of its missions, that of moving its operations away from its home port.
At its simplest, the operation is a giant unpacking job. Workers unloaded materials from the ship on Saturday. Shipping containers stuffed with everything from office furniture to duffel bags were sorted for loading onto tractor-trailers, and the helicopters – Chinooks, Apaches and Blackhawks – were set down in a parking lot on the massive port property so teams could get them ready for the flight home.
“They’re dirty, but they’re in pretty good shape,” said Mike Wolcott, a production supervisor at the Aviation Logistics Management Branch at Fort Bragg, who was overseeing the teams reassembling the helicopters.
By Monday afternoon, Wolcott said his teams had found only one problem with the aircraft: The Chinooks, which had to be broken down more than usual for shipping, were missing parts. Replacements would have to be sent from Fort Bragg or elsewhere before the helicopters could make the trip home.
Looking back, looking ahead
Chief Warrant Officer Mike Campbell got back home from Afghanistan on Sept. 9. Monday, he was back at work, traveling to Wilmington to pilot one of the Blackhawks back to base. Reassembled aircraft had been parked in a second lot, which will be used as a military tarmac until the helicopters have all lifted off.
Down one side of the lot was a row of Apaches waiting to go home. The names above the doors, “Cujo,” “Dead of Night,” “Plenty O’Toole,” suggested the earlier days of the war, when they were more likely to have seen combat.
During the past year, Campbell said, he and other pilots in his unit averaged as many as 500 to 700 flight hours each, but most of that was hauling military, political and security leaders around so they could plan how to control insurgent violence in their regions of the country.
Soon, Campbell will start a new assignment as an aviation instructor at Fort Rucker, Ala. He said he was glad that he got to be with the 82nd as the war began to wind down in Afghanistan and that he was able to pilot one of the Blackhawks back to its base after the deployment.
“It feels great,” he said. “It’s kind of like the last step.”