Camp Grayling, Michigan —
ALPENA, Mich. – Soldiers from the Colorado National Guard joined other Guard, Reserve, and Active Duty military units from across the U.S. and multiple allied countries at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center in Northern Michigan, August 4-18, 2018, to participate in exercise Northern Strike 18.
The multi-service, multinational event, hosted annually by the Michigan National Guard, unites servicemembers from multiple states, service branches, and coalition countries to demonstrate the National Guard's ability to achieve and sustain proficiency in conducting combined and joint air, sea and ground operations.
The Colorado Army National Guard's 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 135th Aviation Regiment participated in the exercise. Their mission began with flying UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters from their home at Buckley Air Force Base, Aurora, Colorado, to the CRTC. After traveling for nearly two days, CONG Soldiers began joint operations almost immediately upon arrival.
"This has been amazing," U.S. Army Capt. Sean Miller, commander, Detachment 1, Company B, 2-135 GSAB said. "I've never done an exercise like this before. We're all trying to do the same thing and share ideas and when you're sharing those ideas, you're making each other stronger. We're making ourselves stronger for our state and our country."
The battalion flew multiple missions each day logging hundreds of flight hours conducting operations, including passenger and equipment movements and sling load operations.
Sling load is the movement of large cargo or equipment hooked to the bottom of the aircraft using specialized nets and ropes. In this case, the movement is to mission staging areas for use by military units on the ground.
"(Northern Strike 18) gives us the opportunity to come out here and train in an environment we're not used to (operating in)," Chief Warrant Officer 2 Warren Buchanan, a CH-47 Chinook pilot from 2-135 GSAB, said.
Operating in a unique environment gave CONG aviators the ability to hone and master the skills they don't always get to train on back home.
"For us, it's been pretty nice to come out here and do some of the missions we can't do in Colorado," Buchanan said. "You get to challenge yourself a little bit as a pilot, and it's been nice to exercise those capabilities that we don't get to practice back home, including the cross-country flight."
The exercise has more than 5,000 participants from all military branches and many foreign countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. This makes Northern Strike 18 one of the largest reserve component-sponsored exercises supported by the U.S. military. The sheer size of the exercise allows those attending to maximize their full-spectrum combat readiness through realistic, cost-effective joint training in an adaptable environment, with an emphasis on joint and coalition force cooperation.
"(Other units are) sharing valuable information and techniques we might not have even thought about," Miller said. "And we're sharing things with them that they never thought about. It helps us grow as a whole. It gives us a chance to find our weaknesses and it gives us time to refine those things that make us better."
Royal Jordanian Air Force officers joined the battalion on many of their flights, which gave the CONG Soldiers the ability to share best practices with their coalition partners and learn how the allied nation integrates air-ground operations.
For the CONG and RJAF, what adds to this unique experience is that it is the first time that they have shared a cockpit. The two organizations have worked toward this relationship through the State Partnership Program, facilitated by the National Guard Bureau. Colorado and Jordan have been partners since 2004.
"They're out here to practice with us, so our crews are sharing and learning what they need in order to be successful in missions down the road," Buchanan said.
As an aviator, Buchanan said that he has found a way to relate to other pilots, even those from another country.
"It's always fun for me," he said. "Once you find out somebody else has something you can relate to, even if you have a language barrier, you can still talk about something, and you can still exchange that passion back and forth."
According to Miller, planning each flight has been a time-consuming, yet important step to completing the unit's missions successfully.
"Just to get a bird off the ground, you're taking up pretty much the whole day prior just planning that mission and coordinating with all of the different elements that are involved in the mission," Miller said. "It could be an hour or two mission, but the time involved in the beginning just to get the bird off the ground is (lengthy)."
Even though thorough planning has been instrumental to successful flights, Miller said he attributes his unit's success to the Soldiers and warrant officers in the air logging the long flight hours and executing the mission.
"They make me look good," Miller said. "They all have stepped up. Everything they do makes me look great, and I couldn't be more proud of them."