An East Tennessee based Army National Guard unit will say goodbye to their families in a little more than one week and head on a year-long deployment in Afghanistan. President Obama is pledging to have all American troops home from that country by the end of the year, but while the larger war effort is winding down, the troops tied to the 1-230th Air Cavalry Squadron are ramping up for combat. And adding to that stress is the fact that dozens of the unit's pilots and mechanics face the threat of losing their military jobs right after they return home from serving overseas.
"It's very possible they could come home to some sad news," said Lieutenant Colonel Melvin Clawson who commands the 1-230th Air Cavalry Squadron based at McGhee Tyson Air Base.
In January, the Tennessee Department of the military announced the Army is looking to reorganize and phase out the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters. The 1-230th is the only guard unit in the country flying the armed "scout aircraft" designed to gather intelligence and protect troops on the ground. State leaders are pushing back against the Army plan to eliminate the helicopters, pilots, and mechanics, but commanders readily admit the future of the unit is in limbo.
"We'll be running 24-hour missions seven days a week, doing base security, convoy security, working with the ground element and providing direct air support," said Captain Brendan Ballert, who will command the unit in Afghanistan.
The 80 troops readying to deploy must set aside their worries on the home front and focus on the upcoming mission to a country that is on the brink of springtime, which often ushers in another "fighting season." That "combat readiness" is something many of them know well, given more than 60 percent of the unit has served on a previous deployment. The 36 pilots and 44 mechanics range in age from 21 to 57 with an average age of 35.
Next week, we introduce our viewers to a pilot and his family about to endure his fifth combat deployment.