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Fort Drum aviators see progress from Afghan counterparts during deployment

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About four months into its deployment in eastern Afghanistan, the commander of the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade said he was encouraged by the development of his soldier’s Afghan aviation partners.

“They don’t have as many resources as the U.S. does, but within their means and resources they’re making tremendous strides every day,” said Col. David J. Francis.

Col. Francis updated the Times on the brigade’s activity in a phone call Monday afternoon.

The approximately 1,800 personnel from the brigade, a part of the 10th Mountain Division, are serving in a variety of air and ground support roles in Regional Command-East, and work with multiple active duty and reserve units to make up Task Force Phoenix.

About 1,500 of the 6,000 personnel in the Afghan Air Force are in a Kabul-based squadron supported by the brigade. The Afghan unit works with Russian Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters. A part of the American assistance has been teaching the Afghan squadron about planning routes, landing zones and sustainment requirements for air assaults.

A good sign of the progress made by the Afghan unit’s aviators, the commander said, was the completion of their first air assault mission without American support a few weeks ago in Nangarhar Province. He said the mission re-established a military presence in the eastern province that had not had been covered in a long time.

Col. Francis explained that the long-term goal of the mentorship was to improve their counterparts’s air and ground coordination.

“It’s becoming more and more routine,” he said.

Beyond their support of the Afghan squadron, the brigade reported that it had flown more than 3,600 missions, moved more than 46,000 passengers and 3,600 short tons of cargo from the start of its deployment to July 24.

Col. Francis said the toughest challenge for his aviators was dealing with the terrain and conditions, such as high altitudes, high temperatures and high winds that can negatively impact flying aircraft.

“The environment is always at the forefront of our minds,” he said.

With the brigade in its fourth deployment in the country, Col. Francis said many of those challenges were well known to his aviators, and that their pre-deployment training has been the difference in keeping them safe.

The commander added that he was proud of his soldiers’s accomplishments on a daily basis.

The brigade has seen the deaths of two soldiers since the start of their deployment, Capt. Aaron R. Blanchard and 1st Lt. Robert J. Hess, who died on April 23 of wounds suffered from enemy indirect fire. The two were in country less than a week, as a part of a group that went ahead of the main departure.

Col. Francis said the two were critical parts of the brigade.

“That’s why they were over there ahead of time,” he said.

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