Va. Guard aviators fly nearly 300 hours over Guatemalan skies

Members of the Virginia Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment land a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter after transporting Soldiers to Guatemala city during Operation Beyond the Horizon April 28, 2014. The 2-224 Aviation Regiment's primary purpose is for casualty evacuation, but they also run personnel transport and other tasks given to them by the Task Force. (U.S. Army National Guard Photo by Sgt. Alejandro S. Smith-Antuna)

Members of the Virginia Army National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment land a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter after transporting Soldiers to Guatemala city during Operation Beyond the Horizon April 28, 2014. The 2-224 Aviation Regiment’s primary purpose is for casualty evacuation, but they also run personnel transport and other tasks given to them by the Task Force. (U.S. Army National Guard Photo by Sgt. Alejandro S. Smith-Antuna)

SANDSTON, Va. – From April to June, approximately 110 Virginia Army National Guard Soldiers, comprised of flight crews and support personnel, rotated through Guatemala in two-week cycles in support of Operation Beyond the Horizon, serving as the only rotary wing asset for the exercise. The Soldiers, from the Sandston-based 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, flew more than 140 missions, moved more than 900 individuals and hauled nearly 9,000 pounds of cargo through the skies of Guatemala aboard three UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.

Operation Beyond the Horizon is a joint foreign military interaction and humanitarian exercise sponsored by U.S. Southern Command. The Virginia Soldiers had the opportunity to work with Guatemalan armed forces, as well as Soldiers and Airmen from across the country. Their primary mission was to provide casualty evacuation support, but the distinctive terrain and environment of Guatemala, along with the chance for Soldiers to perform in their military occupational specialties, or MOS, on a daily basis provided integral and unique training opportunities.

“Everybody gets to do their MOS from start to finish and we don’t always get to do that as guardsmen,” explained Capt. Andrew McMillion, who commanded the aviation personnel for the second duration of the exercise. “It’s focused on the entire battalion and everyone’s MOS as a whole. Everybody gets good training out of it.”

At any given time, approximately 29 Virginia Guard Soldiers were on the ground for the exercise, with 22 rotating in and out in two-week cycles, while seven Soldiers stayed for the first duration of the exercise before being replaced for the second duration in order to maintain continuity. Each of those 29 individuals operated at maximum capacity, with fuelers fueling, pilots flying, flight operations personnel tracking missions, and helicopter maintenance crews keeping the Black Hawks flying.

“I was very proud of the overall missions, but the biggest thing is how the unit came in and was able to work together quickly and efficiently,” explained McMillion. “They’re only there for two-week iterations before we had another group come in and they were all able to be effective within a day or two of getting schooled up.”

Along with operating in their MOS, Soldiers were also exposed to unique terrain, with flight crews conducting training at high elevations and flying near active volcanoes on a near daily basis.

“The missions we had and getting to see the country and meeting new people was great,” Spc. Kevin Barton, a crew chief and mechanic who deployed to Guatemala in June. “It was a great trip and a great experience.”

Soldiers also had the opportunity to work with foreign military assets, including the Guatemalan soldiers assigned to Operation Beyond the Horizon as security personnel.

“They look up to the U.S. Army,” said McMillion of the Guatemalan soldiers. “They think highly of us and they want to do what they can to make sure they’re doing everything they can to help us. Most of them speak some English, so we were able to talk to them and build relationships with them.”

The impact to the unit was significant, with real world experience in a foreign country enhancing the skills of all personnel, but the impact to the communities in Guatemala was also significant.

“The impact that we had on the country itself was huge. We had kids who got caught up with our [executive officer] while we were down there and they wanted to know how to become an American Soldier and especially a Black Hawk pilot,” said McMillion. “We would have people line up along the fence just to watch us do maintenance and check for stuff on our aircraft.”

While the Virginia Soldiers provided aviation support, units from other states provided engineering assets to build schools and clinics while medical and dental personnel conducted medical readiness training exercises, of MEDRETEs, in rural areas to provide much needed medical and dental assistance to the local populace, while also enhancing their own skills and gaining valuable real world experience.

“The other units, like the engineer units that were down there, their impact was tremendous with the schools that they built and the MEDRETEs,” McMillion said. “The impact that the Army had on the country of Guatemala was phenomenal.”

Overall, the mission proved to be a successful one for the Virginia National Guard aviators.

“It went extremely well,” McMillion said. “We accomplished everything they asked us to accomplish, plus more, and we were definitely appreciated by the task force and we received compliments from them on multiple occasions.”