Friday, November 20, 2009

“Country” Calls Iraq Home Since 2004


One stop on the same mission in the last post Camp Echo. When we landed, the crew told me there would be grilled steaks waiting for them after they got their paperwork and loading/unloading completed. I was skeptical, but when I came back from a visit to the Charlie MEDEVAC TOC (Tactical Operations Center) a smiling man with a big black cowboy hat, an enormous belt buckle and, according to the Alpha crew, an even bigger heart, was grilling steaks outside the blast wall.
That man was James “Country” Curtis, 46, of Olden, Texas. Curtis has been the passenger terminal manager in Diwaniya since June of 2008. Curtis controls the airfield and does what he can to help soldiers passing through Camp Echo “enjoy the time they spend here.” The Alpha crew definitely enjoyed Country’s cooking. It’s a skill he has had a long time to perfect. Except for R&R leaves home, Curtis has worked in Iraq since February 2004. “I was a truck driver at the base in Babylon,” he said. “When that closed we took over the former Spanish base here at Diwaniya. I drove trucks till last year when I started working at the airfield.” Curtis plans to return to Texas next year, maybe to work his farm, maybe to drive trucks, maybe both. “That’s next year. I’ll see what happens when I get back home.”

The fuel crew at Diwaniya is very good at their work according to the air crews. They roll out to fuel the birds as soon as they land. And they dress so brightly only one wears a PT Belt.

Who Flies That Blackhawk? The Whole Story


Last Month I wrote part of the story below--about the Blackhawk pilot who was a pilot for Gov. Blagojevich of Illinois in civilian life. Here is the four-man crew and their four very different backgrounds.

Task Force Diablo is based in Pennsylvania but includes units and soldiers from across the nation. Because National Guard soldiers bring a variety of life and work experiences with them on deployment, even the smallest unit can include soldiers with a surprising array of skills and experience. In September Alaska-based, Charlie 1-52nd MEDEVAC needed a crew for the chase bird for a routine flight to two of their remote sites. Alpha 1-106th from Illinois supplied a crew for a Pennsylvania 1-150th Blackhawk helicopter. The four soldiers who comprised the Illinois crew on a Pennsylvania helicopter following an Alaska MEDEVAC show how different the members of a four-man unit can be.

Flying in Iraq and Flying in the Spotlight


In the left pilot seat is Chief Warrant Officer Four Patrick Schroeder, 38, an Instructor Pilot with 21 years of service. The Sherman, Illinois, native joined the Army in 1988 and served as a UH-1 “Huey” mechanic for four years before attending flight school. He has been a pilot “24/7” ever since. In 2003 he took a job as one of the pilots who fly the Governor of Illinois. Because he deployed in January of 2009, Schroeder served as a pilot for Governor Rod Blagojevich from shortly after the time he took office in 2003 until shortly before the notorious governor was removed from office in 2009.
Schroeder would say nothing about flying the governor except to say that he enjoyed the times he was able to fly Lieutenant Governor Patrick Quinn and looks forward to flying for Governor Quinn when he returns from deployment. Schroeder was married just a month before his current deployment and took his R&R (Rest and Recreation) leave as a honeymoon in Australia. Schroeder is on his second deployment. He first deployed in Iraq in 2004-5 with Alpha 1-106th for 15 months.

Pilot Engineers a Successful Dual Career


Next to Schroeder in the right pilot seat was Chief Warrant Officer Two Nathan McKean, 31, of Decatur, Illinois. McKean has served 12 years, beginning with four years in the Navy building bombs on the aircraft carrier USS Stennis and in a combat search and rescue unit based in San Diego. McKean came home in 2001, enrolled in college, and joined the Army National Guard. He trained as a crew chief and later deployed to Iraq for the first time with Bravo Company 1-106th in 2004-5. After leaving active duty, McKean decided he needed a good job that would allow him time off for military duty—lots of time off. In 2002, he took a job as an engineer on the Norfolk Southern Railroad. Within a year he was training to go to Iraq, then left for a deployment of 15 months.
Soon after he returned he went to flight school for a year, then had additional training before his current tour in Iraq which began in January. McKean estimates he has worked on the railroad for 2-1/2 years, but has more than seven year’s seniority.

Blackhawk Crew Chief Plans Fixed-Wing Future


Behind McKean on the right side of the Blackhawk was Sgt. Steve Sunzeri, 26, of Naperville, Illinois. Sunzeri has six years in the Illinois Army National Guard. From 2003-7 he served as a scout and infantryman with
Charlie Company 2-106th Cavalry. In 2006 he completed the require-ments for a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. Then in 2007-8 he reclassified to become a flight crew chief, deploying in 2009 with Alpha Company.
After nearly two years of service in helicopters,
Sunzeri will return to college to earn a degree in Aviation Management at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and at the same time train to be a commercial pilot. If everything falls into place, he will start school in the Spring Semester of 2010. “My goal is to fly fixed wing aircraft for a major airline,” Sunzeri said. In the meantime he will be earning the ratings necessary to become a fixed wing pilot while earning a degree that will help him achieve his career goals. He will continue to serve as a crew chief in the Illinois Army National Guard while he attends college and completes flight training.

Door Gunner on Third Deployment at 24


In the left seat behind the pilot is the door gunner, the youngest member of the crew and the one with the most combat deployments. Cpl. Michael Randazzo, 24, of Queens, N.Y., is on his third deployment in six years of Army National Guard service. Randazzo enlisted shortly after graduating high school serving first as an infantryman with the New York based 1-69th Infantry Regiment. In May of 2004 Randazzo deployed with the 1-69th to Baghdad and Taji patrolling and conducting raids. Randazzo also worked route clearance patrolling Route Irish. When he returned from Iraq, Randazzo worked for an executive protection company until June 2008 when he volunteered to return to Iraq as a door gunner with 3-142nd Aviation Regiment. Near the end of that tour, he volunteered for a second consecutive tour as a door gunner with Alpha 1-106th. When this tour is complete Randazzo plans to return to New York City and “squeeze in a semester of college” before going to flight school in the fall of 2010. After flight school he will continue his college education until 2012 when he plans to deploy to Afghanistan as an Army helicopter pilot.