PODGORICA, Montenegro – U.S. Army Europe Soldiers are wrapping up a humanitarian assistance mission here today that helped to bring aid to this Balkan country following record snowfall that left people across the nation cut off.
The Soldiers, who made up a task force consisting of Army reservists from the Kaiserslautern, Germany-based 361st Civil Affairs Brigade, 7th Civil Support Command, 21st Theater Sustainment Command, and aviators and support crew members from Alpha and Charlie Companies, 1st Battalion, 214th Aviation Regiment, 12th Combat Aviation Brigade based respectively in Mannheim and Landstuhl, Germany, started heading home after a much-heralded operation.
The task force arrived at Golubovci Airbase here Feb. 19 following a request from the government of Montenegro for assistance in delivering supplies and facilitating medical care for isolated villages in the northern region of the country where the snow hit the hardest. The task force quickly established operations centers alongside their Montenegrin counterparts to smooth communication, and got straight to work.
The team from the 361st embedded itself with the Montenegrin command staff at the air base and quickly began meeting with representatives of various government agencies to get a better picture of the situation and establish the needs of the Montenegrin people.
While bad weather delayed the arrival of the two U.S. Army Europe Black Hawk helicopters vital to the mission for two days, the aviators and support crews used the waiting time as an opportunity to see what had been done by the Greek, Slovenian and Croatian aviation forces that preceded them here and define what capabilities the U.S. forces could contribute to the effort. By the time the helicopters arrived Feb. 22, aviation missions had already been planned, and following a short ceremony they, too got right to work delivering supplies and medical help.
“Having the helicopters arrive later gave us the ability to work out any issue out with our processes,” said Col. Robert Levalley, commander of the 361st and the task force. “We were able to have all missions planned for the first 48 hours, the tactical operation centers were set up, and we had coordinated with all local and national government agencies.”
The same severe weather that sparked the mission put the aviators to the test. Poor visibility and high winds made flying in Montenegro’s rugged terrain a constant challenge.
“Hands down, the weather has been our biggest challenge on this mission,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jeffery York, a Black Hawk pilot with 1-214th, during the operation. “Poor visibility and low clouds in the mountains had grounded our crews for two days, and when those cleared, the turbulence returned. Holding a 9-ton helicopter at a 4-foot hover with tree branches off the tail and high-tension power lines off the nose is tense work, even for veteran pilots.”
Deep snow, sometimes more than 10 feet, also made it difficult for the aircraft to land. This forced the crews to drop bags of supplies into the snow, and required the use of a special hoist to lower and extract medical personnel that presented its own challenges for the crews.
“I’ve never had to take anyone down with me (on the hoist). I usually go down by myself and pick people up,” said Sgt. Joseph Campbell, a flight medic with 1-214th. “Here, I had to take a doctor down with me. It definitely taxed me.”
Despite the difficulties, the members of the task force seemed to get deep satisfaction from helping people and seeing the open expressions of gratitude the people of Montenegro showed for their efforts.
“The biggest reward is knowing that we’ve made a difference in these peoples lives,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jeremy Emmons. “We see it every time that we drop off supplies to them. It’s evident in their body language. We see their spirits raise, the weight of being stranded comes off their shoulders, and they flash us smiles and waves. That’s when we know we made a difference.”
More accolades were showered on the team during visits from senior leadership of the Montenegrin military, the U.S. State Department and USAREUR commander Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling.
After 11 days of operations the task force was assembled March 1 to hear Montenegrin Chief of General Staff Vice Adm. Dragan Samardžić express his country’s gratitude and present the Soldiers with a few parting gifts.
“On behalf of the armed forces of Montenegro and myself, I pay compliments to the U.S. armed forces and especially to the U.S. Army Europe’s 1st Battalion, 214th Aviation Regiment, 12th Combat Aviation Brigade and 361st Civil Affairs Brigade,” said Samardžić. “I would like to express my deep gratitude, being thankful for your response in a short notice to help Montenegrin population in heavy snowstorms.”
During the brief ceremony U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro Sue K. Brown also thanked the task force members.
“I want to thank the U.S. Soldiers for their support to the Montenegrin people at this very difficult time,” the ambassador said. “You have established friendships with Montenegrins which will last for a long time to come. We know that this mission was a partnership between the American and Montenegrin soldiers, and we know it could not have been done if we had not all worked together.”
Shortly after the event the helicopters lifted off and began their journey back to Germany, leaving behind a small contingent to finalize the mission and head home to their respective units the following day.
While this mission is complete, Samardžić said they are leaving a lasting impression on their Montenegrin partners.
“This (mission) will further strengthen our partnership and friendship, making us strong allies to help each other in times of need,” said Samardžić. “You have proven the proverb, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going.’” Not only the armed forces of Montenegro members appreciate (the) relief given, but also the whole Montenegrin population was relieved by the great effort being put forth by the U.S. military.”