Exercise adds realism to training for 819th RED HORSE

Airmen of the 819th RED HORSE Squadron were told earlier this week that they were deploying to Syria in 72 hours.

After a few hours, unit leaders told them they were actually going to an airfield near Augusta, but the misdirect served a purpose in shocking troops a bit and making them think about what they’d pack and how they’d react in a real rapid deployment scenario.

“That’s a real eye opener,” said Maj. Carlos Chirivi, director of operations for the 819th.

On Thursday, airmen from the 819th loaded on to C-130s from the 120th Airlift Wing at the Montana Air National Guard and were dropped at Benchmark Airport, about 30 miles west of Augusta.

Once on the ground, they quickly went to work setting up tents and tables as if they were setting up a bare base in a deployed location. With their 72 hours notice, the unit engineers developed plans for a bast that would support 500 people.

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Though their plans were prepared for basing 500 people, they didn’t set up as many tents on the makeshift base since they were just there for the day and some of their equipment and airmen are otherwise occupied on real world missions.

Both Senior Airman Logan Summers and Staff Sgt. Joseph Eschmann were part of Thursday’s exercise. They’ve both deployed once before and been part of the 819th for 5 and 3.5 years respectively.

Summers and Logan said they have their own process to prepare for a deployment, but that it’s always good to refresh.

The exercise was particularly beneficial, they said, for the younger or newer airmen who have just arrived from their training school and might not have ever been on a military plane, let alone have deployed.

On their deployments, they’re usually on a C-130 or C-17, the airmen said, so familiarizing with the plane was also beneficial to newer RED HORSE members.

Even though they learned it was just an exercise, “we try to stay in the same mindset,” Summers said. “So if it actually happened, we’d be ready to go.”

Airmen with the 819th or any RED HORSE unit could be asked to deploy at any time with just 72 hours notice and the unit’s name is an acronym for Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineer.

When they deploy, they’d team up with the RED HORSE unit from Guam. The Air Force decided in 2015 to keep both RED HORSE units, but at reduced manning levels, so they deploy together to form a full strength unit.

Thursday’s exercise also included training with the 341st Security Forces Group on defensive fighting positions and individual movements, as well as the 40th Helicopter Squadron on medevac operations.

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RED HORSE is required to do a 48 hour exercise every 18 months and the 819th is working to better integrate with Malmstrom units, as they did with security forces and the 40th for this exercise.

They’ll do another major exercise in September with a full 48-72 hours on the ground. That will possibly bring the 819th back to Benchmark airfield.

RED HORSE airmen are also required to do security tactics training annually, but because they have to be ready to deploy rapidly so they have to stay current, said Capt. David Geaney., one of the organizers of the exercise. They’d still do combat skills training before going on a real world deployment, he said, and they stay current on the M-4.

As the second C-130 landed to deposit more airmen, campers and passersby stopped to take photos and videos of the plane turning around and taking off again.

The airfield is federally owned and maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. Some of the passersby were Forest Service firefighters on the lookout for fires starting in the Lewis and Clark National Forest. They said the airfield used to be heavily used, including traffic from nearby ranches that flew in guests for hunting and fishing. But now the public airfield gets significantly less traffic and C-130s and UH-1N helicopters were far from the normal sight in the area.

The exercise was also new to the 819th, which hadn’t done an exercise of this magnitude in at least the last decade, Geaney said.

The 819th is also partnering with the 120th to recertify the airfield, which the Guard hasn’t used in at least a year. The 819th will survey the landing strip and assess its condition for C-130 training and help make improvements, allowing similar exercises at the Benchmark location throughout the year. It’s a partnership they can recreate at other similar airfields throughout Montana.