KMC Soldiers lead Montenegro relief efforts

by Rick Scavetta
U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern

When Army Capt. Terry Hill told his daughter Kaylee that he must leave home to help snowbound villagers in mountainous Montenegro, the 3-year-old rushed to her toy box.

Hill and his wife, Julie, were not surprised when Kaylee returned with a plush toy.

“It was a little Smurf,” said Hill, a medical evacuation pilot from Company C, 1st Battalion, 214th Aviation Regiment. “She knows about the importance of giving to others. She asked that I give it to a little girl like her.”

In mid-Feburary, as snow piled high among Montenegro’s mountains, Company C Soldiers were gearing up for a long weekend for President’s Day, said company 1st Sgt. Kyle Brunell. That changed when a warning order arrived at company’s Landstuhl headquarters — prepare aircraft and crews to support humanitarian assistance to the Montenegrin people.

“When people are in need, that’s what we do. We respond,” Brunell said. “By nature, a medevac company responds when somebody else calls for help. It doesn’t matter if it’s a war zone where they are shot or injured or a peace time humanitarian mission. We respond and our Soldiers are excited to help.”

Soldiers from the 361st Civil Affairs Brigade, a U.S. Army Reserve unit headquartered at Kaiserslautern’s Daenner Kaserne, coordinated efforts. The advance team set up on Feb. 19.

Two UH-60 Black Hawks, one from Landstuhl and another from Mannheim, launched. Support personnel flew down on C-12 airplanes. Operations began Feb. 23. Weather affected two days of planned flying during the five-day mission, so crews stayed a couple days longer to offer assistance. The Soldiers are expected to return to Germany during the first week of March.

Operating above deep snow drifts proved challenging. Crews lowered aid to the ground using a hoist — a tool unique to the medical evacuation helicopter, Hill said. While crews often train “live hoist” missions — lowering or raising people from a hovering helicopter — the chances to actually perform one in a real-world mission are rare, Hill said. Within two days, Hill’s crew performed six hoists.

Sgt. Joe Campbell, who won the 2011 Kaiserslautern Red Ribbon Run and whose family was the Army Family of the Year, was on that hoist line helping lower Montenegrin doctors into remote villages. Afterward, the helicopter returned and hoisted them up, Hill said.

Campbell’s wife, Tawny, said when their daughter Rhynli, 3, saw online photos of her dad dangling under a helicopter, she said, “Look Mommy, he’s giving people rides.”

“He loves the hoist. He’s so excited,” Tawny Campbell said. “It’s an extension of who he is. His mindset is to help and serve. He does it because he knows he’s helping someone.”

Campbell told his wife it’s great to see Montenegrin people look up and wave as they fly overhead. It’s also important for spouses, some who were at first unsure of where Montenegro was on a map, to see their Soldiers helping out, Tawny Campbell said.

“We get to see how much good he is accomplishing,” she said of her husband. “When he comes back, they are going to have a different view of Americans and of medevac, because of what he’s done.”

Missions also included crews dropping medical supplies to remote villages along the Bosnia and Herzegovina border and delivering animal feed. Onboard, a Montenegrin pilot who knows the terrain, helped direct Hill to the drop sites.

“They are our human GPS,” Hill said of his Montenegrin counterparts. “With this amount of snow, houses (are) completely covered. The local national pilots know where they are.”

Using a cell phone, the Montenegrin pilot gets help from snowbound villagers, who say they can hear the rotors and tell him whether to fly straight or turn.

“You see a hump in the snow, but it’s a house. That’s where we’re delivering the medicine to,” he said.

For one Soldier, Sgt. Damir Basic, who was raised in nearby Croatia, the mission offered a chance to speak Serbo-Croatian, his native tongue.

“He’s a fueler, but with his knowledge of the language, it made sense to bring him as an interpreter,” said Sgt. 1st Class Rich Simmons. “He helped in all aspects, with the language and loading aircraft. It was great that he was part of this.”

Flying heavy aircraft above 6,000 feet forced Hill and crewmembers to revert to their training, he said. The terrain was extremely different than in Southern Afghanistan, where the unit most recently conducted operations. But the mission, to members of a Dustoff (the nickname given to medical evacuation helicopters), is essentially the same, Hill said.

“What we do is save life or help life,” Hill said. “To help other people, it doesn’t matter if we are in combat or we’re here, the end state is to better other people with the assets we’ve been blessed with.”

During a break in missions, local Montenegrins visited the American Soldiers and their helicopters at Golubovci Airbase. One girl reminded Hill of his daughter. With her parents’ permission, Hill offered the Smurf to her.

“She was shy at first. But she just lit up,” Hill said. “It was just great. But it’s hard to explain in words. We’re blessed with what we have. It meant a lot to me.”