JTF North mission helps secure southwest border

By Capt. Kathryn Rains and Armando Carrasco | Joint Task Force North Public Affairs | March 28, 2008

A group of Soldiers in Texas recently helped secure the United States-Mexico border and train for deployment to Iraq at the same time, thanks to a mission coordinated by Joint Task Force North.

The Soldiers of the Fort Hood, Texas-based 3rd Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment, volunteered to perform an aerial reconnaissance support operation along the southwest border in response to a request for Department of Defense assistance submitted by the El Paso Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol.

The mission was coordinated by Joint Task Force North, the U.S. Northern Command unit tasked to support federal law enforcement agencies in the identification and interdiction of suspected transnational threats within and along the approaches to the continental United States. 

“JTF North, which has no permanently assigned forces, employs volunteer units and personnel from all four services, both active-duty and Reserve components, to accomplish the missions requested by the federal law enforcement agencies,” said Lt. Col. Joseph Wucik, JTF North aviation mission planner. “Prior to the unit’s deployment on a JTF North mission, all the participating military and civilian personnel must accomplish mandatory training that will prepare them for a successful mission execution.”

The training included mission-specific legal instruction, which outlined what they can and cannot do while performing the mission. Other mandatory pre-mission requirements included safety and environmental training.

“We volunteered to come to Fort Bliss to support JTF North because our team needed to train in an environment as close to the one we will find in Iraq,” said Lt. Col. Steven Palmer, commander, 3rd Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment. “The bonus here is that we were capable of conducting operations in a nighttime environment and do this against an adversary who thinks on his feet.”

Operation Ojos de Aguila – “Eyes of an Eagle” – included the deployment of the unit from Fort Hood to Biggs Army Airfield in February and March. Due to operational security constraints, the actual mission deployment dates were not released.

To accomplish the mission requirements, the unit formed Task Force Comanche, which included support elements from three separate aviation battalions assigned to the 4th Infantry Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade, also based at Fort Hood.

The task force included 3rd Battalion, the brigade’s air assault battalion, which provided UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters for aerial reconnaissance; 2nd Battalion, the general support aviation battalion, which provided medical support and three HH-60L helicopters; and the 1st Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter Battalion, which supplied four AH-64 Apache helicopters.

“Our experience working with the United States Border Patrol was beneficial for not only practicing and honing in on our skills as Army aviators, but to improve as a task force by coordinating and working side-by-side with aviators of different airframe types in a mixed aircraft formation,” said Chief Warrant Officer Robert Farmer, a UH-60 helicopter pilot.

Each supporting unit gained additional training opportunities while deployed on the mission. Taking advantage of the vast training ranges available at Fort Bliss, the units concurrently conducted collective and individual Soldier training, including weapon qualification, helicopter live-fire harmonization and support operations training.

“The JTF North mission provided the unit with a great opportunity to train for the conditions that the Soldiers will be exposed to when we deploy to Iraq later this summer,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Charles Gray-Wrightington.

“We were able to successfully conduct a myriad of collective and individual training events not normally available at our home station,” Gray-Wrightington added. “The McGregor Range complex provided us excellent training opportunities for crew-served and individual weapons. We are completing the JTF North mission better-trained and well-prepared to assume our mission in Iraq in a few months.”

“We have done well, and we will come down from Fort Hood to conduct these operations again," Palmer said. "This is the most realistic training we can get in the U.S.