Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s combat aviation brigade is about to turn its attention from the imposing peaks of Afghanistan to the vastness of the Pacific.
Its helicopter battalions held a ceremony Tuesday marking the official close of an eight-month mission in Afghanistan that ended in early December.
The event signaled that its 1,700 soldiers are home from war and ready to train for new assignments.
They have a busy year ahead, their commander said, as they prepare for the addition of an Apache helicopter unit and a slate of assignments that should have them flying over the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
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“No slacking off, no resting on our laurels. We have to be trustworthy in everything we do,” Col. Paul Mele told his troops.
The biggest change for the brigade will be its new role in the Army’s shift of resources to operations along the Pacific Rim. Traditionally, Army helicopter crews focus on missions over land while Marine helicopter crews take on challenges at sea.
That means Army helicopter crews will have to learn how to fly over large bodies of water, land on aircraft carriers and survive ocean crashes. They will conduct training exercises at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
The new assignment is similar to those given to JBLM’s ground-based units in the 7th Infantry Division and I Corps. They’ve been training with Pacific allies in stateside exercises and overseas for the past two years.
Mele’s brigade includes troops who fly and sustain 24 Apache attack helicopters and another 30 Blackhawk helicopters at JBLM.
Last year, the Army inactivated a unit in the brigade that flew OH-58 Kiowa helicopters. That squadron is expected to be replaced later this year with a new Apache squadron set to bring another 24 helicopters to JBLM from their current station at Fort Carson, Colorado.
South Sound residents might start to notice more helicopters flying near Interstate 5 now that the brigade is resuming its training schedule. Officers said it should take several months for the brigade to receive and restore all of its equipment from Afghanistan.