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JBLM helicopter squadron is shut down, at least for now

It was a bittersweet goodbye for aviators and family members of a helicopter squadron Thursday morning at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

They gathered to remember the legacy of the 4-6 Attack Reconnaissance Squadron – part of a U.S. Cavalry outfit, known as the “Fighting Sixth,” that dates back to the Civil War. And they witnessed the retirement of the squadron’s colors at an inactivation ceremony at Watkins Field.

The squadron is the first to be disbanded as part of a five-year plan to phase out all OH-58 Kiowa helicopters in the Army. It’s also part of a larger postwar force reduction at JBLM that has resulted in the loss of one of the base’s 4,500-soldier Stryker brigades and a 500-soldier artillery battalion. Even deeper cuts may lie ahead.

“We will have to make changes, and realign soldiers and equipment to meet the needs of our nation,” said Col. Paul Bontrager, deputy commander of JBLM’s 7th Infantry Division, while addressing the crowd Thursday.

But the aviation squadron apparently is not destined for the history books just yet.

The Army plans to reactivate the squadron at JBLM in a year as it makes a transition from Kiowas to a larger force of AH-64 Apache helicopters.

The Apaches have the same reconnaissance capability, but are larger and are built for military combat.

Maj. Jason Waggoner, an Army spokesman, said it’s unclear at this point how many Apaches the 4-6 will have at the South Sound base, or where the helicopters will come from.

Bontrager said many of the squadron’s locally based troops will be trained to operate Apache helicopters, or will be reassigned to other units at JBLM. He said a small number will retire or request to move to another base.

The 360-person unit returned in June from South Korea, where they provided aerial reconnaissance around the demilitarized zone near the North Korea border.

“Success is probably an understatement,” said Lt. Colonel Brian Watkins, speaking to the crowd about the unit’s recent nine-month deployment. “Setting the standard seems to be a more appropriate terminology.”

They operated Kiowas, the smallest helicopter in the army, which are used for scouting and observation duty, as well as light-attack combat missions.

The squadron came to the South Sound in 2005 from Louisiana. Two year later, it deployed to northern Iraq, where it lost five soldiers in a pair of helicopter accidents. In 2011, four squadron pilots died in a nighttime collision over JBLM when one helicopter crew flew into a training area occupied by another crew.

Although there was a hint of sadness at Thursday’s ceremony, Bontrager said he sees a bright future for the JBLM unit.

“While we bring an end to this chapter in the Fighting Sixth’s history, there are more chapters to write,” he said. “The book isn’t even close to being written.”

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