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NEWS | July 20, 2021

'Operation Dustoff Vigilance' joint exercise strengthens survival skills

By Col. Kjäll Gopaul Headquarters Air Education and Training Command

In a display of multi-service integration, Total Force service members from the Army National Guard, Air Force Reserve and active duty converged on Joint Base San Antonio-Camp Bullis June 14 for an exercise dubbed “Operation Dustoff Vigilance” --  a day-long mission to strengthen the personnel recovery-survival, evasion, resistance, and escape, or PR-SERE, skills of Army aircrews and aviation support personnel. 

Spearheaded by Company C, 2nd Battalion, 149th Aviation Regiment, “Alamo Dustoff” – an air ambulance unit of the Texas Army National Guard at Martindale Army Airfield in San Antonio – the exercise placed 30 service members behind enemy lines in the imaginary Eastern European nation of Krasnovia to test their skills and resolve.

“The purpose was to run the aircrews through their annual evasion exercise to use their combat survivor/evader locator radio to navigate point-to-point, exercise their resistance skills and conduct link-up procedures," said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Richard W. Swan, C/2-149 Aviation Regiment mission survivability officer. "It is important to be able to use the equipment we carry on our aircraft, as well as affect our own rescue in the event we go down in a denied environment.” 

"The scenario had a UH-60 Black Hawk with its 5-person aircrew brought down by small arms fire in a non-permissive environment.  The team was assaulted and pushed off the landing zone by Krasnovian extremist forces," said mission planner, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Andrew V. Kinh, C/2-149 Aviation Regiment aeromedical evacuation pilot. "Using their survival gear and special instructions, each team had to evade capture traveling through the foreign landscape, link up with friendly Krasnovian confederates, and make their way to a pick-up zone for extraction by another helicopter. 

"Some teams experienced a ‘roll-up’ in which they were captured and interrogated by extremist forces. Having an opposing force, or OPFOR, on the initial landing and for the roll-ups dramatically increased the training value," Kinh added. "It heightened the level of uncertainly throughout the scenario and had the aircrews deliberately implement their PR-SERE skills.”

The 343rd Training Squadron at JBSA-Camp Bullis provided the Krasnovian role-players. 

“We were part of the pre-mission coordination and recon with the exercise planner and got a really good idea of what they wanted," said Tech. Sgt. James M. Pitman, 343rd TRS instructor for the Security Forces Intermediate Course and OPFOR non-commissioned officer in charge. "We used signaling smoke, simulated small arms fire, an assault team, blindfolds and detainee handling to increase the realism and production value for each aircrew’s turn on the PR lane. This exercise took it up a level for us as well, with live aircraft on the LZ (landing zone) and PZ (pickup zone). The post-exercise feedback really highlighted how much our OPFOR capabilities contribute to the training value of exercises at JBSA-Camp Bullis.”

The 343rd TRS also provided friendly Krasnovian confederates to ferry simulated aircrew injuries on litters to awaiting aircraft on the extraction LZ. 

“This was a great opportunity for our medics to practice their MEDEVAC (medical evacuation) skills with a live aircraft, be active participants in an exercise, and still provide responsive care for our other partner units at JBSA-Camp Bullis," said Tech. Sgt. Casey Pritchett, non-commissioned officer in charge of Medical Operations for the 343rd TRS JBSA-Camp Bullis aid station.

During the scenarios, 433rd Airlift Wing and Reserve recruiters from Air Force Recruiting Service provided participants to role-play Krasnovian refugees being extracted for humanitarian relief purposes.

“First and foremost, from a regulatory standpoint, we have a requirement as part of our aircrew training program to conduct a personnel recovery exercise. While we can do online training, nothing beats a hands-on experience out in the field," said Maj. Jeremy Eubanks, commander, C/2-149 Aviation Regiment. "It really created an opportunity for us to put together all of the principles of personnel recovery along with the key elements of the Code of Conduct and practice those skills in a realistic and stressful environment. 

"We take the training seriously because these valuable skills are essential for our deployed mission and will make the difference in our successful recovery when there is a real threat out there that we have to contend with," Eubanks added. "I can’t say enough good things about the partnership we have with the Air Force units in San Antonio and the role that the OPFOR roll-up played, in particular, for this mission to practice first-hand those principles of the Code of Conduct. By leveraging a lot of the relationships we have with JBSA, we came up with a great plan that was well executed with high training value. All of the aircrew members had nothing but great things to say about what an awesome training event it was.

“Army MEDEVAC rotary-wing units have the mission for intra-theater patient evacuation, regardless of the service branch, and National Guard and Reserve components make up 57% of the total Army MEDEVAC force," Eubanks said. "Alamo Dustoff is a great unit, and we have the opportunity to prepare and deploy alongside our active duty brethren for overseas missions, and we help out here on the home front, whether it’s flood, rescue or wildfire suppression.

"That’s the big draw of serving in the National Guard  -- being able to do both missions. Working with JBSA and leveraging all that we have to offer in San Antonio creates much richer training experiences than if you just try to do everything yourself.”