US Army, March 02, 2015 - WHEELER ARMY AIRFIELD, Hawaii by by Staff Sgt. Sean Everette – Two CH-47 Chinook helicopters from the 3rd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade picked up close to 60 refugees from a muddy field by Dillingham Airfield on the North Shore of Oahu Mar. 1, and evacuated them to the safety of a U.S. Navy ship at Pearl Harbor.
The refugees, however, were not as they seemed. They were Soldiers from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team role-playing as civilians, and the evacuation was a planned part of a Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation built into Lightning Forge 2015, a huge exercise conducted by the 25th Infantry Division.
“What’s happening today is an opportunity for us to be able to exercise both aviation and ground components in the evacuation of what we call non-combatant personnel,” said Lt. Col. Hunter Marshall, 3-25 Avn. commander. “In some cases, it could be an embassy or American citizens living abroad in a country that may be torn up by storms, a tsunami or hurricane, or strife within that country.”
There are 49 countries and seven of the world’s largest armies in the Pacific region, and the U.S. has recently shifted its focus to this theater of operations. That makes this NEO and Lightning Forge a crucial piece of Army training.
“The largest population in the world is located in this theater,” said Col. Ken Hawley, 25th Combat Aviation Brigade commander. “While there is a lot of water, there’s also a lot of land. The likelihood of some kind of humanitarian assistance or disaster relief exercise or even a non-combatant evacuation, having to evacuate to a Navy ship or a port facility somewhere to get folks out is highly likely. So having that capability to execute with our helicopters is one of those key things, and this is an opportunity for us to make sure that happens.”
“The 25th Infantry Division has done a great job with creating a package of personnel, Soldiers, aircrew, and aircraft to respond to something like this in a 96-hour period, which is impressive,” said Marshall. “What’s extremely unique about this mission set is that it not only gives us an opportunity to go abroad and to, quite frankly, build relationships with folks, and hopefully preclude something as horrific as war, but additionally, even here in Hawaii, is the opportunity to provide direct support to civil authorities should we be asked. So should something happen here, a hurricane or tsunami, there’s that opportunity to be able to correlate and apply our training even on Oahu.”
The next step for 3-25 Avn. is even more intense training with 3rd BCT.
“[Lightning Forge] is our last training exercise before 3rd BCT, with our aviation battalion, deploys to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Ft. Polk, La.,” said Hawley. “So this is really our ‘get ready to go’ for that exercise.”