US Army, March 30, 2018 - BOISE, Idaho by Capt Robert Taylor - On the morning of April 7, 2012, Company A, 1-168th General Support Aviation Battalion left Boise, Idaho, for a year-long deployment to Afghanistan, which included pre-mobilization training at Fort Hood, Texas.
Ninety-eight of the unit’s 102 Soldiers were members of the Idaho Army National Guard. The other four were attached from the New York Army National Guard. Together, they were led by Maj. Nicole Washington, then Cpt. Nicole Smith.
“Being a company commander is the most stressful job you’ll ever love,” Washington said.
Washington was the first female officer in the state’s history to lead a National Guard unit to war as its senior ranking officer.
Preparing for Afghanistan
The company consisted of three officers, 27 warrant officers, 62 enlisted Soldiers and eight UH-60 A/L Black Hawks.
A Company spent six weeks at Fort Hood preparing for Afghanistan’s high altitude and dusty environment, with additional aviation training in Colorado and Mexico.
As an Apache pilot, Washington deployed with the 1-183d Aviation Battalion (Attack) to the same country in 2007. That unit spent four months at Fort Hood before leaving the United States.
This time, her company was able to complete nearly 80 percent of its pre-deployment training in Boise prior to deploying. This reduced the amount of time Soldiers had to spend away from their families. It also ensured that the state’s trainers remained proficient at their tasks and let the Idaho Army National Guard use its own personnel and ranges to train its Soldiers for combat.
Because the unit knew that it would have contract fuel in Afghanistan, its fuelers trained instead as .50 cal gunners in preparation for the deployment.
Once in Afghanistan, the company fell under the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division and replaced an outgoing Utah Army National Guard unit at Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan.
Logging hours in the sky
Its mission as a command aviation company was to transport Soldiers, VIPs, Afghan army members and other passengers, including retired General David Petraeus, throughout the area. The company was also designated as the International Security Assistance Force commander’s flight company.
Washington said each pilot logged between 580-700 flight hours during the nine-month tour. Officers in aviation units typically fly less than warrant officer pilots, but the mission requirements meant every pilot needed to be in the sky as much as possible.
“We didn’t have the luxury of being commanders and platoon leaders focused solely on administrative or supervisory duties,” Washington said. “Mission requirements dictated the need for as many aircrew members as possible to fly. I flew, the first sergeant was a flying door gunner and our fuelers were cross-trained as door-gunners. Everyone had a piece of the mission.”
The brigade’s staff officers assisted the company by flying when they could, including its commander, who flew seven missions as a co-pilot with A Company Soldiers.Despite the high workload, the company had the highest operational readiness rate for all flight companies in-country during its deployment and didn’t lose a single aircraft.
However, Washington knew that the company’s success wouldn’t be determined by the amount of flight hours logged or awards won, but on its ability to bring all of its Soldiers back to Boise in one piece. The company was successful in doing so, though one Solider returned home earlier than everyone else.
The enemy doesn’t discriminate
Two weeks after the unit arrived in-country, two Black Hawks were performing a mission with the outgoing unit. One Black Hawk landed while the other provided security from the air. As the helicopter was hovering, someone on the ground shot at it and hit Staff Sgt. Albert Vieth, the aircraft’s .50 cal gunner. The bullet traveled up his arm and exited through his shoulder.
Washington was just beginning her own mission as reports of the attack came over the radio.
“It was very challenging to focus on completing the mission knowing one of my Soldiers had been hit and not knowing his status,” she said.
She completed the mission and went straight to the hospital from the flight line after completing a six-hour mission.
Veith underwent surgery that night in Bagram and was flown to Germany, where he received the Purple Heart for his wounds, and then back to the United States. He made a full recovery and greeted the unit at the flight line when it returned home.
Veith’s injuries made it clear to the company that even though it didn’t fly attack helicopters, the enemy wasn’t discriminating who it attacked, which served as a reminder the need to remain alert at all times.
The 101st Airborne Division arrives
The 82nd Division left the country four months into A Company’s deployment and was replaced by the 101st Airborne Division.
“When we first arrived in Afghanistan, the task force was already established and halfway through its rotation,” Washington said. “We were like a puzzle piece replacing the Utah Army National Guard. When the 101st arrived to assume the mission from the 82nd, we had been in country for four months and went from being the newbies to the subject matter experts for the new task force.”
Washington watched with pride as her Soldiers shared their experiences and expertise with their active duty counterparts during the transition. Instructor pilots gave classes to the incoming pilots and performed check rides with them. One of her specialists was a team leader for a maintenance team full of active duty Soldiers who outranked him in time, but not in experience.
“The most rewarding thing as a company commander is watching Soldiers grow and develop through the process of doing their jobs,” she said.
After completing a mission on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that drew the US into the war-torn country, Washington heard a large explosion shortly after leaving the flight line.
A Chinook CH-47 was hit by indirect fire as it was preparing to leave for a mission. Three Afghan National Army members were killed in the attack. A number of other coalition soldiers were also injured.
Washington said everyone on duty that night went out to the flight line and started performing first aid and assisting with the recovery efforts. Washington credits the realistic combat lifesaver course the unit received on Gowen Field prior to deploying for the unit’s quick reactions that night.
“It was a surreal experience,” she said. “Especially for aviation Soldiers who aren’t typically in that environment to see the loss of lives and limbs up close.”
A couple of her Soldiers received minor injuries responding to the attack. A few Soldiers took a few days off to mentally cope with the experience before returning to duty.
A Black Hawk’s crew consist of a pilot-in-command, a co-pilot, a gunner and a crew chief. On 14 January 2013, Idaho’s A Company, 168th GSAB launched two aircraft with full crews on a mission flying Afghan army generals through northern Afghanistan. Every crew member was a female. The all-female mission was a first for Task Force Shadow.
“It was an honor to participate in that mission, not just because it was all females, but because of what it meant to be able to have the freedom to do so,” she said. “To have that crew combination of all women flying a combat mission in a land where some of the local women aren’t allowed to drive or even sit in the front seat of a car, much less fly a helicopter… it was the unspoken message behind the mission that meant so much to all of us.”
Washington was not the first Idaho female officer to command a company in a combat zone, but as company commander for a single-company deployment, she was the first female officer in the state’s history to serve the senior officer-in-charge of a deploying unit.
The company was replaced by a Pennsylvania Army National Guard unit in February 2013. It left its aircraft for the incoming company to use. The Idaho Army National Guard eventually received replacement helicopters, but it took the state six to seven months to repair them to the pre-deployment standard A Company had deployed with.
The demobilization process took less than a week for the unit to complete.
“There were so many people from Idaho who supported us from the beginning through the end and really made the mobilization and demobilization process as painless as possible,” Washington said.
The unit received the governor's outstanding unit award in 2013.
“I couldn’t have deployed with a better company,” Washington said. “Everyone had a great attitude. Everyone worked hard and long hours for the success of the company. There were no egos, just a desire to see the company succeed and for everyone to come home safe, and we did it together.”
On 14 January 2013, Idaho’s A Company, 168th GSAB launched two aircraft with full crews on a mission flying Afghan army generals through northern Afghanistan. Every crew member was a female, a first for Task Force Shadow. Back row: Maj. Nicole Washington, CW4 Jackie Keel, CW4 Sarah Kitson and First Lt. Jocelyn Wilk. Front Row: Sgt Delia Baldwin, Sgt. Carlane Birch, Sgt. Corinth Barrett and Sgt. Janica Hanover.