FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHANK, Afghanistan - Nevada's Bravo Company, 189th General Support Aviation Battalion deployed to Afghanistan earlier this year to provide combat support by ferrying passengers and equipment over rugged terrain resembling the Silver State's desert and jagged, yet majestic mountain peaks.
Pilots maneuver their Chinook 47D helicopters over valleys and mountains to accomplish their missions.
The company, consisting of pilots and crews from both Nevada and Montana, has been conducting missions day and night from Forward Operating Base Shank south of Kabul in Logar Province. As a general support company, the 189th receives a variety of different assignments from its higher headquarters, the 101st Combat Aviation Battalion. The command assigns crews, conducts safety briefs, files flight plans and executes the missions.
Flying in any war zone is dangerous work, but the men and women flying for the Nevada Army National Guard love their work and take pride in serving both their state and country.
"There is a lot of return on investment now for our aviation program back in Nevada," said Capt. Michael Bordallo, company commander. "Our pilots have gained lots of real world experience and built the necessary time to be more and more proficient.
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHANK, Afghanistan - Every time Genoa helicopter pilot Chief Warrant Officer 5 Dan Walters flies one of the olive drab Chinooks in Afghanistan, he always carries the memory of five fallen comrades.
More than seven years ago, a Chinook crew carrying two Army guardsmen from Nevada and three from Oregon perished when insurgents shot down their CH47D south of Kandahar.
"Yes, it weighs in the back of our minds," said Walter, the senior pilot who has deployed to Afghanistan twice. Walters joined the Nevada Army National Guard in the mid-1980s and currently works full time for the military at the Army Aviation Support Facility at Stead.
On Sept. 25, 2005, an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) brought down Mustang 22, which was assigned to Company D, 113th Aviation, now Bravo Company, 189th General Support Aviation Battalion. The company identifiers may be different, but the type of helicopters remain the same and so are the missions to transport personnel, supplies and equipment over hostile land.
"In the back of my mind, it could have happened to me," Walters added.
Walters, though, took the loss of life hard as did the rest of the guardsmen. One of the pilots, CW2 John M. Flynn of Sparks, and Walters had developed a solid friendship and worked many years together. Their families were also friends.
A Fernley crew member, Sgt. Patrick Stewart, also lost his life.
Walters remembers the ramp ceremony aboard a C130 Hercules transport plane that brought the bodies home from Kandahar Air Field to Nevada. Tears filled every soldier's eyes.
"The thought to lose them is hard, but you move on," Walters said. "But it's hard to forget them."
Nevertheless, when Walters flies, he always carries a photo of his wife and two daughters, ages 5 and 10. For Walters, the photo symbolizes his good luck charm, telling him of the precious jewels that await him in Douglas County.
The harsh Afghanistan landscape wreaks with unforgiveness, and Walters and fellow pilots now deployed to FOB Shank are aware of the dangers that lurk below them during each mission; however, the 1984 Douglas High School graduate said the first deployment taught the crews much, both during their stay in Afghanistan and when they returned home to Northern Nevada in 2006.
Northern Nevada could easily be mistaken for Afghanistan with its high-desert valleys and tall mountain peaks, the perfect classroom tools for executing missions in a land 9,000 miles from Reno.
"Welcome from a region that is similar - Afghanistan has high altitudes, hot weather, desert environment, dust and changing weather," Walters pointed out.
The Nevada Army National Guard's AASF sits 5,000 feet above sea level, while Shank nestles itself in a valley 6,600 feet above sea level; furthermore, missions carried out in Nevada resemble those assigned to the deployed aviators.
"We have a distinct advantage," Walters said of the training in Northern Nevada that also includes the Navy ranges near Fallon. "Units come from all over the U.S. to practice in our backyard and ask us for aviation support."
"I think the quality of our pilots was solid to begin with, but with this deployment, they have gotten even that much better," Bordallo said. "Having Chief Warrant Officer Walters with his 27 years of aviation experience was paramount. His combat veteran leadership, in this environment, has was a key to our success."
While in Afghanistan, the pilots and their crews primarily haul equipment and supplies or sling load a heavy conex from one base to another; other times, crews ferry soldiers from one spot to another as they wage war on the Taliban or insurgents unfriendly to the Americans.
Pilots guide their Chinooks high enough to avoid any groundfire. Operations occur during any time of day, seven days a week. Pilots like Walters, however, must be prepared for any assignment under any condition.
Leading the company
As company commander, Bordallo flies his share of missions in addition to taking care of unit concerns and serving as liaison to the 101st Combat Aviation Battalion. The 32-year-old Bordallo leads by example by taking some of the most difficult missions during the unit's nine-month deployment to Afghanistan.
Bordallo first entered the Army and spent the next four years on active duty with the 101st Airborne Division. He remembers a change of command when now retired Gen. David Petraeus took charge of the Screaming Eagles at Ft. Campbell, Ky.
Those memories, though, are distant for Bordallo as he must oversee the assignments and safety of his pilots and crew.
"As for my progression as a pilot, this has been a phenomenal growth experience for me personally," he explained. "I can attribute all my aviation growth and experience to our pilots and flight crews. Without them, I would not have correctly learned the aircraft and mission completely, not to mention the leadership lessons they have taught me; priceless. They are truelya great group of patriots and outstanding soldiers."
Bordallo, who grew up in Vacaville, Calif., took a break in service, moved to Las Vegas and earned a degree from Nevada State College. Even with a stint in the Army behind him and a sheepskin in hand, Bordallo still yearned to be a pilot.
"I always wanted to fly. I went through Officer Candidate School (with the Nevada Miliary Department) and completed the program in 18 months," Bordallo said.
Upon graduation, he earned his gold second lieutenant bars and continued his desire to become a chopper pilot. He departed for flight school at Ft. Rucker, Ala., in 2007 and returned to Nevada the following year. He enrolled in a master's program at UNLV, now needing only two courses to finish his degree. Bordallo also married the love of his life, Jessica, on June 6, 2009.
In his whirlwind career, Bordallo received a promotion to captain, and the Nevda Army National Guard awarded command of the 189th to him, a plum assignment in Nevada aviation.
As company commander, Bordallo ensured the unit trained vigorously for months and was "up to speed" for its deployment.
"We definitely have a mix of veterans who have that saltiness, and new soldiers who have that enthusiasm and high interest," Bordallo said before deployment. "Together, it's a great combination." Bordallo said the company prepared 18 months for the deployment and while in Afghanistan, the Chinooks have been transporting personnel and equipment and providing combat support.
A seasoned aviator
Her colleagues call this aviator one of the best pilots with whom they have flown.
Others refer to her as a pilot's pilot, one who has flown the Chinooks and also taught others how to fly the twin-blade transport helicopter.
Flying, though, never entered Casey Akins' mind when she attended Fernley High School. After graduating in 1997, Akins packed her suitcases and car and left for California where she attended Sierra College in Rocklin and Sacramento State University, studying kinesiology.
Akins, though, felt her life was missing excitement after finishing her university days and accepting a job as an insurance adjuster.
"I sat in front of a computer and hated life," Akins recollected.
Akins, who is single, made a decision that would completely change her life. She joined the Army in 2002, wanting to be a pilot. She completed basic training and headed to flight school at Ft. Rucker, Ala., learning to fly the Chinook. Her first duty assignment took her to Georgia and to Ft. Hunter Air Field near Savannah to expand her knowledge with the CH47s.
Akins felt part of the Chinook community.
"They (Chinook aviators) were mostly the people I associated with," Akins said. "They're a lot more laid back. I was really attracted to the community because they are tighter knit."
The Fernley grad, whose mother still lives in the small community, first tasted the thrill of combat in 2006-2007 when she deployed to Iraq.
"Everyone was a little tense," she recalled. "It was the height of the surge. Based near Tikirit, Akins and the other aircrews spent 15 months flying hundreds of general support missions."
Little did Akins know that the experience gleaned in Iraq would follow her six years later to the same part of the world.
After her tour ended, Akins returned to the United States and then spent four years in Alabama, first as a military instructor and then later as a civilian, teaching novice aviators how to fly the Chinook.
Ironically, one of her students was Bordallo, who was nearing the end of his course and ready to assume command of an aviation company in Nevada.
"I was sitting next to him in Alabama, and he told me they needed IPs (instructor pilots). I wanted to come back to Nevada," Akins added.
At the time, the aviation company had only one IP.
She remembers the Nevada Guard being receptive to her rejoining the military since the 189th had begun preparations to deploy to Afghanistan.
The decision to deploy with the 189th has worked out for Akins. Fellow pilots come to her for advice, and crew members clamor to be on her flights, knowing she has the expertise to fly any mission to any location.
Having Akins come to the unit right before deployment was absolutely crucia," Bordallo pointed out. "Akins came at a time where we needed someone with her knowledge, skills and abilities."
Akins said flying in Afghanistan differs somewhat from Iraq because of the landscape. For the most part, she said Iraq was flat and did not have the tall mountains; on the other hand, she said the threat remains the same.
When Akins and the other flight crews arrived at FOB Shank in the spring, she flew scores of missions. Now, Akins said, she has had more breaks and doesn't fly every day.
As for her move to Nevada, Akins said she did the right thing.
"I am happy with the decision I made," she said.