WEST JORDAN, Utah –
In this time of crisis amid the coronavirus pandemic, approximately 300 Utah National Guard Soldiers of the 1st Attack/Reconnaissance Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment, Utah Army National Guard departed the Army Aviation Support Facility May 7, 2020, as they deployed to U.S. Central Command in support of Operation Freedom Sentinel.
The 1-211th ARB started planning and training for this deployment two years ago, according to Command Sgt. Maj. Shawn Earl, 1-211th ARB senior enlisted leader. The target date of the departure had been scheduled months before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
“COVID-19 effected this deployment by basically giving us more time to react,” said Staff Sgt. Austin Morse, an electronic warfare sergeant for the 1-211th ARB. “It's kind of a blessing in disguise. of course, we would have been prepared to go on time, but it gave us a lot more time with our families and a lot more time to prepare."
Once Governor Gary Herbert announced the Stay Home Stay Safe Directive, leadership with the Utah National Guard and 1-211th ARB put safeguards in place for the unit to continue to train and prepare. Nationally, deployments were put on hold while areas around the world began to combat the virus.
"The command team has taken this [pandemic] very seriously, all practical measures that can be done have been, we all have masks," said Taylorsville resident Chief Warrant Officer 2 Preston Coons, Apache helicopter pilot with 1-211th ARB Alpha Company and aviation lifesaving equipment officer. "In terms of the deployment itself, it has added a lot of uncertainty because we don't know how it is affecting other parts. It has certainly delayed the units we are replacing, which then delays us. So, I think it adds a lot of uncertainty, which adds a lot of stress on the family."
Due to COVID-19 and social distancing guidelines, the departure was sequenced in smaller groups with varying time slots for each assigned group to arrive at the Army Aviation Support Facility. Soldiers departed either by flying the Apache helicopters to Fort Hood, Texas or by bus to Roland Wright Air Base to board a chartered flight to Texas.
"This is my first deployment," said Coons. "There are a lot of emotions that goes along with that. No matter when a deployment comes it’s going to be interrupting something. I have a lot of trust for my family and certainly my wife to step in and take care of things back home. We just bought our house and moved in two days before Christmas, about a week later I went away for training for five weeks, got back and have just been working our guts out to get things put together. It's not there yet, but it’s getting there slowly. She's got a lot on her plate just with that."
"I think what I'm dreading the most [about the deployment] is taking care of our unfinished basement and getting that done in a timely manner," said Mandee Coons, Preston’s wife. "Oh and being away from Preston, I'm dreading that too."
"A distant second," Preston said with a laugh.
The battalion, comprised of three companies of AH-64 Apache helicopters, will augment 4th Infantry Division’s Combat Aviation Brigade as part of Task Force Ivy Eagle. The battalion is tasked to provide combat-air support to ground forces.
"'I'm a part of Alpha company, there is a rivalry between the companies, but Alpha Company is certainly the best," said Coons. "I’m very grateful for the Soldiers that I fly with and the maintainers, truly we have an amazing group here. Sometimes the pilots get a lot of the credit, they are kind of the super stars because they are the face of aviation. For every one pilot, I couldn't give you a number, two, three, four, five other people that are making that mission what it is. I have no end of respect for the maintainers. They sacrifice so much so that we are able to do the job. I'm certainly grateful to them, to the community, and to our families.”
Coons continued, “Army aviation is a small community, so your reputation precedes you in many cases, and I think Utah has a great reputation within the Army aviation community, particularly our maintainers. We do things that active duty would never even consider possible. When you think of phase maintenance, for example, when you basically take the aircraft apart and rebuild it, our turn-around times are just unmatched."
The battalion of aviation warfighters are trained and ready to answer the nation’s call to service. This call to service requires the battalion to travel from Utah to Fort Hood to complete final requirements prior to deploying overseas.
“The 1-211th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion has a history of exceptional performance as we have deployed to Kuwait, and twice to Afghanistan, and many rotations through the Army's combat training centers at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and Fort Irwin, California,” said Lt. Col. Jon Richardson, the 1-211th ARB commander. “Our Soldiers are well trained and have been preparing for this deployment to the CENTCOM area of operations for the past two years.”
The 1-211th ARB is a mixture of seasoned soldiers that have been on multiple deployments with a number of soldiers that will be deploying for the first time. In either case, it doesn’t make parting any easier, especially in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.
"We have lots of family around, lots of really good neighbors and friends that are making sure we are taken care of and that I have people to call on," said Mandee. "I'm very proud of Preston and his choices, it speaks a lot of his character. I'm really grateful for this country and for people that are willing to defend it. I chose Preston, and this is what came along with it, and so I'll happily accept it."