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Special operators in JBLM helicopter teams close the book on “exciting” but classified tenure

Post by Adam Ashton / The News Tribune on July 13, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
July 13, 2012 3:19 pm
MH-47 Chinook helicopters such as these are in the fleet for Joint Base Lewis-McChord's 4th Battalion, 160th Special Operations Regiment. This is a June 2011 photo from a joint raid in Afghanistan. Photo by Sgt. Daniel Shook.

It wouldn’t be Special Operations without a little bit of mystery.

Use your imagination to figure out what the elite helicopter teams in Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 4th Battalion, Special Operations Aviation Regiment mean when they say they deploy to “multiple theaters.”

They’re not only talking about the war in Afghanistan.

“There’s relatively no place on the planet they can’t employ these aircraft with precision,” the regiment’s senior officer, Col. John Thompson, said at a Lewis-McChord ceremony Friday on a tarmac decked out with the unit’s blackened Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters.

The “Night Stalkers” peeled back the classified curtain a little today at a change of command ceremony for 4th Battalion leader Lt. Col. Heath Niemi. Niemi was the battalion commander for the past two years, and he has led missions on 21 deployments since 2001, including ones in Iraq, Afghanistan and Columbia.

He’s handing the reins to Lt. Col. Chad Chasteen, a veteran Special Operator from one of the aviation regiment’s units at Fort Campbell, Ken. The regiment’s headquarters and Col. Thompson are based in Fort Campbell.

Some of the battalion’s special Chinooks and Blackhawks will be on display for the public next weekend at Lewis-McChord’s Air Expo. The helicopters pack more firepower and are modified with advanced equipment to meet the demands of Special Operations missions in challenging terrain, according to information provided by the Army’s Special Operations Command.

Today’s change of command marks a nearly complete overhaul in the top ranks of Lewis-McChord’s Special Operations units this summer.

Col. Robert McDowell last month took command of the Green Berets in the 1st Special Forces Group, and Lt. Col. Gregory Anderson in June became the senior leader in the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.

The soldiers in the aviation battalion cater to those Green Berets and Rangers, as well as to the West Coast’s Navy SEAL teams. Aviators from the regiment flew Navy SEALs into Pakistan for the raid that killed al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011, according to published accounts describing the mission.

“We have the responsibility and the privilege of supporting the best, most elite forces and putting them down in harm’s way,” Chasteen said. “We are truly privileged. We work with some of the most incredible Americans you will ever meet.”

The aviators deploy constantly on two- to three-month assignments in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Their close work with Lewis-McChord’s Pacific-focused 1st Special Forces Group calls on the aviators to participate in other missions and exercises across Asia in nations including Bangladesh, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Korea.

Lewis-McChord has had a battalion from the Special Operations Aviation Regiment since 2007. It was created to meet growing demand for Special Operations missions in the Middle East and around the world. The battalion here now has about 580 soldiers, and it expects to grow to about 630.

Its crews train in the South Sound, as well as on exercises with Special Forces teams across the West and in the Pacific. One of the Lewis-McChord teams is headed to Utah next month for drills with SEALs and the Colorado-based 10th Special Forces Group.

Niemi is moving to a post at the Army’s Special Operations Command. He has served in the aviation regiment for the past 13 years.

“I’m leaving the highlight of my career,” he said.

As Chasteen took command, he teased his boss, Col. Thompson, about the secretive nature of regiment’s mission and its achievements.

“I wish you well as you conclude an exciting two years at regiment command, most of which is classified,” he said.

He put in a plug to Niemi, too.

“Now that you’re going to the (Army Special Operations Command), get me a simulator, when you get there,” Chasteen teased.

MH-60 Blackhawk helicopters also are in the fleet for the 4th Battalion, Special Operations Aviation Regiment. In February, these two MH-60 Blackhawks flew in support of Special Operators in Afghanistan's Zabul Province. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Jon Rasmussen.
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