War Stories

Where Have All the Chinooks Gone?

A Chinook at JRTC

“The 101st Airborne as we’ve known it is officially no more,” said Maj. Ike Wilson. “We are the modular force.”

Wilson—a lean, intense man with a shaved head and a Screaming Eagle combat patch on his right shoulder—was patiently trying to explain to me the sweeping reorganization underway in this storied division. And in a welcome departure from Army custom, he was doing it without a PowerPoint presentation.

The division now has a cumbersome new nomenclature with two sets of parentheses: 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) (UEx). The UEx is Army shorthand for “unit of employment,” the new equivalent of a division.

Why does this matter? Last week, on March 15, the Army declared the 101st officially “transformed.” In practice, this means the division has added a new brigade, bumping the total strength of the division by 3,500 souls to a total end-strength of around 20,000.

According to Wilson, chief of plans and operations for the division’s Modularity Coordination Cell, the new brigades will be “better configured, better packaged, and capable of semi-independent action over extended distances for extended periods of time. Without having to tear the division apart.”

I was still a bit confused, so Wilson made it simple. The Army launched this reorganization at the behest of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker, who wants a lighter, more deployable force ready to deal with global contingencies. Schoomaker, a special operations veteran with a bullhorn voice, came out of retirement at the invitation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but this latest transformation effort continues a process started under Gen. Eric Shinseki (whose estimate of required troop strength in Iraq famously riled the Bush administration).

Under Schoomaker’s reorganization plan, the total number of available brigades will increase from 48 to 77, with 10 active brigades being added by the end of next year. In other words, modularization will squeeze more combat punch out of the available manpower pool—something very necessary when the service is stretched thin by commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 101st is a helicopter-centered unit, and as part of transformation, the Army is also restructuring aviation to make it better equipped to fight in Iraq. Col. Warren Phipps, the commander of the 101st Aviation Brigade, cast it in upbeat terms: “They’re taking a lot of things that were great about the 101st and sharing it with the rest of the army.”

In other words, goodbye to some helicopters. For instance, the division gave up half of its CH-47 Chinooks: Vietnam-era, tandem-rotor helicopters that can ferry 33 fully equipped troops or sling-load a 155-mm howitzer. The 101st once had 48 Chinooks; now there are 24 in the entire division.

Down at the battalion and company level (in Pentagon-speak, “where the rubber meets the road”), the process is causing some friction.

Capt. Richard Feltzer commands Bravo Company, Sixth Battalion, part of the 101st Aviation Brigade. He was originally part of a heavy-lift Chinook battalion (the 7-101) that no longer exists; it was split up and moved over to 6th Battalion.

“It’s the restructuring of the Army, because now they’ve got Chinook units popping up at Fort Drum [N.Y.] and another one at Fort Hood [Texas],” he explained.

In theory, this is supposed to spread more capability across the force. The Chinook is a powerful aircraft that can fly at high altitudes with heavy payloads—perfect for operations in places like Afghanistan. But as the Army sends Chinook pilots to new posts, Bravo Company is receiving replacements fresh out of flight school at Fort Rucker, Ala., or maintenance school at Fort Eustis, Va.

“They’re sending us brand new guys from Rucker or from Eustis, and the problem is, these guys don’t have up-slips [a medical evaluation] yet,” he said. “And if they don’t, we can’t even start training them to replace the guys that we have.”

With the 101st set to deploy back to Iraq this fall, Feltzer is worried he will be short of experienced pilots.

A case in point: Of the 26 aviators assigned to Feltzer’s company, the warrant officers (subordinate to commissioned officers but who often have more technical expertise), usually fly more than commissioned officers. But Feltzer, a commissioned officer, is No. 4 on the experience roster for flight time.

“I’ve even got more goggle hours [experience flying with night-vision equipment] than one of my instructor pilots has,” he said.

Sgt. Matthew Simms, a Chinook flight engineer, is supposed to transfer to Fort Drum, N.Y. He and his company are trying to change his orders so he can deploy with the 101st.

“The trouble is, I’m on orders to Fort Drum,” he complained. “They have only one aircraft, and they’re not due to get another until October.”

Feltzer and Simms are both veterans of the division’s first rotation to Iraq. They have been training new arrivals during a recent field training exercise and a rotation through JRTC—the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., where units play an advanced version of laser tag to prepare for war.

Lt. Col. Michael Miller, Feltzer and Simms’ battalion commander, acknowledged that the unit has seen a lot of turnover, but he stressed his battalion’s safety record.

“Even if I get young guys, young guys can still be very professional—they just lack a bit of tooth,” he said. “It’s just up to us old guys to impart knowledge and wisdom that we have to make sure that we maintain those standards.”

With transformation, the Army is still wrestling with these issues, as well as a few intangibles. As Wilson noted, there is concern that dismantling the old divisions—each of which has a distinct heritage—may erode the division’s esprit de corps.

“The dead will rise over an issue like this,” Wilson said. “You’re talking about the Band of Brothers and the lineage that we have.”