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Inside the Army's growing Arctic Circle mission

May. 7, 2014 - 08:57PM   |  

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Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Clark, a platoon sergeant with the 6th Engineer Battalion (Combat Airborne), snowshoes across the tundra May 1 in Deadhorse, Alaska. (Sgt. Edward Eagerton/Army National Guard)
Above the Arctic Circle, paratroopers from 2nd Engineer Brigade participate in Arctic Pegasus. (Staff Sgt. Mylinda DuRousseau/Army)
A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter flown by pilots Chief Warrant Officer 4 Mike Michaud and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Cody McKinney, from the 1-207th Aviation Battalion, Alaska Army National Guard, flies over the Denali Range on April 30 en route to Deadhorse, Alaska. (Sgt. Edward Eagerton/Army National Guard)

With more than 70 pounds in his ruck and “bunny boots” on his feet, Staff Sgt. Kandom Moore jumped from the C-17 Globemaster and into the Arctic.

The jump into Deadhorse, Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle, was a first for Moore and his fellow paratroopers from the 6th Engineer Battalion, as they embarked on a three-day mission this month in some of the most hostile, cold and isolated terrain in the world.

“The mission was great for all of us,” said Moore, a squad leader in the 84th Engineer Support Company, a subordinate unit of 6th Engineer Battalion. “This is what we’re up here for. We always rehearse it, and it was good to implement what we’ve been training on.”

The Arctic Pegasus exercise took place May 1-3. It marked a continuation of U.S. Army Alaska’s efforts to hone its cold-weather skill sets. In February, about 40 paratroopers from 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division jumped into Deadhorse for that unit’s first airborne operation north of the Arctic Circle.

Deadhorse is almost 500 miles north of Fairbanks in Alaska’s North Slope Borough. The 25 or so engineers from 6th Engineer Battalion actually got lucky — they enjoyed relatively calm winds and temperatures that ranged from about 30 degrees during the day to about zero at night. The guys from 4th BCT who jumped in February contended with temperatures of about 35 degrees below zero.

“We were all watching the weather for about a week out,” Moore said. “We hit it at perfect timing. It was relatively warm.”

The soldiers still had to fight the snow, however.

“Some pockets were two- to four-feet deep,” Moore said.

The soldiers used snow shoes to cover the terrain, while dressed in Generation III extreme cold weather equipment, vapor barrier boots (a.k.a. bunny boots or Mickey Mouse boots), balaklavas, and arctic mittens.

The 6th Engineer Battalion planned and put together Arctic Pegasus in two weeks, said Lt. Col. William Conde, the battalion commander.

“It was a great opportunity for us to showcase, to exercise and rehearse our Arctic skills up here in Alaska,” he said. “It’s pretty unique for us because we’ve got this in our backyard.”

Like 4th BCT, the 6th Engineer Battalion has an area of operations that stretches from the Arctic Circle to the southern reaches of the Asia-Pacific Region.

The Alaska National Guard is active in the state, often responding to downed planes or stranded snowmobilers, but the active Army could be called upon in unique circumstances or in cases of extreme emergencies or disasters, when additional first responders are needed.

In November 2010, soldiers from 6th Engineer Battalion were called to help recovery efforts after an F-22 Raptor crashed near Cantwell, Alaska, said Robert Reeves, the chief of plans and exercises for Army Alaska.

Last April, soldiers from the Northern Warfare Training Center in Alaska’s Black Rapids were called to help recovery efforts for a young snowmobiler who fell into a 200-foot crevasse, said Lt. Col. Alan Brown, the Army Alaska spokesman.

The soldiers also must train and plan for extreme temperature swings, “given the long-range capability of our airborne units,” Brown said.

A week before the 4th BCT jumped into Deadhorse in February, soldiers from the brigade parachuted in to participate in the Cobra Gold 2014 exercise in Thailand, where the temperatures spiked in the 90s with 90 percent humidity.

For the engineers, they had less than two weeks to prepare, and their sole practice jump was in 60-degree weather.

On May 1, about 13 paratroopers jumped into Deadhorse. The soldiers also dropped a Small Unit Support Vehicle, which weighs more than 10,000 pounds fully equipped, onto the drop zone. Another dozen or so soldiers were already on the ground or flown in by helicopter.

The next day, the soldiers flew by UH-60 Black Hawk, piloted by the Alaska Guard, to one of the pump stations on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System for an orientation, Conde said.

One highlight for the soldiers was flying over a herd of muskox.

“That was a pretty cool experience for the guys,” Conde said.

The exercise also allowed Army Alaska to grow its relationships with the Air Force, Alaska Guard and private organizations across the state, Brown said.

“There were 12 different organizations involved in the planning of this operation,” he said. “It’s important because part of our mission as a Pacific response force and Arctic response force is to do our missions in close collaboration with so many different agencies.”


Reeves said Arctic missions will continue.

“We’re building upon those skills that we really haven’t had an opportunity to practice over the last 10 to 12 years,” he said.

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