Alaska’s Arctic Warriors are living up to their name. The paratroopers of the 4/25 Airborne Brigade Combat Team recently jumped into Deadhorse as part of an airborne training operation. It was colder than they were expecting.
“We’re not accustomed to the temperatures being this low, negative 50,” said Maj. Isaac Henderson, squadron executive officer. The air temperature hovered around negative35, but with wind chill, it hit negative 63 at the coldest, according to the Army.
The soldiers who were jumping as part of the airborne operation loaded planes in Anchorage. While they were flying north, soldiers on the ground in Deadhorse were preparing for their arrival, where the cold started to take a toll.
“Your radios break down, vehicles starting to break down,” said Henderson.
“We’ve had a lot of trouble communicating with the aircraft as they approach,” said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Crapo, deputy commander of the 4/25. “Also with the equipment, as you get out here in these conditions, it is rough on equipment.”
The conditions are also rough on people. Contact frostbite and exposure are real concerns for those out on the tundra.
“It really opens your eyes to how dangerous these sub-temperatures are,” said Henderson.
The planes arrived in the early afternoon and 128 soldiers jumped out. The wind was so strong, after the soldiers landed, their parachutes dragged them across the tundra.
Once they stowed their gear, the soldiers strapped on skis and snowshoes and started moving toward their mission, which was to recover a simulated downed satellite that had crashed somewhere in the tundra. There’s a simple reason for the exercise.
“To show that the US Army can operate in any type of weather, any type of temperature, any place on the planet,” said Henderson.
The soldiers never made it to the downed satellite. The brutal conditions on the tundra affected some more than others. The Army had planned on using vehicles called SUS-Vs, which can operate on tundra conditions, to pick up any injured soldiers. Of four, only one was working in the extreme cold.
There were two Chinook helicopter crews in Deadhorse as backup, so they turned into rescuers, flying to the drop zone to pick up soldiers, struggling in the cold.
“The key is to get them there as fast as we can to make sure they’re ok,” said Crapo.
Among the soldiers picked up by the Chinook crews was Sgt. 1st Class Jim Blackett, who was concerned he had frostbite.
“As soon as I jumped out [of the plane] my hands instantly froze,” said Blackett. He had his hands checked, and he was lucky. He got them warm in time, but he said the gloves he was wearing just didn’t cut it.
“Definitely a wake up call. Maybe we can do something better,” he said.
Doing it better next time is why these soldiers train in the conditions they might one day have to fight in. Even when it doesn’t go as planned, the training exercise is still a learning experience.
“We don’t need to just survive. The goal is not to land and then live. The goal is to land, live and fight effectively,” said Sgt. Malachy Moran, a senior mechanic.
All told, there were a dozen cold weather-related injuries during the Deadhorse training mission. 11 of the soldiers were able to return to duty that same day.