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A Blackhawk pilot's view of Operation Iraqi Freedom

Don Nitti and Alissa Yike standing with their helicopter.

While stationed in Tikrit, Iraq, with the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Major Don Nitti ('88) [right] served with Capt. Alissa Yike ('00). For 10 months, the 4th Brigade combat team flew more than 33,000 helicopter hours, which in peacetime would equal three years of flying.

Nov. 5, 2008: Madison magazine received an update on this feature. Lt. Col. Nitti, a 20-year Army officer and senior aviator, now commands the 601st Aviation Support Battalion, a 780-soldier battalion that provides a wide range of maintenance and logistical support for the 3,500 soldiers and 200 helicopters of the Combat Aviation Brigade in Iraq. Read more on Blackanthem.com Military News.

December 2003

I am currently the Commander of Alpha Company, 404th Aviation Support Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division based out of Fort Hood, Texas. Alpha Company is an Aviation Intermediate Maintenance Company comprised of 232 soldiers whose primary mission is to conduct extensive aircraft and aircraft component repairs for the 72 helicopters assigned to the 4th Infantry Division.

In addition to serving as the unit's commander, I am a qualified UH-60 Blackhawk pilot and maintenance test pilot. I have been performing general support helicopter missions throughout Iraq as well as assisting with maintenance test flights on recently repaired Blackhawks.

My unit deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003; and after a brief stay in Kuwait, we convoyed 600 miles into Iraq. Since April 2003 the units of the 4th Brigade Combat Team have been stationed at Forward Operation Base Speicher in Tikrit, Iraq.

Three years of flying in 10 months

Over the past 10 months, the 4th Brigade Combat Team has flown over 33,000 helicopter hours, which is the equivalent of almost three years worth of peacetime flying. To support this many flying hours and ensure the division has mission-ready helicopters available whenever required, my company has had to conduct 24/7 operations for 312 straight days. Equally we have accomplished three years worth of peacetime maintenance over the past 10 months -- completing 4,800 repairs, 45 major aircraft inspections, and eight helicopter recoveries. Additionally, we have secured our airfield, defended our convoys, helped run traffic check points, and participated in humanitarian assistance programs in the local area.

Drought and sandstorms or mud and floods

The environment in Iraq has been harsh, on both personnel and equipment. The free air temperature has ranged from 35 degrees F to 120 F with indexes as low as 25 F and as high as 140 F. The summer was extremely dry with seven months of no precipitation and regular periods of high winds and sandstorms. The fine sand covers everything and it is impossible to keep things clean. The fall and winter months have brought a substantial amount of rain, which has created a lot of mud and some flooding.

Austere but adequate living conditions

While living conditions vary widely between units, I would characterize our conditions as austere but adequate. For the first few months the only rations available were MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat) and limited water supplies. There was restricted bathing and the only structures were tents.

We now have a civilian-contracted dining facility that is one of the best in Iraq. We have built makeshift showers, constructed some offices and work areas; and although we are still living in tents, we have air conditioning and heat which helps to regulate the temperature to some extent.

Despite the harsh environment, long hours, and dangerous mission the toughest thing for most soldiers is spending such a long time away from their family. Regardless of the challenges however, morale remains high and everyone is committed to successfully accomplishing the mission that our country has tasked us with.

Five questions with Major Nitti

Madison: Where are you from, major?

Nitti: Lynchburg, Va.

Madison: You are part of the 4th Infantry Division which captured Saddam Hussein. How has his capture changed your day-to-day service?

Nitti: My job has not changed at all. Although the capture of Saddam Hussein was important there is still a lot of anti-American resistance and instability within the country and a lot of hard work still to be done. As long as we are deployed, my job will be to provide mission ready helicopters to help the 4th Infantry Division soldiers accomplish their mission.

Madison: What is the moment you will remember most about your service in Iraq?

Nitti: It has been such a long and amazing year I don't think there will be a single moment or thing that will standout. The thing I will probably remember the most is the enormous feeling of pride. Pride in my soldiers for all they have accomplished and for all their sacrifices. Pride in knowing that years of training and preparation paid off and when our nation called upon us we were ready. Pride in being a member of the best military force in the world and a member of the 4th Infantry Division who captured Saddam Hussein. And pride in knowing I helped to make the world a safer place and gave the Iraqi people a chance for freedom.

Madison: How do you keep up morale thousands of miles from home?

Nitti: The overwhelming support of the American people. Whether or not people agree with the war, they have been extremely supportive of the troops. Their constant gifts and letters expressing both thanks and encouragement have a positive impact on the soldiers and their morale.

Madison: Did you run into any JMU graduates in Iraq?

Nitti: I served with Captain Alissa Yike ('00), of Westmont, N.J., who is also stationed in Tikrit with the 4th Brigade combat team, 4th infantry division.

Note: Maj. Nitti was promoted to lieutenant colonel in January 2005 and is scheduled to take command of the 127th Aviation Support Battalion in Hanau, Germany in summer 2006.