Monday, April 2, 2012

Fort Campbell aviator stays personally grounded

From the Leaf Chronicle.com: Fort Campbell aviator stays personally grounded

FORT CAMPBELL, KY. — Capt. Donna Buono is on the small side physically, but at the helm of an attack helicopter, she packs a mean wallop. And as the commander of a company of AH-64D Apache helicopters, she can level the playing field for U.S. forces in a heartbeat, by literally leveling the field.

She still marvels at the power at her fingertips in the form of a 30 millimeter chain-gun, Hellfire missiles and Hydra 70 rocket pods, amounting to nearly the combined firepower of a company of soldiers. And while commanding eight or more of those lethal weapons platforms in combat would be a heady thing for anyone, male or female, many would expect that Buono would be acutely aware that she is a “she,” and that she would naturally take pride in the fact of her gender.

However, she makes it abundantly clear in the course of conversation that her pride stems first and foremost from being a soldier, and not from being a female soldier, despite the fact that women in her field are about 10 percent of the force, or about one or two female pilots per company.

“The outside perception,” she said, “is, ‘You’re a female. You work with all men. What’s that like?’

“Honestly, for me, I have never felt a separation between gender. The bond I have is as equal with the men I work with as it is with the women.”

Buono – who is the commander of Bravo Company “Blue Max,” 3rd Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment of the 159th Combat Aviation Brigade, 101st Airborne Division – has been in the world of attack helicopters since she first left flight school for her first assignment.

As an introduction to the “real Army,” hers was about as straight-up as it gets.

Into the fire
As a young 22 year-old 2nd Lt., she went straight into the fire as a platoon leader in Iraq in 2006. She didn’t even have a chance to acclimate with her unit through a training cycle, coming into the position as 3/101 was already halfway through its deployment during a very stressful year in Iraq, and she blesses the fact that it happened that way.

(Page 2 of 3)


“The company I got attached to was A/3/101, whom I love still, and they hadn’t had a female in their company in, like, 15 years,” she said, “so there was anxiety, but not so much about being female. It was more about being a new PL (platoon leader), meeting a unit that was halfway through their rotation, so it’s that newness that any PL, any lieutenant goes through.

“You’re getting ready to do your first deployment and you don’t know anything really, and then you’re going to the 101st Airborne Division, one of the premier units in the Army in terms of history and lineage, so I was anxious about how that was going to go.”

When she found out the unit had not had a female member in years, she prepared herself for the possibility that there would be an adjustment for them. That she would have the maturity at 22 to focus on that aspect, rather than on herself, may have been a key to her subsequent success.

“I think it was the best way I could have done it,” she said, with not a trace of artifice in her voice. “It (coming into a combat deployment) gave me an opportunity as an officer and a leader, right off the bat, to be 100 percent mission-focused and to prove my ability on the work side, as a PL and as a pilot ... I was in an environment where I could just perform.

“I would not change anything about my time as a platoon leader. It was a phenomenal company and the bond that we all had was pretty great. It was as positive as it could have been.”

Lest anyone thinks she is looking back with rose-colored glasses, ask any platoon leader who has done it, what it’s like to come in as a new PL with a unit that has just come back from a combat deployment, when every private has a combat patch and a few medals to balance against the new PL’s “welcome to the Army” rainbow ribbon. Now that is a tough row to hoe.

Mission-focused edge
Is it easier to integrate into a unit with a solid mission focus, where the gold standard is performance?

Buono mulled that one over, and admitted that she doesn’t have a point of comparison. “I did my PL time, my staff time and my company command time all within the 101st (101st Aviation Regiment), so I know what this unit does.”

(Page 3 of 3)


However, she has a friend who flies for a unit whose mission is to fly VIP’s – an important mission, she said, “but it is so different than what goes on in the 101st.

“Here it has always been, since OEF I (Operation Enduring Freedom I in Afghanistan, 2001-2002) and Operation Anaconda, we are always in a training cycle getting ready to go, or we’re gone.”

As to the bonding that is so important in integrating into a unit, among her fellow pilots, she said, “The bond is, you’re pilots. You go to war together and you fly together.

“I always felt like part of the family. Here, I’m judged 100 percent by my ability, absolutely, and I feel fortunate that it is that way.”

In the last deployment as commander of Bravo Company, 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry, she estimates she flew 250 missions, but ask her if the luster has worn off and she brings the conversation to a place to which a lot of long-time soldiers can relate.

“At first, everything did have this luster because it was so different from what I had ever done or anything my friends had done. I think that,for a 22 year-old, just out of college, the realization of that was pretty huge and pretty cool.

“Ever since then .. I felt the purpose that is being in military service. You have your good days and your bad days, but there is something that you can all relate to, which is that there’s a little more to what you do than what the rest of the population does.

“It’s the tie that binds.”

“The company I got attached to was A/3/101, whom I love still, and they hadn’t had a female in their company in, like, 15 years,” she said, “so there was anxiety, but not so much about being female. It was more about being a new PL (platoon leader), meeting a unit that was halfway through their rotation, so it’s that newness that any PL, any lieutenant goes through.

“You’re getting ready to do your first deployment and you don’t know anything really, and then you’re going to the 101st Airborne Division, one of the premier units in the Army in terms of history and lineage, so I was anxious about how that was going to go.”

When she found out the unit had not had a female member in years, she prepared herself for the possibility that there would be an adjustment for them. That she would have the maturity at 22 to focus on that aspect, rather than on herself, may have been a key to her subsequent success.

“I think it was the best way I could have done it,” she said, with not a trace of artifice in her voice. “It (coming into a combat deployment) gave me an opportunity as an officer and a leader, right off the bat, to be 100 percent mission-focused and to prove my ability on the work side, as a PL and as a pilot ... I was in an environment where I could just perform.

“I would not change anything about my time as a platoon leader. It was a phenomenal company and the bond that we all had was pretty great. It was as positive as it could have been.”

Lest anyone thinks she is looking back with rose-colored glasses, ask any platoon leader who has done it, what it’s like to come in as a new PL with a unit that has just come back from a combat deployment, when every private has a combat patch and a few medals to balance against the new PL’s “welcome to the Army” rainbow ribbon. Now that is a tough row to hoe.

Mission-focused edge
Is it easier to integrate into a unit with a solid mission focus, where the gold standard is performance?

Buono mulled that one over, and admitted that she doesn’t have a point of comparison. “I did my PL time, my staff time and my company command time all within the 101st (101st Aviation Regiment), so I know what this unit does.”

However, she has a friend who flies for a unit whose mission is to fly VIP’s – an important mission, she said, “but it is so different than what goes on in the 101st.

“Here it has always been, since OEF I (Operation Enduring Freedom I in Afghanistan, 2001-2002) and Operation Anaconda, we are always in a training cycle getting ready to go, or we’re gone.”

As to the bonding that is so important in integrating into a unit, among her fellow pilots, she said, “The bond is, you’re pilots. You go to war together and you fly together.

“I always felt like part of the family. Here, I’m judged 100 percent by my ability, absolutely, and I feel fortunate that it is that way.”

In the last deployment as commander of Bravo Company, 7th Squadron, 17th Cavalry, she estimates she flew 250 missions, but ask her if the luster has worn off and she brings the conversation to a place to which a lot of long-time soldiers can relate.

“At first, everything did have this luster because it was so different from what I had ever done or anything my friends had done. I think that,for a 22 year-old, just out of college, the realization of that was pretty huge and pretty cool.

“Ever since then .. I felt the purpose that is being in military service. You have your good days and your bad days, but there is something that you can all relate to, which is that there’s a little more to what you do than what the rest of the population does.

“It’s the tie that binds.”

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