Iraq War Takes Helicopters Needed for U.S. Disaster Missions

While the Defense Department has pushed extra equipment to units in hurricane-prone states in part to compensate for what has been ordered to Iraq, an investigation has found some Plains and western states have few if any helicopters on hand to respond quickly to a disaster.

And a backup system of sharing helicopters between states may not be as helpful as it's billed, experts say.

"We're on the ragged edge" in Nebraska, the state's adjutant general, Roger Lempke, told a panel of concerned U.S. lawmakers Thursday, describing the absence of helicopters in his state. Nebraska's contingent of Blackhawk helicopters are deployed in Iraq, leaving few aircraft for disaster relief missions at home.

The central and western United States faces a summer of predicted above-average wildfire activity and an unusually high spate of tornado activity.

Nebraska's situation is not unique. Arkansas National Guard can't count a single helicopter of its own in-state, although it is borrowing a few from neighbors. National Guards in Kansas, Texas and Montana report the vast majority of their helicopters are deployed out of state, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Colorado's National Guard has deployed 17 of its 20 helicopters to Iraq, leaving three to help domestic missions like fighting wildfires.

In Iraq, the rise in ground attacks on U.S. troops has created a demand for helicopters to provide basic transportation. Fast, versatile and highly mobile -- those same qualities make them vital tools for disaster response. Helicopters can often reach disaster zones more quickly than ground transport and can go many places a truck or a humvee cannot reach. They can be outfitted to fight fires, evacuate casualties or move cargo or personnel.

When contacted by the Blotter on, most state National Guard spokespeople said their equipment shortages would not hamper response to a disaster because they have agreements with neighboring states to borrow equipment.

But some disagree.

Such sharing agreements "are practically nullified" when multiple neighboring states lack the same vehicles or tools, said New Mexico adjutant general Melvyn Montano recently. "Where are they going to tap their equipment from if they've all been deployed?"

"In cases of natural disaster, an hour or two, or the 24 hours that it takes to fly a helicopter from New Jersey or Ohio or New York to Pennsylvania" could be the difference "between life and death," said Rep. Jay Carney, D-Pa., at yesterday's congressional hearing on National Guard readiness.

Not all state National Guard headquarters in the region contacted by had bleak numbers. The Wyoming National Guard has eight Blackhawk helicopters on hand and more than 70 percent of its other authorized equipment, a spokeswoman told That is much higher than the national average, which currently hovers near 40 percent.

The Texas National Guard is also neatly outfitted, its lack of helicopters aside, from trucks to generators to night-vision goggles, its equipment levels were "comparable to redeployment," typically near 70 percent, according to a spokeswoman.

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