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Retrofitted Huey Helicopter Provides Centerpiece for New USO Center at Fort Campbell

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

By Christian Pelusi 

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. -- How do you get a helicopter that was relegated to a scrap yard on the outskirts of the Fort Campbell military reservation inside a proposed new USO center? Very carefully. Good thing that it’s the kind of task the soldiers from the 159th combat aviation brigade, Bravo Company, 563rd aviation support battalion relish.

The hulking UH-1 Huey shell had to be helo’d via Chinook to a base hangar last year to begin the project. Age, battle and the elements had worn down the aircraft so the unit hunted for parts like windows and doors, which they were able to find in a museum in Texas.

But characteristic of these humble troops, they undersell the degree of difficulty that this particular mission entailed.

“It was already put together, but we did all the painting and all the rebuilding of things and we gutted the entire aircraft out,” said SPC Charles Wheeler Presley, from Copperas Cove, Texas, the project manager of the unit. “Whenever it was ready, we realized that the bed of the truck wasn’t long enough. So we had to bring it in two trips, removing the tail boom. And it all happened in one day so it was a very stressful day.”

SPC Presley’s description makes the project sound about as complicated as putting together a nightstand from IKEA. Luckily, USO Fort Campbell Center Director Kari Burgess Brown goes into a bit more detail.

“Spec. Presley took over the helo restoration project when the rest of the 159th deployed. He oversaw the delicate and challenging task of transporting the helicopter from the hangar to the USO center, as well as the mission to complete the restoration once inside the center. Navigating equipment and other logistical challenges, SPC Presley accomplished the mission and earned our respect.”

SPC Presley estimates that the total number of people that worked on the project is around 60-80 people. “But since the unit left (last April), I’ve had mostly four- to six-man teams working with me.”

The effort and end result earned the praise of USO President Sloan Gibson.

“I’ll tell you, I was in the Army a long time ago,” Gibson said. “And we didn’t have soldiers who took on projects like that. That is absolutely amazing and I am so proud of what you guys did. Every single one of you. That speaks volumes of our Army today. It’s about young soldiers like that that can take on a mission, no matter what it is, and get it done. “

Burgess Brown was constantly impressed with what the unit was accomplishing.

“The soldiers of the 159th combat aviation brigade, Bravo Company, 563rd aviation support battalion earned our admiration,” she said. “Inside you’ll find the centerpiece of the center is the helicopter. The soldiers rescued the dilapidated helicopter, spent a year restoring it and moved it into its new home. Most of the soldiers that worked on the project are deployed and I look forward to the day when they can join us in the center.”

The time spent together drew the center staff and volunteers even closer to the servicemen who were working with them daily as opening day raced toward them.

“The soldiers that remain on rear detachment have become a part of the Fort Campbell USO family,” Burgess Brown said. “Aside from working on their mission to restore the helo, they spent their lunch hours installing the surround sound system, running errands and assembling furniture. They taught me words like ‘swashplate’ and they tested all of our gaming consoles and wireless gaming chairs. They stayed late. They came in early. And even joined us on Black Friday as volunteers for something to do.

“Today’s a bittersweet day for us because opening the center and having the helicopter finished means their mission is done and they won’t be a part of our every day anymore, so we’re really sad. But we’re really excited!”

SPC Presley shared the sentiment.

“I’m happy and sad at the same time. I’m sad because we, all of us, … we came into work every day, wanting and excited because this was something different and it’s the stuff we all love to do, this is our pride right here. We were all very passionate about this project. I’m sad that our job here is finished but I’m excited … because it’s completely amazing in [the helicopter]. I think everyone that sees it is going to be blown away because no other USO has this. And everyone says it’s just amazing.”

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