Equipping the Utah Army National Guard with the Army's newest, most sophisticated helicopters is a compliment to the competence of the Guard's personnel.
But it also presents monumental challenges to part-time soldiers.A group of about 160 guard members in the 211th Aviation Group in West Jordan are now preparing to train in the AH-64A "Apache" helicopter - called the thoroughbred of Army airborne attack hardware.
Even though some of the pilots, mechanics and other support personnel have been flying military helicopters for many years, they still must spend 10 to 16 weeks in either Alabama or Virginia training with the new aircraft.
The time away from home presents a hardship. The pay, for most of the people involved, will be lower than they would be earning at their civilian jobs. And some of their employers are reeling at the news that their employees who fly helicopters on weekends need two to three months off to go through the training.
To top that, the trainees will need another month off next year when they go as a group to Ft. Hood to be tested for combat-ready certification.
Col. Robert Mabey, commander of the aviation unit, said the training won't return to "normal" levels for two years.
To better the relationship the Guard has with Utah employers, and to help the employers understand why their employees need so much time off, the Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve flew several dozen Utah employers in Air National Guard tankers to McDonnell Douglas' Apache assembly plant in Mesa, Ariz., Friday.
The employers, Utah media and other guests of the National Guard were briefed by McDonnell Douglas officials and saw the start-to-finish assembly process for the sophisticated gunships.
Members of the group also got to climb around several production models of the gunship and watch it perform basic maneuvers at the company's Apache plant.
"To the employers, it's a sacrifice," said Donald A. Mackey, chairman of the board for Grand Central, civilian advisor for Utah to the Secretary of Defense and member of the employer support committee.
"It helps for (employers) to recognize how much training component people have to have to maintain this aircraft."
Orem Fire Division Commander Daryl Berlin went on the day-long tour and said understanding the Apache's complex design and operation doesn't make it any easier for him to watch one of his firefighters leave for 10 weeks. The cross-trained firefighter, police officer, paramedic will be missed while he's gone. "He's a value to the community. That's what it amounts to. But I appreciate more what he's going to do."
Jean Sweet, operating room nursing supervisor at LDS Hospital, said the absence of one of her operating room technicians won't help the nursing shortage any. But the tour was an eye-opener for her. She saw that the Army trusted an $11 million helicopter to someone she dealt with only in an operating room.
McDonnell Douglas officials were also surprised by the request to visit the plant.
Phil Mooney, the company's U.S. military marketing department manager, said the request for a visit by the employer support group was the first he has ever had. It was also the largest media tour of the Apache assembly process the plant has ever seen.
But that doesn't mean Utah employers are the only ones being asked to sacrifice their employees for the unusually long training program.
The North Carolina Guard was the first guard unit to receive the new Apaches. The governor there contacted the employer of each guard member to lobby for better support of the guardsmen and their increasingly sophisticated military assignment, Mooney said.
"But Utah is the first to bring a group here," he said.
Maj. Gen. John L. Matthews, Adjutant General for Utah, said the training difficulty the unit is experiencing is more a trend than an exception.
Increasingly sophisticated military hardware makes for increased demands on military personnel - which puts additional strains on the guard member and his employer as they try to make jobs and military service coexist.