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Weather: Cloudy, with a chance of mission impact
U.S. Air Force staff weather officer Master Sgt. John Gaona of Floresville observes the weather at Forward Operating Base Gamberi on March 3.
Story and photos by 1st. Lt. Rachel Fikes, U.S. Army
LAGHMAN PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN -- The rhythmic drumbeat of rain reverberates through the tactical operations center on Forward Operating Base Gamberi. It’s a few minutes before the morning shift change brief and the key enablers huddle around the massive map of Laghman and Kapisa provinces, Afghanistan. As the staff weather officer approaches the map, the TOC grows quiet.
Adverse weather over the last few days has halted numerous missions all over Task Force Long Knife’s area of operations. As the weather officer points to different regions on the map, he finally states that the weather should clear out by 10 p.m. A collective sigh of relief is heard in the plywood-constructed facility. Operations will recommence shortly.
Back in the United States, the chance of thunderstorms would cause you to put on a raincoat, grab an umbrella, and perhaps drive more cautiously to work. And if the weather forecaster was wrong, you would just be overdressed and disgruntled. But in the mountainous and rugged terrain of Afghanistan, operations and, more importantly, soldiers’ lives are dependent upon weather. Staff weather officers can’t afford to be wrong.
“We are not like the typical weather forecasters that you see on television. We go more in depth of how weather affects assets. Operations require weather dependent enablers such as close air support, close combat attack, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets. If we were to underestimate an impending storm and make a bad call, the current operation wouldn’t have any assets,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. John Gaona, the staff weather officer for TF Long Knife. “If anyone were to get wounded, medical evacuation wouldn’t be possible either. We would have set them up for complete failure. That’s not something you want to live with.”
Aside from soldiers’ lives, a miscalculation of weather can also be severely damaging to assets like unmanned aerial vehicles. The Shadow platoon from 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division is dependent on timely and accurate information weather reports in order to launch, fly, and land their UAVs safely.
“If we make a bad call, that $800,000 asset is no match for Mother Nature; it will come crashing to the ground,” said Gaona, a native of Floresville.
Gaona, who has forecasted weather for 21 years, 15 years alongside his Army brethren, joined ranks with two staff weather officers, Senior Airman Marissa Rojas of Anaheim, Calif., and Senior Airman Christopher Cole of Paris, Ohio. They deployed to Laghman Province, Afghanistan, in order to provide TF Long Knife with consistent weather coverage. Having completed four previous tours, his knowledge has proven to be invaluable.
“He is a great mentor and a trustworthy leader. He is always looking out for us and wants us to succeed,” said Rojas.
Although the three only met a few months ago, they work together seamlessly to forecast weather for more than 20,270 square kilometers with an impressive 90 percent accuracy rate.
“This is the best team of staff weather officers that I have come into contact with in my 16 years in the Army,” said Maj. Mark Andres, the operations officer for TF Long Knife. “They play a critical role in the success of our daily operations and we are extremely lucky to have them.”
While many might make the mistake of assuming that forecasting the weather is an easy task, one look at their complex equipment would change anyone’s mind. “It’s more than just simply going outside and putting your finger in the air; it’s a highly technological field. We monitor feedback from different satellites, tactical reporting stations, and weather charts that give us a variety of information that we must decipher and compare against each source to give an accurate report,” said Gaona.
Education is not taken lightly either. Staff weather officers initially spend a year in observing and forecasting school. As technology expands and grows, so does their schooling. Every year they attend more training to sharpen their skills and stay tied into their profession.
“We do grow through an extensive amount of training, but it effectively prepares us for successful deployments,” said Rojas.
As for working alongside the Army, the three are pleased that they can help out another branch of the U.S. armed forces.
“We are glad that we can provide oversight and assist enablers on different operations. Our pinpoint forecasts help ensure that any operation is fully equipped for success,” said Cole.
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Rachel Fikes is with B Company, 4th BSTB, 4th BCT, 1st Calvary Division.
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