Sept. 9 , 2010

Counterdrug Program makes significant contribution to state eradication effort

Courtesy of Virginia Guard Counterdrug Program

SANDSTON, Va. — Virginia State Police arrested a Virginia man in early September and charged him with two felony counts of selling and distributing marijuana after a drug eradication flight conducted in concert with the Virginia Guard's Counterdrug Program spotted the plants. So far this year the Counterdrug Program has supported the seizure of more than 19,000 plants in 100 plots with a value of $57 million that led to a total of 37 arrests.

Chief Warrant Officer John Marsh pilots an OH-58 while providing LEA Spotter Training orientation and training flight over terrain often used by marijuana growers. (Photo courtesy of Virginia Guard Counterdrug Program)

According to National Guard Regulation 500-2 that covers National Guard Counterdrug Support, Law Enforcement Agency personnel are required to participate in Counterdrug aviation missions as an observer to receive familiarization training prior to flying a mission.  To meet this goal, the Virginia National Guard Counterdrug Aviation Section conducts training for new observers and recertification of experienced observers annually. This year’s training took place in April and May with 111 law enforcement officials in all seven Virginia State Police divisions receiving their certification.

“We provide a comprehensive base of understanding to facilitate efficient coordination between law enforcement personnel and National Guard pilots,” explained Chief Warrant Officer John Marsh, a Counterdrug pilot who has been conducting the training for 12 years. “We cover theory of flight, basic aircraft systems, internal aircraft communications systems, environmental and operational limitations, recognition of hazards to safe aircraft operation, regulations governing aircraft operations, aircraft safety and emergency considerations, and aircrew coordination considerations.  The initial training concludes with a flight orientation-which includes the modes of flight for various law enforcement missions.” 

Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan Lindley, a pilot, summed up the training by explaining, “We basically teach them to be a functioning member of the flight crew.”

Lt. Col. Charlton Dunn, Virginia Guard Counterdrug Program coordinator, noted that, “Our aviation section also trains aerial marijuana spotting techniques and examples of current and emerging marijuana grower tactics, techniques, and procedures. They share their accumulated knowledge from 44 years of flying marijuana eradication missions which greatly increases the law enforcement spotters’ proficiency.”

“For many law enforcement officials, this is the first exposure to the National Guard that they have so we take advantage of the opportunity to set the tone for a professional and productive relationship,” said Chief Warrant Officer Gareth O’Bannon, a plank holder in the Counterdrug Aviation Section which was formed in 1993. The  State Police Marijuana Eradication Program coordinator, 1st Sgt. Bobbie Morris, recognizes the effort and offered praise for the “professionalism, seriousness, and dedication of the Counterdrug pilots.”

“As resources and demands have fluctuated over time,” noted Special Agent Scott Glenn, “the stable support provided from the National Guard has helped us through times of limited funding and high operational tempos. Their skill and experience always add value to our investigations.”

Chief Warrant Officer Wayne Martell, chief of the Counterdrug aviation section and also a plank holder in the section, points out that, “We also provide students an overview of our optical, infra-red, body wire retransmission, and imagery downlink capabilities. While many people are aware of our support for marijuana eradication, fewer are aware of the technical support role we play in investigations involving a host of other drugs.”

At the conclusion of training, the certified spotters are issued an LEA Observer card signed by the Virginia National Guard State Army Aviation Officer authorizing them to fly in the front seat of Virginia National Guard aircraft.

The Virginia National Guard Counterdrug program places Guardsmen in the community, conducting Drug Demand Reduction classes for schools and civic organizations, supporting law enforcement agencies with criminal analysts and technical support, providing prevention, treatment, and outreach services to Guardsmen and their families, managing the Joint Substance Abuse Program for internal drug testing, and providing aviation support to law enforcement agencies.

The Virginia Counterdrug program provides funds to Detachment  1, Company A of the 2nd of the 151st S&S Aviation Battalion to keep three pilots and two crew chiefs on full time orders at a high state of readiness to provide support to counter-drug operations within the Commonwealth.  The mission of the S&S Battalion is to perform air movement, aerial sustainment, search and rescue, command and control, and reconnaissance & observation in support of homeland security, counter-drug, OCONUS operations and other operations as approved by the office of the Secretary of Defense. The battalion provides a geographically dispersed and readily available light utility aviation capability for federal or state authorities and combatant commanders.

When asked to comment on the law enforcement spotter training and Virginia National Guard Counterdrug aviation support, Lt. Kevin M. Hood, Virginia State Police, indicated “They have always accommodated our needs and those of local law enforcement agencies.  In fact, they have always bent over backwards to help and have achieved the highest respect from all Virginia law enforcement agencies.”

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