No fighting in cockpit: Fort Polk pilot brothers share unit, missions

(Source: U.S. Army)
(Source: U.S. Army)

The following is a story submitted by Fort Polk Public Affairs:

By Chuck Cannon/Fort Polk Guardian staff writer

FORT POLK - Being stationed with a family member while in the Army is often times a difficult task. True, the Army does its best to assign husbands and wives to the same post - or at least in the same vicinity - but a tour with a sibling is next to impossible.

That task becomes even more difficult if the siblings have the same job - particularly if the number of Soldiers who do that job Army-wide is small.

You can therefore understand the elation felt by Chief Warrant Officer 3 Matt DeGroot and his younger brother, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Ben DeGroot when they received orders to Fort Polk, La., after tours in Afghanistan.

That elation grew even more when the helicopter pilots were assigned to the same company - U.S. Army Air Ambulance Detachment, 5th Aviation Battalion.

"We started trying to coordinate this assignment when we were in Afghanistan," Matt said. "Then we got here and wound up in the same company. We actually get to fly together every now and then; that's a lot of fun."

Ben said the Army would probably not have approved the assignment with his brother if they were in combat.

"But right now we're at a training installation and I don't think it is an issue at all," Ben said.

At 31, Matt is the elder by four years, but it was Ben who always harbored a desire to fly.

"I've wanted to fly since I was a kid," Ben said. "Matt was with the 2nd Ranger Battalion and started applying for flight school and I started applying as a civilian."

Matt said that while he was in the infantry, he wound up flying in the back of Chinooks during training and deployments. He said he talked with the pilots and that's when he developed an interest in flying helicopters.

"They (pilots) said, 'You've got to be really smart to be a pilot,' so I decided to gave it a try," Matt said, the trace of a grin gracing both brothers' faces.

The pair actually wound up at the Army's helicopter school in Enterprise, Ala., at the same time.

"He was about six months behind me so we lived together at flight school for about six months," Matt said.

That six-month head start is the reason the elder DeGroot out ranks his brother.

"We're at the same level as far as flight time goes and experience," Matt said. "I was six months ahead of him in flight school which put me a year group ahead of him."

Ben added with a smile: "It's not because he's a better pilot than me, I actually got promoted last month, but don't pin it on until June."

One challenge facing the Wrightwood, Calif., natives has nothing to do with being assigned to the same company.

"We both typically fly Chinooks, so after flight school he went to Fort Drum and I went to Fort Campbell," Matt said. "Then we came here where we are flying the smaller Lakota; it was an adjustment."

An even bigger adjustment came with their new unit's mission.

"Boredom was a big challenge when we first arrived," Matt said. "Going from slamming a Chinook into a dusty LZ (landing zone) or the side of a mountain, picking up bullet holes, all that exciting stuff, then coming to this. It's kind of like being a firefighter: We sit around and wait for a call, and even when we get a call, it's mostly like heat casualties in the summer time. That's the only down side of being here."

The pilots' detachment commander, Maj. Heins V. Recheugel, had nothing but praise for the brothers.

"This is my first time to have this dynamic," Recheugel said. "They bring a lot of flavor to the unit. They are both smart guys and dependable. It gives our unit more of a family feel."

Recheugel said everyone in the unit enjoys the good-natured banter between the DeGroots.

"I approve the flights sometimes and I'll see they're on one together," he said. "I'll tell them, 'OK, no fighting in the cockpit.'"

The commander said he was hesitant about accepting the younger of the two pilots because of possible problems with issues such as emergency leave.

"If something happened in their Family, I would have to let them both go and that would put us down two pilots," he said. "I couldn't let one of them go and tell the other one he couldn't go. But I told them we'd cross that bridge when we get to it, and so far it hasn't been a problem. We've had plenty of pilots on hand."

The Soldiers' battalion commander, Lt. Col. Guy Gierhart, also spoke highly of Matt and Ben.

"I've never been in a unit where there were brothers in the same company," he said. "I've seen husbands and wives, but not brothers. I thought, what a really neat thing. I know my brother and I used to fight like cats and dogs, but we're great friends now. I think, how cool would that be to be able to go fly with your brother or do missions with your brother."

Gierhart said the experience is something the DeGroots would probably remember for the rest of their military careers.

"They must know somebody, because it's usually a hard deal to get to where you want to go, let alone coordinate with your brother to get to the same place," he said. "Not only are they brothers, they're good pilots, good officers and good people. I think those who are stationed here now will look back and say, 'I was in the same unit with brothers who were both pilots.' It's one of those things I'm thankful for."

Having sons who are pilots in a war zone has to be tough, and the DeGroot brothers said their mother worried about them when they were deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Like any mother, she worries," Matt said. "But she and dad are both proud of us."

So proud, that Ben said their dad brags about them to his friends.

"We send them pictures of us flying and dad prints them and takes them into work to show his colleagues," Ben said. "His friends are always asking for the latest pictures."

Matt said his dad's pickup truck looks like it belongs to a retired sergeant major.

"He's got every sticker we've ever sent him stuck on the back of his truck," Matt said. "He said he never gets a speeding ticket."

Both brothers agree that they found their lives' passion with aviation.

"I like everything about flying," Matt said. "It's awesome. I don't want to do anything else. I've had the opportunity to fly my old platoon. I've taken a guy who was a private when I was, who was now the platoon sergeant and I the pilot. It was great. He gave me a little ragging, but it was great."

Ben agreed.

"Aviation is a field I always wanted to be in, and now that I am in it, I can't get enough of it," he said. "It's something that's coveted; it's something that a lot of people desire to do but only a few get to. I'm fortunate to have the chance to do it and I want to keep doing it."

Matt, a 12-year veteran with a spouse who is a veteran and three children, hopes to stay in the Army for 20 years.

"After that, I'd like to fly on the outside," he said. "The only thing that would really stop me would be if for some reason I had health issues."

Ben, who is single, said he has a decision to make in a couple of years.

"The next opportunity I'll have to make a decision to stay in or get out, I'll have 10 years of service," he said. "I'm considering transitioning to the National Guard and doing this part time, then getting a civilian flight job. What I'd really like to do is aerial firefighting. I'd like to head back out west and try to get involved with firefighting. I think it would be comparable in excitement to what I do in the military."

While both men understand they are in a unique situation, they don't see themselves as anything special.

"Other guys do the same thing we do, we just happen to have the same last name and come from the same hometown," Ben said.

Copyright 2013 KPLC. All rights reserved.