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Space Cowboys of the 117th provide expertise for military and civilian first responders

May 13, 2017 Updated: May 14, 2017 at 12:17 pm
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Capt. Jennifer Staton, a space operations officer, Sgt. Cassandra Quinones and Pfc. Miranda Yost, geospatial engineers, use mapping software during the multi-state large-scale, natural disaster emergency response exercise Vigilant Guard 2014, hosted by the Kansas National Guard in Salina, Kan., Aug. 4-7. The Soldiers are a part of Army Space Support Team 30, 117th Space Support Battalion with the Colorado National Guard. (Photo by Capt. Benjamin Gruver, 105th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

From natural disasters at home to combat overseas, the Army is increasingly reliant on a tiny Colorado Springs National Guard unit to connect commanders with information from orbit.

The Space Cowboys of the Guard's 117th Space Battalion work out an office building by the Colorado Springs Airport and exist in virtual anonymity. But operating in small teams, they bring a wealth of satellite know-how to the Army's divisions and corps.

"The biggest thing is knowing the systems we have available," said Capt. Andrew Schaaf during a recent drill weekend at battalion's headquarters off Powers Boulevard.

Schaaf leads a space support team, a detachment of a half-dozen troops that can be sent anywhere on the planet to help larger Army units.

His team includes intelligence experts, mapmakers, communications experts and electronic wizards.

As a group, they use satellite data to build a clearer picture of the battlefield for troops on the battlefield.

The techniques have also been crucial for first responders dealing with Colorado wildfires and floods who use the unit's satellite pictures to guide their efforts.

"Whether it is domestic operations or a deployment, we deal with the same kind of scenarios," Schaaf said.

The troops in the 117th are full-time civilians and part-time soldiers who come together one weekend a month.

"Being a citizen-soldier is a harder task than being in the Army," said the 117th's new boss, Lt. Col. Joe Paladino.

Paladino's troops have to balance Guard training and deployments against families and civilian jobs. That task is made tougher by the fact that in the Guard they are expected to be expert in a high-tech and ever-changing field.

The small number of soldiers in the battalion - just 134 - also means they're expected to train to do every job in the unit.

Paladino said leaders in the unit try to help troops fit their military demands into their packed schedules.

"These guys have lives," Paladino said.

Spc. Luis Varnes-Sierra said soldiers in the 117th use their limited time in uniform to stay sharp on their satellite jobs.

"We want to make sure our unit is ready to go if things get hot," he said.

In 2015, Varnes-Sierra deployed with a team from the 117th to support combat in Afghanistan.

The team of six worked in 12-hour shifts to offer their services 24 hours a day.

While most military jobs are known for hours of boredom mixed with seconds of panic, Varnes Sierra said the satellite soldiers saw little down time.

"It was seven or eight or 10 hours of busy," he said. "There is never a dull moment."

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

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