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Military Forecasters: 'No Surprises Due to Weather on Our Watch'

As of 2012, there were 21.2 million military veterans in the United States. Across different branches, ranks and time periods, each serviceman or woman has played an intrinsic role in keeping our military operations running smoothly and safely. Among these veterans are a group of specially trained meteorologists, aerographers and oceanographers who provide critical weather information for military operations.

One of these military meteorologists is Master Sergeant Shawn Peno, who has done weather forecasts in military actions across the world for more than 20 years. Having been stationed at different points across the United States during his career, he was also stationed in Germany, Iraq and Afghanistan, and has served for numerous U.S. operations, including the aftermath of Sept. 11 and Superstorm Sandy.

"I graduated [from weather forecasting school] in May, and then 9/11 happened. During the immediate response to 9/11, I was at Otis Air National Guard Base and was providing flight-weather services to the F-15 pilots who were flying combat air patrols over New Work City. At the same time, I was providing weather to the 42nd Infantry Division and other units that were working in New York City to provide weather for them while doing the air support at Otis."

In 2004, Master Sgt. Peno's unit was sent to Iraq, where he provided weather briefings for the Generals and determined weather-planning forecasts.

Now with domestic operations at Joint Force Headquarters New York, Master Sgt. Peno specializes in civil support operations with the National Guard. This includes multiple branches of the U.S. military, including teams of reservists and volunteers.

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For Sandy, he assisted in setting up computer systems, programs and databases. A week later when snow began to move through the Sandy-ravaged areas, Master Sgt. Peno went back into forecasting to help clean up operations prepare for the incoming storm.

On the ground following Sandy, the New York National Guard set up points of distribution to provide food and water to storm victims. They also drove power generators and palettes of water to devastated areas all over New York state. To assist with power restoration efforts, the National Guard received power company trucks from California to their airbase in New York to get electricity back up and running for local residents. During Irene, they provided shelters to those who had no where to go. In one significant snow storm in the winter of 2013, they helped airlift stranded passengers off of the roads.

"There is so much more that we do, these are just some of the highlights of just Superstorm Sandy and some of the winter storms last year," he said. "Communications is another area we cover. We brought our own equipment in to provide communications and internet access for the civilians in Prattsville [N.Y.] until the local utilities were able to reestablish in the aftermath of Irene; we provided that bridge."

Along with being a weather forecaster in the Air Force, Master Sgt. Peno is also an emergency manager, which he says is a large focus of what he is trying to do. "We are not in any way, shape or form trying to replace local authorities," he said. "Sometimes, you just get overwhelmed. We worked very closely with our civilian counterparts."

To make their operations successful, Master Sgt. Peno monitors where troops are on the ground and lets them know what kind of weather could be coming.

"We try to track what's going on so I can say, 'Okay, sir, I'm seeing snow, ice or rain, and we have people here and there's a chance for flooding.' So we've learned how to blend [the information] together to provide as much support as we can to the National Guard Forces, and also to the people of New York.

Along with weather forecasts, Master Sgt. Peno does in-depth research about weather systems.

"Hypothetically, say you came to me and said 'I need you to do a study on how weather has impacted New York State and the Nation Guard since 1900.' I would go and research all of the weather events that we did here in New York. So, it's kind of a mixed bag. They refer to it as knowledge management, because it's a basket of different skills that we use to enhance what we provide to our forces as they prepare to support in the event of a hurricane or anything like that."

This research is used to help understand and improve future responses so that emergency preparations can run even more effectively.

Meteorologists in the Air Force provide forecasts for their service members, as well as for the Army. The Navy also has a system of weathermen and women to provide planning information for operations.

"Fleet Weather Center San Diego analyzes the weather to determine impacts to our Naval stations, ships, submarines and aviation assets," Lieutenant Junior Grade Anna Salvaggio said. "We utilize the model data and observations to produce forecasts so that the war-fighter can make decisions about their mission and operations. In addition to that, we also train sailors to deploy with the ships so that they may have more timely and accurate weather forecasts for their high-paced operations. So essentially, we keep America's Navy safe by ensuring that they are prepared for severe weather conditions."

"For military forecasting, for our ships and aircrafts, the primary function is safety of navigation and safety of flights. So our job here is to keep our aircraft and our ships safe while they are operating," Commander Kelly Taylor said.

Military forecasters provide the weather information to the necessary Captains and Commanders of their ships to help they assess and make operation and risk management decisions. Teams that are directly serving a carrier or amphibious ship are stationed on the vessel as a strike-group oceanography team who are able to provide forecasts and conditions on site.

"Whether the carriers are launching FAA teams off the deck, or the amphibious teams are conducting a humanitarian assistance disaster relief operation and are launching helios from the deck, our teams are forecasting based on the thresholds and parameters that those craft operate," Cmdr. Taylor said.

Along with the crucial safety planning that these forecasters provide for military operations and emergency response units, they are also able to help with costs and greening initiatives. Cmdr. Taylor told that while safety of navigation is always the primary goal, when conditions permit it they are able to help chart smoother courses for ships, which result in the better fuel efficiency.

There are a few different avenues to follow to become a forecaster for the military, but they all include years of specialized training. Cmdr. Taylor explained that they can come as enlisted servicemen or officers with existing meteorology or oceanography degrees, or they can complete a weather-based service through their branch. For enlisted sailors, this would include attending an A school after recruit training to receive their apprentice forecaster training. After graduation, they go to do a tour for two years at a at a Fleet Weather Center to put what they learned into practice. Following this period they are sent to Sea School for forecasting for another year or so of training.

"We're looking at about four years to build a Journeyman Forecaster within our community, and that's with or without a weather or oceanography background coming in," Cmdr. Taylor said.

Certain aspects of the job can require even further schooling and training, including a naval post-graduate school requirement for officers.

Though the work to become a military meteorologist may be time intensive, the information they can provide is critical.

"There will be no surprises for the Navy due to weather while we are on watch," Lt. j.g. Salvaggio said.