News: Back from Afghanistan, Marines describe success behind close-air support mission
Story by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones
CHERRY POINT, N.C. - Operating out of Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, the busiest single-runway airport in the world, the Marines of Marine Attack Squadron 223 brought lethal strike capability with their AV-8B Harriers to back up infantrymen in Helmand province, one of the most historically volatile regions in Afghanistan, in a six-month deployment that ended just weeks ago.
But the Marines in the squadron said what makes them effective in their mission is not the Harrier, but one another.
“The Harrier brings with it a Harrier pilot who has, due to his background and his training, a good understanding of the situation being faced by the Marines on the ground and an absolute commitment to do everything within his power to help them,” said Lt. Col. Thomas D. Gore, a Tampa, Fla., native, who commanded VMA-223 through its deployment. “That’s easy to say when you’re talking about ‘yeah, I’ll drop that bomb and support the guys on the ground,’ but when it’s day in day out, showing up and being asked to sweep many kilometers of unpaved road with your LITENING pod, looking for things that are suspicious, that’s something that Marine aviation, not just the Harrier, but Marine aviation at large brings to the table. Nobody supports Marine infantry like Marine aviators.”
Gore, who relinquished command of the squadron during a May 25 ceremony at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., said that his Marines kept the notion of supporting the grunts on the ground at the forefront of their minds, and that was instrumental to the success of a squadron that awarded more than 100 individual awards for the actions of its Marines.
“They knew that they were out there specifically to support Marines outside the wire and they were determined to see as many of those Marines as possible successfully take the fight to the enemy and then come home safely,” Gore said.
He said having the Harrier overhead allowed for “a very rapid kinetic strike option,” and that there were some spectacular strikes during their time in Afghanistan.
One such strike came at the hands of Capt. Andrew Christ, a Harrier pilot who deployed with less than a year in the Fleet Marine Force. Christ, a native of Houston, Texas, received an individual action air medal for hitting an SUV carrying a team of insurgents who were attacking patrols with a machine gun.
“That thing was going 20-25 miles per hour over undulating terrain, and he exercised a lot of tactical patience not dropping when he was cleared to drop because he was worried about killing or wounding innocent bystanders,” Gore said.
Christ said he tracked the vehicle for almost two hours as it went from village to village in northern Helmand province, waiting for it to get clear of populated areas.
“It presented a difficult tactical scenario because of their proximity to innocent women and children,” Christ said. “Any time they got close to a compound, it almost forces you to abort the attack because you don’t want to risk hurting civilians.”
Christ waited for the vehicle to enter an irrigation ditch and then attacked.
Gore said that our enemies know that there’s nowhere they can hide from Marine aviation. The Harrier can strike someone in dead of night, whether they’re about to take a shot or plant an improvised explosive device, thinking they’re safe. “Or they’re providing overwatch somewhere, watching their buddy lay in an IED, and they see those guys get (taken out) by aviation ordnance. I’m sure for them at times it must seem pretty intimidating.”
Lt. Col. William Sauerland, the new commanding officer, who served as the squadron’s executive officer in Afghanistan, said the Harrier provides the ability to rapidly strike the enemy when he pokes his head up, and to see a young pilot like Christ do that effectively is exciting.
“These guys have been training for 3-5 years to get to that one spot in time, that’s pretty neat to watch,” said Sauerland, a native of Grove City, Pa.
Christ said it is important for every Marine in the squadron to share in the success.
“It’s gratifying to us to be able to remove bad guys from the battlefield and protect our guys on the ground, but it’s also extraordinarily gratifying for the maintenance Marines because too often they see a loaded-up jet go out and a loaded-up jet come back,” Christ said. “But when it comes back empty and they get to hear the story about the hit and know that was the bomb they fused this morning, the bomb they loaded up, the jet they fueled and did inspections on. Everything they’re doing makes an incredible difference and it’s important they see that.”
Cpl. Thomas A. Carvalho, an ordnance technician with the squadron, and a Nashua, N.H., native, said it was very tedious working day in and day out and it was rewarding to see aircraft come back to Kandahar having deployed ordnance.
“The first thought that always went through my head, because it was so infrequent, was ‘Finally,’” said Carvalho. “You know you’re stopping someone from killing Marines and it feels good.”
The staff noncommissioned officers in the maintenance department said every Marine in the squadron knows that.
“We’re supporting the guys on the ground. We instilled that in the junior Marines. You’re going to do your job and do it well, because there’s a guy on the ground who needs your help,” said Staff Sgt. Luke Dietz, from Syracuse, N.Y., who leads Marines in the squadron’s avionics department.
Gore said he was most proud of the fact that the squadron was always there to provide support when asked.
“In the 6 months there was never a time when the squadron said no to higher headquarters,” Gore said. “In 6 months, each and every time they asked us if the squadron could add an extra section or extend our fly window, or extend guys who were airborne, each and every time we said yes.”
Sauerland said that the ability to do that came from the sense of teamwork and perspective the Marines had.
“The Army talks about their tanks, the Navy talks about their ships, the Air Force talks about their airplanes. We have all of those, what do we talk about? We talk about our Marines,” Sauerland said. “It’s one big team. We’re all in this together. We’re going to win together or we’re going to fail together. I’d like to think we’re going to win together.”
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