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    Afghanistan deployed aviation combat element performs above, beyond expectations

    Aviation combat element wrap up

    Photo By Sgt. Juan D. Alfonso | AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters sit on the flight deck of Camp Bastion, Helmand...... read more read more

    KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — Twelve hours on, 12 hours off. Grease covers their uniforms. Their arms and legs sore from turning wrenches, climbing their aircraft or the eight-hour mission they just completed. Exhausted, dirty — happy to wake up the next morning and do it again.

    For the past seven months, Marines and Sailors with Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force — Afghanistan's aviation combat element have worked around the clock to support the unit's mission of conducting counterinsurgency operations with a focus on training and mentoring the Afghan national police.

    Rain or shine, these Marines have successfully conducted logistics, refueling, troop movement, close air and assault support missions around the clock in one of the most challenging environments on the planet. When they weren't flying, they were fixing their birds. Never tiring, never complaining despite the challenges of working in an austere land-locked country, these service members have pushed themselves and their equipment to ensure the Marines on the ground in southern Afghanistan never had to say, "where's my air support?"

    Fixed Wing

    The SPMAGTF-A's ACE is a composite unit with squadron detachments representing the three active Marine Expeditionary Forces.

    The mission of the ACE's fixed-wing units is to support the SPMAGTF-A commander by providing air-to-air refueling and assault support, day or night, under all weather conditions during expeditionary, joint or combined operations.

    Included were the aircrew and maintainers of Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252 from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. Its Marines performed combat operations from Kandahar Air Field, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan from Oct. 23, 2008 — April 12, 2009.

    During their stint as the ACE's fixed-wing squadron, they carried more than 1.7 million pounds of cargo, 3,000 passengers, delivered more than 60,000 pounds of supplies via aerial delivery, and provided battlefield illumination to Marines and NATO's International Security Assistance Forces on the ground.

    "Aerial delivery is probably the most important [support] we can provide ground troops due to the poor weather and a lack of road structure," said Capt. Kevin M. Shiels, a KC-130J aircraft commander.

    Delivering essential items such as water, rations, fuel and ammo via parachute allowed the operating forces, whether they were U.S. Marines, British Royal Marine commandos, or Special Forces, to continue to operate in the battle space, extending their presence within a specific area, according to Shiels.

    After nearly seven months in Afghanistan, the time came for a new refueling squadron to take the reigns.

    VMGR-352, from MCAS Miramar, Calif., took charge of the ACE's fixed-wing needs, April 13.

    Since their arrival, 352's Marines have transported more than 2,000 passengers and 2 million pounds of fuel, water, rations and ammunition in addition to providing battle field illumination, aerial refueling and aerial deliveries to 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (Reinforced), SPMAGTF-A's ground combat element, and its supporting U.S. and NATO allies.

    One Marine officer attributed the operational successes to the "outstanding Marines" in 352's command.

    "The guys in our maintenance section have been working extremely hard to keep the aircraft ready to go 24/7, and our load masters have just done a phenomenal job," said Capt. Mike M. Proctor, 352's safety officer. "Without our maintainers, crew chiefs and load masters, we wouldn't have been able to do the job we have."

    Despite the limited amount of personnel and supplies, neither unit has ever failed to accomplish their mission.

    "It's pretty incredible and says a lot about the leadership in our maintenance sections and the caliber of Marines serving in VMGRs today" Proctor said. "These Marines are flexible and have really proven that Marines are ready for any mission they're given at any time."

    Heavy lift

    Since 3rd Marine Regiment, SPMAGTF-A's command element, arrived in early November, the ACE has seen three heavy lift helicopter squadrons provide assault, logistics and troop movement support in a country where the roads may be littered with mines from previous wars or improvised explosive devices from the current one.

    Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 466, from MCAS Miramar, hit the ground running during its stint as the ACE's only heavy-lift squadron. On one occasion, 466 delivered more than 95,000 pounds, via CH-53E Super Stallions, of forward operating base materials in support of Operation Gateway III, a clearing mission to help create freedom of movement for the Afghan people along what used to be the IED-ridden Route 515.

    The operation was a heavily organized event, which required several hours of maintenance from helicopter mechanics as well as coordination with all the elements of SPMAGTF-A, from the Marines on the ground to the Marines in the air.

    With the dust-filled environment to which the aircraft are constantly exposed, the aircraft often couldn't produce the engine power required to lift the 20-thousand-pound shipping containers used during the operation, but the Marines were up to the task.

    "Our maintainers got the engines back up to specification power," said Maj. Stuart Howell, a CH-53E pilot and 466's weapons and tactics instructor. "The Marines just worked it back into shape, cleaning out the engines and in some cases replacing them. We couldn't have accomplished this mission without them."

    After a job well done, 466 turned over the mission to HMH-361 another CH-53E unit.
    The MCAS Miramar-based unit picked up right where 466 left off, conducting more than 260 flight hours a month of assault, logistics and troop movement.

    "Our Marines have done very well despite the environmental challenges," said Capt. Jason E. Mitchell, a CH-53E pilot with 361. "We have done everything the MAGTF and the ACE have asked of us, and our Marines are some of the most professional and technically proficient Marines I have ever encountered."

    Today, 361's flight hours have become more manageable due to the recent arrival of HMH-362.

    The unit from Marine Corps Base Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii arrived with CH-53D Sea Stallions ready to take its share of the loads from its heavily tasked sister unit, despite the unique circumstances surrounding its deployment to Afghanistan.

    Originally deployed to Al Asad, Iraq, Jan. 23, 2009, to conduct assault support, logistics and movement of personnel missions, the unit's leaders redirected 362 to Afghanistan due to President Barack Obama's announced troop build up.

    "Afghanistan is where the fight is now," said Lt. Col. Jeffrey A. Hagan, 362's commander. "There was a planned drawdown in Iraq and an increasing need for medium-lift capabilities in Afghanistan. So we began making arrangements to move from Al Asad to Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan."

    Though the unit was motivated and prepared for its new mission, environmental differences between the two theaters coupled with operational requirements called for major modifications to their CH-53Ds.

    The unit's maintenance Marines began working around the clock to exchange the T64-GE-413 engines, typically found in CH-53Ds, to hotter burning T64-GE-416 engines used in CH-53Es, according to Master Sgt. Robert Webb, 362's Maintenance Section chief.

    In addition to the modifications, the Marines had to partially dismantle their aircraft for transportation to Afghanistan. Each bird was sent one at a time. But despite their daunting task, the Marines pulled together, rolled up their sleeves and went to work.

    "Our maintenance Marines are the best in the Marine Corps," said Maj. Gary W. Thomason, 362's Aircraft Maintenance officer. "On their backs is how we made this happen. I think I speak for everyone involved when I say, fantastic job."

    Cobras

    No aviation combat element can truly be prepared to take on their full scope of duties without rotary-wing fire power. For that reason, the Corps' deployed Marine Light/Attack Helicopter Squadron 269, from MCAS New River, N.C.

    Originally under the command of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit to provide close air support to Task Force 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, 269's Marines soon found themselves providing close-air support to a unit spread over an area twice the size of Connecticut. They began to immerse themselves in combat operations on a regular basis, giving 2/7 the added help needed to suppress enemy insurgency in southern Afghanistan.

    After the 24th MEU transferred authority to SPMAGTF-A in November 2008, 2/7 pulled out and the familiar faces of 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (Reinforced), also from North Carolina, pulled in quickly, picking up where 2/7 left off. The squadron continued to provide close-air support throughout the harsh winter months, resulting in added maintenance to 269's already hectic around-the-clock maintenance schedule. But 269's maintainers pitched in and pulled through.

    HMLA-167 replaced 269 in late February. HMLA 169 took over combat operations, May 1.

    Support

    During the ACE's existence, it has seen two Marine Aviation Logistics Squadrons — first was MALS-16, from MCAS Miramar, and later MALS-26, from MCAS New River, N.C.

    Aviation logistics units work behind the scenes, diligently repairing damaged engines and mechanical components too far damaged for the maintainers and crew chiefs of individual squadron and detachments to handle — a job they have happily done and have never failed.

    But during their time on Kandahar, MALS-16 performed a skill set outside of the regular scope of duties in an aviation unit, proving that every Marine is a rifleman first.

    The Marines conduct bi-monthly convoys to transport their squadron's flight surgeon and medical personnel to a women's medical clinic on Camp Hero. There, Navy Lt. Christine Stehman, the ACE's former flight surgeon, started an ongoing mission, training and mentoring an Afghan midwife to help curb the mortality rate of women and children in a country with one of the highest rates of maternal and infant deaths in the world.

    Despite the discovery of several improvised explosive devices along their routes during the past year, these Marines embraced the opportunity to conduct convoy operations on the ground.

    "We really don't get to do these kinds of operations in the wing," said Staff Sgt. Jason R. Rochefort, a dynamic component mechanic with MALS-16, who also served as the aviation combat element's convoy commander. "These convoys are a good opportunity to put down our wrenches and pick up our rifles."

    To prepare for their task, the MALS Marines received extensive ground operations training prior to their first convoy mission.

    According to Cpl. Clintt F. Hazlet, a flight equipment mechanic with MALS-16, he and the team of Marines conducted basic fire team, squad and vehicle formation training, in addition to several escalations of force and Afghan culture briefs. Drivers and vehicle commanders received even more advanced training.

    The MALS-26 Detachment was later re-designated as MALS-40 and is currently operating in Afghanistan.

    Commander

    As the SPMAGTF-A ACE prepares to be absorbed into the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade's Marine Aircraft Group 40, it can look back on what its commander said is a job well done.

    "We all came from different areas, representing three active duty, and one reserve, Air Wings and have been focused on the SPMAGTF-A mission from the moment we landed in Afghanistan," said Lt. Col. Michael E. Watkins, the ACE commanding officer. "There have been many limitations to accomplishing our mission, but I have been very impressed with how quickly the Marines adapted and the support they gave especially considering the size of the area we covered.

    "My Marines had a very aggressive mindset and were excited to take on the mission. During our time here, we have been proud to support not only U.S. forces, but we were able to provide battle field illumination, troop transportation and close air support to many of our NATO allies. We are all excited about taking the fight to the enemy and helping out in any way we can.

    "I've been extremely impressed to watch these Marines work so hard to provide support for every service member on the ground. It's the kind of hard work and dedication that makes you proud to be a Marine."

    An aviation combat element was formed from bits and pieces of the whole Marine Corps almost a year ago and despite the dust, the blistering cold of the Afghan winter months and the sweltering heat of the Afghan summer, they pulled together to function as one unit and accomplished the Corps' mission in Afghanistan.

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    NEWS INFO

    Date Taken: 05.24.2009
    Date Posted: 05.24.2009 03:44
    Story ID: 34018
    Location: KANDAHAR, AF 

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