CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan - Capt. Jeff Barnes isn’t really Santa Claus, but don’t tell that to the Marines in Afghanistan.
“We are doing a care package delivery to austere [forward operating bases],” explained Barnes, a UH-1Y Huey pilot with Marine Light Attack Squadron 369. “I think since there’ve been helicopters around – in Vietnam, in Iraq, here in Afghanistan – on Christmas Day, we’ve helped the guys on the ground enjoy the holiday.”
So, early on Christmas morning, Barnes led a team of Marine Corps UH-1Y Huey helicopters from Camp Bastion in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, en route to dozens of tiny combat outposts dotting the Helmand River.
“We’re going to places you might have a squad, a company,” said Barnes, a self-described ‘Marine Brat,’ whose family now lives in Las Vegas. “We picked places specifically because they’re very austere. They don’t get regular packages.”
On a typical day, pilots like Barnes use their helicopters to provide close-air support for infantry Marines. The Marine Corps relies on Hueys and AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters to provide a watchful eye for the Marines patrolling through southwestern Afghanistan’s villages and farms.
On Dec. 25, however, the Marine aviators’ mission was different. Dubbed “Operation Noel,” the Marine Corps Hueys lifted thousands of pounds of Christmas spirit – items like socks and toiletries, as well as letters, cards and even candy – to the grunts who call these small outposts home.
“The Marines are excited to be supporting our brothers and sisters [in the Marine Corps] in a very different way than we normally do,” said Barnes. “It’s a big privilege to be able to do a mission like this that’s outside the realm of normal.”
Lance Cpl. Andrew Harris is a UH-1Y Huey crew chief with the light attack helicopter squadron. Harris, nicknamed ‘the best door-gunner in the Marine Corps’ by his fellow Marines, flew with Barnes on the Christmas Day mission.
“I think it’s really cool, we’re trying to boost morale,” said Harris. “We’re trying to keep the family of the Marine Corps together, especially during the holidays.”
“It’s still Afghanistan. We still have to be prepared for the threat. That being said, it happens to be the 25th of December,” said Barnes. “It’s about spending Christmas with your family – your Marine Corps family.”
At Kandahar Airfield, the detachment of Marines who fly and maintain the KC-130J Hercules took a short break on Christmas Day. Santa passed out stockings and the Marines shared a Christmas dinner.
Ten years ago, the airfield was captured by the U.S. Marines of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, becoming a foothold in efforts to rout the Taliban from Afghanistan.
Since December 2001, the airfield has become a metropolis – host to tens of thousands of U.S. troops and their Afghan and coalition partners.
For the U.S. Marines, Kandahar is a central hub of fixed-wing aviation. Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier attack jets and KC-130J refueling and transport aircraft call Kandahar home, aircraft which launch daily to support combat operations in southwestern Afghanistan.
Gunnery Sgt. Charles V. Westall, the squadron gunnery sergeant for the detachment of aerial refueler transport Marines deployed to Afghanistan, said he believes taking time to remember the holidays is integral to keeping morale high for his Marines.
“It’s important because celebrating holidays even when we are out here is a reminder why we do what we do,” said Westall, deployed to Afghanistan with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152.
Westall, deployed from Okinawa, Japan, serves alongside Marines with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 252, deployed from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. Collectively, the Marines use the KC-130J Hercules – the Corps’ largest aircraft – to provide aerial refueling, combat aerial resupply, and troop and cargo transport for the Marines in southwestern Afghanistan.
“It’s a reminder of why we became Marines in the first place,” Westall continued. “So that our family and friends are able to celebrate the holidays – freely. It makes us happy to know they can, even if we are all the way out here in Kandahar, Afghanistan, away from our loved ones.”