FORWARD OPERATING BASE DELHI, Afghanistan - As the sun rises over Afghanistan, two CH-53D Sea Stallions from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 362, the “Ugly Angels,” roll down the runway at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, to await their turn for takeoff. Today, they will pick up Marines from Forward Operating Base Delhi and perform vehicle interdiction operations. Their mission will require them to fly to the southernmost end of Helmand province to assist Marines while they search for narcotics and weapons.
Upon arrival at FOB Delhi, the two helicopters pick up more than 20 Marines and members of the National Interdiction Unit (NIU), a specialized Afghan counter-narcotics team. The personnel board the Sea Stallions through a cloud of dust with grim determination on their faces, ready for the day’s events. In the distance, potential narcotics and weapons smugglers have no idea that Marines and the NIU are about to descend upon them.
“We’re able to get Marines on the ground quickly and potentially catch narcotics in Helmand province,” said Capt. Christopher Lapps, a Helicopter Aircraft Commander for HMH-362.
Lapps, of Nazareth, Penn., said flying Marines and NIU to destinations that are suspected narcotics supply routes allows them to surprise smugglers and cut off the supply of narcotics and weapons flow at the source, rather than seize them after they have been sold.
Several minutes into the flight, a small formation of vehicles is spotted. An AH-1W Super Cobra from Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369 swoops in low and pops several flares signaling the formation to stop. The drivers immediately halt their vehicles in a haze of confusion. Seconds later, two Ugly Angel helos unload the Marines and NIU personnel.
Marines immediately secure the perimeter around the Sea Stallions while the Cobra and a UH-1Y Huey helicopters, also from HMLA-369, circle protectively overhead.
“It’s amazing knowing we have all of this air support so close to us,” said Staff Sgt. Christopher Ballance, a Platoon Sergeant for Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
Ballance, of Elizabeth City, N.C., explained having the helicopter crews also adds an extra level of security.
“With the helos in the air and the gunners on the 53’s, it’s a great feeling to see this much firepower so close to back us up if we need it. It’s also a good thing to have several extra sets of eyes looking around.”
While Marines secure the perimeter, NIU personnel rush to the stopped vehicles and order the occupants to exit. They search for hidden weapons and narcotics in every compartment of the vehicles. Finding none, the NIU signals the surrounding Marine forces that they have completed their search and run back to the helicopters. The search ends as quickly as it began.
“Doing these kinds of operations enables us to stop the drug and gun trades before they can start,” said 1st Lt. Clark Smith, a Platoon Commander for Weapons Company, 3/3 and native of Gavin, Tenn.
By day’s end, HMH-362 transported the Marines three more times in search of contraband. Finding none throughout the day, they return the contingent to FOB Delhi and fly back to Camp Bastion, ready to conduct the next operation.