HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Rolling down the runway on Camp Bastion, Staff Sgt. Hugo Paniagua, an aerial observer with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 362, makes preparations and adjustments to his .50-caliber machine gun prior to taking off for a counternarcotics operation in Helmand province, Afghanistan, June 4.
As his CH-53D Sea Stallion flies into a firing range, he lets loose a burst from the gun, ensuring everything is in working order before heading into a hostile environment.
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Paniagua knows all too well the need for a working weapon and the dangers of landing in a combat zone.
During one of the squadron’s first missions of the deployment, a helicopter from the unit came under insurgent fire, wounding a crew member inside. While not present for the mission, the incident lingers in the back of his mind every time he flies into a potential hostile area.
“It really drives the point home that what happens out here is for real,” Paniagua said, “. . . we know that it's a possibility.”
With that in mind, Paniagua makes final adjustments to his gear and weapon, affectionately named “Terra,” by the squadron armorers. He then scans the ground below, looking for anything that could threaten the helicopter on its way to pick up Marines from 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, and members of the Afghan National Interdiction Unit (NIU), a specialized counternarcotics unit.
Arriving at Camp Hanson, Paniagua assists the Marines of 2/9 and NIU aboard. The two Sea Stallions take off and fly to the first targets of the day - two abandoned compounds suspected to be staging areas for narcotics and weapons.
A short distance from the compounds, the helicopters descend, making their final approach.
Landing in a cloud of dust and debris, the Marines and NIU quickly disembark and make their way to their objectives.
“Seeing those guys run out like that, it really gets you all riled up knowing that they’re going into harm’s way,” Paniagua said. “It’s our job to fly these guys to and from each place and keep them as safe as possible.”
The Marines and NIU search both compounds, but find nothing. Several minutes later, the Sea Stallions land to pick up the Marines and move onto the next target several kilometers away.
1st Lt. Ben Leape, the assistant intelligence officer for 2/9, said having air assets, like the Ugly Angels, to transport them from location to location, has greatly enhanced the unit’s range, allowing them to reach more target areas quickly.
“Having the helos around to take us from place to place while we’re doing these kinds of [operations] is a huge enabler,” said Leape, of Annapolis, M.D. “Without them, we would have to stand on the side and watch and know huge shipments of narcotics are leaving the area.”
By day’s end, the Marines and NIU search three compounds, but do not find any weapons or drugs. As Paniagua takes ‘Terra’ off its firing hinges, he can’t help but be glad the day ended well.
“It’s a good feeling when everyone comes back and nobody gets hurt,” he said.