AL ASAD, Iraq -- After months of transporting and patrolling the skies of Iraq’s Al Anbar province, Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 466 and Marine Attack Squadron 214, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, are going home.
Both squadrons continue to complete their mission despite sections of their squadron having already flown home.
Marines from the HMH-466 “Wolfpack” remaining in Iraq have been challenged to raise their performance levels to maintain mission readiness, said Sgt.Maj. William A. Winters, HMH-466 sergeant major.
“Our mission here is to provide support to (the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force), providing supplies, ammo and troop lifts as necessary,” said the 41-year-old from Oakville, Md. “The Marine Corps says to do more with less, and that became very true for us over here. We are the largest (CH-53E Super Stallion) squadron in theater, which means more missions and a higher level of readiness is needed to complete our mission.
“Missions are still continuing as usual,” he added. “This is where we really test our metal. Where one Marine leaves, another Marine is going to have to pick up his toolbox and get the job done.”
As for the VMA-214 “Black Sheep,” they have adapted to fulfilling their role, which has changed since the last they time they supported Operation Iraqi Freedom, said Lt.Col. Mark P. Everman, squadron commanding officer.
“The squadron's mission was to provide fixed wing close air support, precision targeting capabilities, aerial reconnaissance and escorts for helos and convoys. We have accomplished all of our missions,” said the 43-year-old Philadelphia native. “Overall the deployment has gone well. We didn't expend as much ordnance as we did the first time we were here. We've contributed in other ways besides dropping bombs because we aren't at war with the Iraqi people.”
The numbers tell the story for HMH-466 who have been in Iraq since February, said Winters.
“We've established new standards for efficiency, mission readiness and the number of flight hours we've been able to fly the last few months. From the projected flight hours per month, we've doubled that,” he explained. “We received the safety award for 50,000 mishap-free flight hours too.”
While the “Black Sheep” didn’t set records for ordnance dropped since their arrival in May, they have received praise from a very important source, said Everman.
“Our presence has given the Marines on the ground a boost of confidence. We can provide reconnaissance for convoys by scanning the areas ahead and letting them know what to expect,” said Everman. “It’s great to hear that our presence has helped some Marines in constant fighting get some sleep at night. Sometimes, we might do a show of force, which can be enough to disband whatever is happening. We make sure they know we are here.”
Positive reactions were the high points of the deployment, said Capt. Derek C. Bibby, AV-8B Harrier “II” pilot with VMA-214.
“The high point was getting positive feedback from the guys on the ground about stuff that obviously saved lives,” said the 32-year-old from Yuma, Ariz.
Outstanding results don’t just happen. Somebody has to make it happen, said Winters.
“(The Marines) have been rather impressive out here. They have been working in the heat without any days off for some time now. They have performed above expectations and have kept a positive outlook,” Winters elaborated.
Everman had similar compliments for his squadron.
“The Marines have been spectacular. Out here in the heat, they have risen to every occasion. They have met every challenge,” he said.
Leaving a war zone while other Marines remain has lead to mixed emotions among the Marines.
“I was extremely happy that we got to help the Marines on the ground because it was painful to sit at home and watch Marines get killed on TV,” said Bibby. “I don't think anyone wants to leave while there are still troops on the ground, but we've been asked to leave. We are being replaced by somebody just as capable as we are. The only thing I'll miss is flying missions in support of Marines.”
Circumstances can dictate your attitude toward a deployment however, said Cpl. David J. Vargas, Super Stallion mechanic, HMH-466.
“I didn't want to come out here. My son was just born and I had nine months left in the Marine Corps. The hardest thing has been being away from my family, even more so than work,” said the 23-year-old Key Largo, Fla., native. “My wife is excited and she is trying to get the house clean and everything. I don't care if the house is clean, I just want to be home.”
Things won’t stop when the squadron gets back to Miramar, said Winters.
“Three weeks after we get back, we'll be going to Yuma for (Weapons Tactics and Instructors course),” said Winters. “After that, there are a few things in the works like (Marine Expeditionary Unit) detachments and (combined arms exercises).”
Following their three-month deployment, the “Black Sheep” will also have a little time off before getting ready for the next call to duty, said Everman.
“We knew we were going to fill in here until we were relieved. Now I'm looking forward to getting home, giving the jets a break, spending some quality time and getting ready again,” said Everman. “The next MEU is on the horizon and we are preparing for any future contingencies. This deployment was given to us with 96 hours warning.”
For some Marines, the end of this deployment is also the end of their Marine Corps career, said Sgt. Cody L. Barnes, hydraulics mechanic, HMH-466.
“When I get back, I'll be getting out of the Marine Corps in a few days,” said the 23-year-old from Cameron, Okla. “It's been a good time. These guys have worked their fingers to the bone. I'm glad to have known them.”