AL TAQADDUM, Iraq -- After months of building runways, refueling aircraft, detonating Improvised Explosive Devices, and convoying tens of thousands of miles in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, the Marines of Marine Wing Support Squadron 374, Marine Wing Support Group 37, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, are going home.
On Feb. 12, 2004 more than 500 Leathernecks from Marine Wing Support Squadron 374 loaded buses aboard Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif. to begin their support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"You are now a target. Our group is a target whenever we’re in formation. We have our guardian angels around the perimeter," said Lt. Col. David Leppelmeier, commanding officer, Marine Wing Support Squadron 374, pointing to the armed Marines patrolling the parking lot outside the Noncommissioned Officers’ Club at Twentynine Palms.
With this admonition, the “Rhinos” would begin their trek to the Al Anbar province in Iraq to support Security and Stability Operations conducted by I Marine Expeditionary Force. The “Rhinos” have come a long way and accomplished much since that morning they waved goodbye to their friends and families.
Leppelmeier and Sgt. Maj. Doyle Braddy, squadron sergeant major, led this unit to phenomenal success. MWSS-374 started the deployment with a grueling road trip covering thousands of miles of desert between Southern Kuwait and Central Iraq. Mustering in Kuwait as part of a larger force, they prepared for what awaited them to the north. The Marines worked countless hours off-loading equipment and supplies from ships. Some of the items were things they had embarked back in Twentynine Palms, but other items were part of the Maritime Prepositioned Force.
Accounting for and moving the thousands of pieces of equipment happened relatively quickly. Even before they had arrived in country they were making a positive impact on operations.
The preparation for the deployment was intense and the operational tempo was high from the start. While on their initial convoy, the “Rhinos” encountered IEDs, and enemy small arms fire. Despite driving for more than 25 hours over a two-day period and having a Marine wounded in action, the Marines and Sailors pressed forward at a rigorous pace to achieve their initial goal of reaching their home base at Al Taqaddum, Iraq. Al Taqaddum was located in the epicenter of enemy activity situated in what is commonly referred to as the “Sunni Triangle,” an area between Ar Ramadi and Al Fallujah.
Coordinating the road trip from Kuwait to Al Taqaddum and preparing the air base for the arrival of the larger Marine force was a small band of MWSS-374 Marines sent ahead of the rest to ensure everything went smoothly. These Marines worked not only on behalf of the squadron, they also fulfilled needs and roles traditionally held by personnel at the Marine Aircraft Wing level. Frequently working 18-hour days, the Marines’ efforts and coordination with the Army was integral to the success of the initial stages of the operation. The hard work of both the advanced group and the main body contributed to the Marines arriving ahead of schedule and conducting a relief-in-place with elements of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.
Immediately after their arrival, the “Rhinos” began transforming Al Taqaddum into a fully operational expeditionary airfield.
"When we got here in February, one of the biggest things (3rd MAW) needed to get up and running was a runway that had a huge crater in it because of enemy fire," said Maj. Gen. James F. Amos, former commanding general, 3rd MAW. “The damaged taxiway was identified as a safer means of taking off and landing, which made its immediate repair critical.”
Tackling the task with the fervor and ability associated with all Marines, the runway repair crew of MWSS-374 started work. They braved sandstorms and enemy indirect fire, attaining the end result of a fully functional runway capable of supporting a KC-130 aircraft.
In addition to the vast amount of work on the airfield and normal operations required to support a Forward Operations Base, MWSS-374 supported two smaller operations bases. Although these two bases, identified by names like Mudaysis and Korean Village, were not equal in size and capability, they both played a large role in successfully supporting the execution of combat and security operations. The “Rhinos” tailored the cadres located at Korean Village and Mudaysis to meet the many and varied needs associated with supporting operations.
Despite the drive and accomplishments of the “Rhinos,” no one can accuse them of being all work and no play. As part of Operation 31 Flavors, the squadron flew mass quantities of ice cream supplied by 3rd MAW to the Marines at these remote bases.
"Operation 31 Flavors came about during a trip I took to Korean Village a little more than a month ago," explained Amos. “I was talking to the Marines and asking them how things were going, so I could get a read on if they were happy or if there was anything they needed. After talking with them, to be honest, I didn't get a single Marine who said anything negative."
Living a “work hard, play hard” lifestyle, the Marines of MWSS-374 did their part in keeping morale high and aircraft flying. Supplying the ever so needed commodity of fuel to the flying protectors and re-suppliers is a core function the squadron performed flawlessly.
Repairing runways, refueling aircraft, and supporting combat operations are all vital function of the squadron but another key function is the skill and strength brought into theater by the military police and explosive ordnance disposal personnel of MWSS-374. In many instances these Marines teamed up with other coalition forces or Iraqi police to secure the safety and well being of others. These missions, focused on properly disposing of IEDs and unexploded ordnance, both reducing the immediate threat to coalition forces, and made a safer living environment for Iraqi civilians.
Due to the efforts and accomplishments of this unit, the Marine Corps Aviation Association recognized the “Rhinos” as the Marine Wing Support Squadron of the Year for 2004. After more than seven months of triumph and success mixed with hardship and pain, the “Rhinos” will return home in September. These warriors will be afforded the chance to enjoy time with their friends and families, reflect on the fruits of their labor and then get right back to the business of supporting Combined Arms Exercises.