AL ASAD, Iraq -- When the “Raging Bulls” arrived here in February, they were the first Marine medium helicopter squadron to arrive in the I Marine Expeditionary Force area of operations. Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 didn’t know what to expect, but their actions set the example for many of the other squadrons arriving on deck.
“We just wanted to get the job done and get home,” said Cpl. Anthony L. Booth, aerial observer and airframes Marine, HMM-261.
Now, preparing to head home, HMM-261 takes with it the assurance of a job well-done, and a reputation for 50,000 Class A mishap-free flight hours – an unquestionable feat, considering they’ve spent the last six months flying in the combat environment of the Al Anbar Province of Iraq.
“I credit all the E-5s and below, and the hours they put in,” said Lt. Col. John R. Parker, squadron commanding officer, “working 12-15 hours across the board, they made our success possible.”
His opinion is shared by many of his enlisted Marines.
“I chalk it up to great mechanics, great pilots, and a (great) commanding officer,” said Lance Cpl. Joshua P. Elsass, airframes Marine, whose hometown is Canton, Ohio.
To commemorate the event, the squadron, based out of New River, N.C., flew all 12 of their aircraft in formation above the installation.
Not bad for the squadron, which took part in Exercise Desert Talon in Yuma, Ariz., just two weeks prior to deploying aboard the USS Bataan on Jan. 20.
Training was key on the trip over and it paid off. Among a host of other missions, 261 took park in Operation Vigilant Resolve in Fallujah, in response to the Anti-Coalition Forces’ murder of American contractors.
“At first I thought a lot about why we were here,” said Booth, who calls East Ridge, Tenn., home. “But after (a specific mission) I realized that these people really want peace, and I felt like we … like I’d done something for them.”
On Apr. 30, Parker assumed command of the squadron from Lt. Col. Michael Belding, even as the operational tempo continued to increase. In July, that tempo reached its highest point, with the squadron flying 616.9 flight hours, with more than 400 sorties.
“Lieutenant Colonel Parker had a vision of what he wanted the squadron to accomplish and clearly articulated this to his Marines,” said Maj. Steven Geracoulis, squadron executive officer. “Our Marines worked continuously under austere conditions. They performed at an extraordinary level and made it look easy.”
“I wouldn’t have done a thing differently,” said Parker. “Colonel Belding allowed me to see how they operate, … this has been a great experience.”
Tacking on thousands of flight hours in mere months, the squadron also celebrated the 40th anniversary of the CH-46 “Phrog,” which has “built a great tradition of honor and patriotism,” since it’s introduction in 1964, according to a letter from the President of the United States George W. Bush.
”I commend current and former Sea Knight pilots for your valor in the cause of liberty,” said President Bush. “During these historic times, Americans are inspired by the service of our veterans and the bravery of our men and women in uniform.”
The “Raging Bulls” have had no combat-related death or injuries during the now 50,000 plus flight hours. Their oldest aircraft “Double Nuts” which is aircraft 00 was launched Sept. 9, 1966.
Despite the age of the aircraft in their fleet, the Marines often had battle-damaged aircraft “patched and on the flight schedule the next day,” according to Maj. James A. Hessen, squadron operations officer.
Representing those Marines are Booth and Elsass, who both graduated boot camp from Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego’s Charlie Company in March of 2002, went to all their military occupational specialty schools together, and are finishing up their first deployment.
“And we both missed our wedding anniversaries out here,” said Elsass sheepishly.
Ready to return home, the thoughts of Marines and Sailors of HMM-261 seem to have a common theme – family.
“I am really looking forward to seeing my children,” said Parker. “I can’t wait to hug my daughters.”
Booth, whose wife gave birth to a second son during this deployment, echoed that sentiment.
“I can’t wait to spend time with my family and take my boys camping,” he said.
Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365, out of New River, N.C, is replacing the squadron.
The two enlisted Marines had some sage advice for their brothers-in-arms who are getting ready to deploy.
“Get the job done,” said Booth.
Always a joker, Elsass added, “Keep your cool. Some days will be worse than others. And most important, bring lots of peanut butter and jelly.”