AL TAQADDUM, Iraq -- The fog of war clouding the modern battlefield is getting a whole lot thinner.
Marines fighting an insurgency through the maze-like streets of Iraqi cities like Ar Ramadi and Fallujah are finding the enemy more easily thanks to Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1, Marine Aircraft Control Group 38, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.
VMU-1 supports our troops in Iraq with the remote-controlled, unmanned aerial vehicle system known as Pioneer. Unlike the larger Predator UAV flown by other services, the Marines' more tactical Pioneer is armed only with sophisticated camera equipment.
"The Pioneer UAV is an excellent tool with great potential for changing the way we fight the enemy," said Gunnery Sgt. Robert W. Wilson, external pilot, VMU-1. "Without putting additional lives at risk, day or night, we provide a unique overhead view for tactical commanders with imagery intelligence to help them make battlefield decisions and save Marines' lives."
Wilson, a former infantryman, said ground commanders tell VMU-1 daily how grateful they are for what they provide in terms of aerial surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance.
Whether from an airstrip, dirt runway or the back of a truck -- with the help of a pneumatic launcher -- the Pioneer can be set aloft above the enemy quickly.
"Within a few hours of being here we were fully operational," said Sgt. Maj. Patrick A. Prose, sergeant major, VMU-1 and Shakopee, Minn., native. "Sometimes even faster than that if the situation requires.
"If we get a call, we can get a (UAV) in the air within 20 minutes," he added. We even have our own motor transport section that facilitates our exceptional mobility and tactical capabilities."
Maintaining a high state of readiness has kept the 'Watchdogs' busy.
"If we do not get our job done, then the mission does not get done," said 1st Lt. Jose A. Nicolas, aircraft maintenance officer, VMU-1 and native of Houston. "Under normal training conditions we sustain 200 to 250 flight hours per year. So far we have averaged between 460 to 500 hours per month out here, or 16 to 20 hours per day. We have been working very hard to keep our readiness high."
If a maintenance problem arises, the squadron has two civilian technical representatives on hand to help identify and solve any technical issue.
"We try and solve whatever problems arise, but if we need to 'send out the bat signal,' they can help us figure it out," Nicolas said.
VMU-1, while not as large as other aerial squadrons, is a tight-knit unit uniquely focused on its mission and impact on the battlefield below.
Working as a team, maintenance technicians, plane captains and pilots launch Pioneer to get it in the air and into the fight. Once the external pilot flies the UAV to a predetermined altitude and location for a mission, internal pilots within the unit's command center take over.
Then the fun begins.
"It's pretty cool, we get to spy on and zoom in on the enemy, even from 3,000 feet," said 20-year-old Cpl. Ryan Rogers, internal pilot, VMU-1, from Detroit.
Keeping constant tabs on the enemy out of reach and out of sight gives the squadron a unique perspective and an appreciation for their hard work.
"Everyday out here we see the positive effect that we have," said Lance Cpl. Robert Daniels, intelligence analyst, VMU-1, and 19 year-old native of Dallas. "We help Marines on the ground so they have a better picture of the battlefield.
"We observe (insurgents) setting up ambushes, moving weapons or help assess targets before and after a strike," he continued. If the ground commanders want us to direct or adjust artillery fire or close air support we can do that. We can direct any payload to any target."
VMU-1's imagery and intelligence analysts are in constant communication with their own internal pilots and commanders by means of radio and text-based computer communication.
"It is sort of like a real-time, instant-messaging chat room," said 29-year-old Sgt. Matthew Carnejo, imagery analyst, VMU-1, and a native of Bay City, Mich. "We talk back and forth constantly during each mission. Just knowing that everyday we are saving the lives of other Marines is the best feeling in the world."