AL TAQADDUM, Iraq -- The call of duty has brought many service members to the Iraqi desert to fight the Global War on Terrorism. Answering that call can mean injuries or even death.
Sometimes the difference between life and death depends on the immediate response of medical aid. Much like Life Flight, or air ambulances used in the United States, the Marines and sailors with Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 268, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, are always on call, ready to fly casualty evacuation missions.
"Most of us consider ourselves lucky to have a mission so rewarding," said Maj. Edward Jeep, operations officer and CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter pilot, HMM-268. "If someone is hurt, we get them to the hospital in the shortest time possible."
The Red Dragons have flown many hours on multiple missions and this can take a toll on the aircraft, but the constant work of the maintainers has kept them mission capable.
"We've flown in three months, more than we would in an entire year back home," Jeep said. "Here we have operations going 24 hours a day and straight through weekends and holidays."
Crew chiefs on board Sea Knight helicopters play many roles when flying a CASEVAC mission. In addition to manning the M2 .50-caliber machine guns, they are the crucial communications link between the corpsmen and the pilots.
"This is my first deployment out of flight school," said 1st. Lt. Mike Montellano, CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter pilot, HMM-268, and a Chino Hills, Calif., native. "I'm impressed with the crew chiefs manning the guns and doing what they do. They are very safety-minded and we take their word on any issues they see from the back."
During CASEVAC flights, the aircrew is responsible for all of the actions in the rear of the aircraft. They watch for enemy fire and obstacles, and constant communication with the pilots and corpsmen can mean the difference for the casualty.
"We are the go-between for the pilots and the corpsmen," said Staff Sgt. Charles B. Newman, CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter crew chief, HMM-268. "The key is good coordination between the pilots and the crew. The pilots can't look back and see what's going on and the corpsmen are busy saving lives. If there is a change in a patient's status, it could change where we need to take them."
Another role of the crew chiefs is to make sure the aircraft is working properly. Operational checks are performed daily to check for anything on the aircraft that needs to be fixed, from weapons to the overall mechanics of the helicopter.
"We make sure the aircraft is working right," said Newman, a Greensburg, La., native. "We are called crew chiefs, but we are more like flying mechanics."
Flying many missions means a constant mixing of crews and pilots. Although the crews may change each flight, the life-saving mission remains the same. The pilots and crews press on without a hitch.
"There are more than 30 different crew members and we go out with different crew chiefs every day, but flying so many hours, you get to know them all pretty well," Jeep said.
According to Jeep, the success doesn't fall on the pilots and crew alone, but the entire Red Dragon squadron.
"As a pilot, we try to emphasize to the maintainers and Marines in the squadron supporting us that the success is due to all of their efforts," said the River Forest, Ill., native. "The maintainers put in a lot of hours and they are the heroes of the CASEVAC mission and we couldn't do it without them."
The Red Dragons arrived in February and have untiringly provided lifesaving evacuations to many service members in Iraq and will do so, as long as their deployment and the Global War on Terrorism continues.