AL ASAD, Iraq -- It’s a dirty, hot job, but someone has to do it. The often filthy profession of a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter mechanic has been ably performed by many dedicated Marines for the past seven months in Al Asad.
Cpl. James B. Cheek, known affectionately as “Cheeks” around the flight line maintenance section of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), is one of those Marines.
“I’ve worked with him for three and a half years, and Cheek is a fine representation of a flight line mechanic,” said Sgt. Tyler A. Bereziuk, the flight line day-shift supervisor. “If you put him side by side with any other person, you’d know which he is, because he would be the one black from the arms down, looking like he is covered in grease or has been rolling around in the dirt.”
According to Bereziuk, that state of general griminess is exactly what you want in a flight line shop -- a Marine who is always out on the line working hard and getting dirty.
“He never gets to fly, never gets a thanks and is always covered in grease, but he never complains,” said Bereziuk, a Petoskey, Mich., native. “That’s why everybody likes him. It’s funny when he runs at night, his arms are black and his legs are pale white.”
There is more to Cheek than a veneer of grease and dirt. The 24-year-old Fort Worth, Texas, native is a veteran of two deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a Marine who has his own outlook on his labor-intensified job.
“Do the job right the first time. If you don’t, then you're going to end up doing it again or hurting somebody,” said Cheek. “With this job, a lot of it is personal integrity. One time, another corporal and I were washing windows and a rag blew away. We couldn’t find it, so I ran and told someone. We had to shut down flights until we found it.”
A piece of cotton cloth is considered foreign object debris, because it has the ability to damage a running aircraft.
“Things like that make the difference in squadrons. Last time out here, we lost four Marines and I don’t want to go through that again,” said Cheek. “My friends fly these birds. I work on them and don’t want to be responsible for anyone dying. I want my friends, the grunts and the passengers to come back. I know that what I do can hurt or help that plane, so I do my best.”
Cheek and other flight line mechanics don’t stand alone in their task of keeping the massive helicopters operating safely.
“There are a lot of checks and balances in the teamwork out here,” said Cheek. “Quality assurance Marines are always making sure we’re doing everything right. It falls on them to maintain the quality of the work and not turn a blind eye. It helps that a lot of them have been around the maintenance world a while.”
With his time in Iraq and the Marine Corps growing short, there are few things certain for the always smiling Texan besides dedication to duty.
“I like my job,” said Cheek. “I don’t know if I want to do it for the rest of my life. I’m still trying to figure that out."
Cheek has a simple recommendation for new Marines joining the business of being a flight line mechanic.
“The biggest thing is speaking up. When you don’t know, mess up, see something wrong or have a different idea on how to do things, say something,” Cheek concluded.