AL TAQADDUM, Iraq -- Marine helicopters in Al Taqaddum, are an absolute necessity. The whirling mechanical wonders spirit cargo and passengers from place to place, providing nearly immediate firepower to ground troops or quick evacuation of casualties.
Helicopters don't take to the air without the efforts of dozens of maintenance Marines. A critical part of the Al Taqaddum helicopter squadron's upkeep efforts while their helicopters are earthbound are the myriad of devices aptly named Ground Support Equipment.
Providing the aircraft maintainers the necessary equipment used to support the helicopters is the responsibility of two GSE professionals, Staff Sgt. Dean J. Francini and Sgt. Luis C. Cardenas.
"We have 115 GSE assets the squadrons use to test, troubleshoot and transport the helicopters," said Francini, the GSE staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge and member of the Detachment A, Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 16, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward).
The high percentage of equipment in good working condition is a point of pride for the two veteran equipment experts.
"Usually a logistics squadron's GSE section has 40 Marines and about 600 GSE assets. We're running 115 pieces with two," said Francini, a Berea, Ky., native. "It's a 24 hour a day job. We start at 7:30 a.m. and sometimes work through 10 p.m., but the squadrons will come wake us if they need something."
The reason the squadrons can quickly reach Francini and Cardenas is that the two live inside the GSE maintenance bunker just a few steps from the squadron's workspaces.
"We don't have a pool of equipment that can just be switched out for a broken piece, so we have to fix it right then and there," said Francini. "That's why we live here in the bunker."
Living in the midst of the equipment they are responsible for means work is never far away from the two Marines.
"We are both experienced and qualified collateral duty inspectors and quality assurance representatives. That's why our (GSE staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge) launched us down here," said Francini. "He knew just the two of us would be able to fix something on any of the equipment in a fast-paced environment. We have the ability to multi-task, think fast and find solutions to make things work."
Long hours spent working in a hot bunker, toiling over fried electrical systems or busted hydraulic hoses might burn some Marines out before their seven-month tour is finished, but not these two wrench-turning friends.
"We know each other's strengths and weaknesses. Our communication is awesome," said Cardenas. "We choose to work long hours. Keeping busy burns the days up and makes them go by quicker."
It's not all about turning wrenches and replacing hydraulic lines for these two though, as they also act as instructors.
"A Marine has to be qualified to run the equipment before they can check it out and use it on an aircraft," said Cardenas, a hydraulic mechanic and Houston native. "We just finished qualifying 95 Marines with one of the squadrons and there will be more because we will get new equipment in or new squadrons will check in. Plus the licenses are only good for three years."
Keeping maintainers trained, equipment operable, working long hours and waking for late-night maintenance calls is all part of the job for Francini and Cardenas, and they wouldn't have it any other way in the months ahead.