FORWARD OPERATIING BASE DWYER, Afghanistan --
A small detachment of AH-1W Super Cobra pilots and enlisted Marines stationed here, distanced from the main body of their squadron aboard Camp Leatherneck, work around the clock with few aircraft and limited manpower to provide immediate close air support for coalition and Afghan forces within the area.
The Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 169 “Vipers” here with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), have become an irreplaceable organic element of FOB Dwyer.
Within a short one-month period, which is the amount of time the squadron has been in country, the detachment has conducted approximately 50 Joint Tactical Airstrike Requests, provided 15 close air support sorties for troops in contact, in which ordinance was expended; and served as an armed escort for 15 casualty evacuations.
“These Marines work night and day with enthusiasm because they know what a difference this detachment is making out here,” said Gunnery Sgt. Anthony Gilleland, the staff non-commissioned officer in charge for the detachment. “Just the other day we had 16 patrol bases attacked within a three-hour timeframe. Enemy fire stopped as soon as we arrived on scene.
“There is nothing else out here that sounds like a Cobra or a [UH-1Y] ‘Huey.’ We know it, and so do they. As soon as they here that ‘thwap thwap thwap’ of our rotors, they give up and go home, or face the alternative.”
Despite the crucial impact the HMLA Marines are making, the Vipers’ main body can only provide the detachment with minimal manpower. Less than 50 Marines maintain and operate the few aircraft here. Though 50 Marines may sound sufficient at first glance, after taking into account their 24-hour operations, the detachment is left with just a few dozen Marines per shift responsible for piloting, supervising, maintaining and supporting roles within the detachment. Because of this, some Marines will fill one billet for both day and night shifts, remaining on call during their hours of rest.
Worked hard and stretched thin, Dwyer’s Viper team never quits – lending a helping hand to their brothers-in-arms whenever possible. Aside from keeping their own aircraft mission-ready, the detachment assists the nearby Army medical evacuation team with aircraft upkeep and maintenance.
“[The Vipers] support us in more ways than you can imagine,” said Sgt. 1st Class Vince Farrell, platoon sergeant for the Charlie Company, 214th Aviation Regiment “Dustoff.” “Without those guys we would have more aircraft down than we do up.”
Lacking the support shops and equipment available to the HMLA-169 detachment, Dustoff relies on the Vipers to fill multiple support roles to keep their aircraft in the sky. Once Dustoff goes airborne, the Cobra pilots step up to the plate and provide an armed escort through any hostile airspace.
One UH-60A Black Hawk pilot, who recently arrived here, is especially excited for the opportunity to fly side-by-side with the Vipers. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Robert Cambell, a former Marine avionics technician for the Cobra, is now deployed for the first time as a Black Hawk pilot and is anxious to fly with his Cobra kin.
“I can’t wait to fly with them,” said Cambell “I know the aircraft, I know how they communicate – it makes me want to go back [to working in an HMLA].”
The rampant Cobra camaraderie surrounding the detachment keeps the Marines’ morale high, but the Marines here in no way mean to detract from the capabilities of their sister-aircraft counterparts operating the squadron’s Hueys. The detachment’s officer in charge, Maj. Brad Lagoski, explained that the squadron’s aircraft makeup consists of [twice as many Cobras and as Hueys.] Having significantly more Cobras is one of several factors, which contribute to the decision for the detachment to exclusively fly Cobras.
Gilleland also commented on the logistical and mechanical convenience of only hosting one make of aircraft.
“By only having Cobras on station, we only have to worry about supplying components and parts for one aircraft,” said Gilleland, a native of Forresthill, Calif. “Furthermore, the parts for Cobras are more readily available. Most parts we receive for Hueys are coming right off of the assembly line.”
As the flightline here continues to expand, the HMLA will host a larger footprint allowing more Marines and aircraft – Hueys and Cobras alike. For now however, a sign posted outside the detachment’s small land-stake on the flightline reads “Fleury Field,” in memory of Cpl. Gregory Fleury, a Huey crew chief killed in action along with two Cobra pilots and a Huey pilot during the squadron’s previous deployment to Afghanistan – a somber reminder of the sacrifice operators of both aircraft within the HMLA make.
Knowing full-well the importance of their everyday actions, the Vipers here dedicate every second of their day to their detachment’s mission capability and support of International Security Assistance Forces.
“This detachment is tactically important,” said Legoski. “Every Marine in every shop makes the difference. We couldn’t do what we do without each one of them.”
Most Marines here will rotate out every few months and return to their squadron’s main body. Legoski stated it was the commanding officer’s intent to eliminate any long-term complacency and fatigue during the duration of their deployment.
“The Marines enjoy it here, but the rotation benefits the entire squadron,” said Gilleland. “This is our little slice of heaven out here in Afghanistan.”