AL ASAD, Iraq -- Six recon pathfinders from 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division, recently jumped into the Iraqi night sky and into history from a Marine KC-130 Hercules cargo plane belonging to the joint Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadrons 234 and 352, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.
The high altitude high opening jump took place in western Iraq, July 23.
Although reconnaissance Marines have religiously practiced air insertions time and time again, they have been virtually nonexistent in combat. According to Headquarters Marine Corps historical reports, the last combat airdrop a Marine Corps unit successfully performed was nearly 35 years ago.
The first was on June 14, 1966 during the Vietnam War. A small team of recon Marines made the low altitude night jump determined to quietly insert and set up an observation point within enemy territory. The team made it to the ground with only one small injury and was later extracted.
The jump was hailed as a success by most involved and the combat jump was accepted as a viable means of placing Marines in hostile areas.
The second, on Sept. 5, 1967, almost killed the combat airdrop idea for the Marine Corps. A group of nine Marines jumped into the night sky for a supposed 700-foot elevation drop. Because of mechanical malfunctions with the plane, the Marines unknowingly jumped from around 1500 to 2000 feet.
The team was blown off course by unexpected winds and landed separately in dense jungles far from their intended target. They suffered numerous wounded, three of which had to be medically evacuated, and some of the team barely escaped capture by the enemy.
The failure of this mission halted the process for two years until Nov. 17, 1969, when the last jump occurred and the three Vietnam jumps marked the end of the Marine Corps combat jump history - until now.
Theoretically, the jump was nothing different from the numerous training jumps the seasoned veterans have completed in their careers. What made this particular jump so special was the location and circumstances, claimed Master Sgt. Todd Smalenberg, primary jumpmaster, 1st Recon Bn.
When the Marine Corps first implemented the parachute insertion program, the purpose was the clandestine insertion of troops to prevent enemy counter movement.
The reasoning behind the July 23 mission was along similar lines, according to Maj. Douglas B. Davis, Hercules aircraft commander, Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 234, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. Davis was in charge of the Hercules aircraft that delivered the group of six pathfinders to their destination.
"We were called in for this mission because the ground inserts were attracting a lot of attention and taking a lot of fire," the 36-year-old, McAllen, Texas native said. "They wanted to go in by parachute in order to avoid detection."
Although the historical implications of the drop were important, the Marines had an important mission to complete, said Smalenberg.
"We did an infiltration into an objective area to conduct an initial internal guidance of two CH-46E (Sea Knights)," the 39-year-old Oscoda, Mich., native explained of his team's mission. "We were to all insert clandestinely to the area to conduct counter (improvised explosive devices) ambushes."
IED attacks on convoys and ground patrols are one of the problems coalition forces are facing in the ongoing struggle to secure and stabilize Iraq. This mission is one of many that are being used to counter this threat, Smalenberg mentioned.
Overall, the mission was considered a success by those involved, claimed 1st Lt. Ken M. Karcher, airborne direct air support center, Marine Air Support Squadron 1, 3rd MAW, who relayed information for the recon teams once they hit the ground.
"It was a pretty simple mission and it went over pretty well," the 26-year-old Raleigh, N.C., native said. "It was very well coordinated by the ground unit."
"They went in, they were blacked out and we left," he added. "They didn't have enemy contact when they hit the ground. To me, that's success."
The jump was something the enemy might not have expected, claimed Smalenberg, but the group took extra precautions in the choice of their jump by opting for the high opening.
"The reason we chose to do a HAHO vice a (high altitude low opening) jump was the stand off distance the aircraft would be from the drop zone as well as the noise of the parachutes opening at 10 thousand feet vice four thousand feet is not even close," he explained. "The sound of a parachute opening at four thousand feet is quite distinct, but there is no noise of a parachute opening at 10 thousand feet."
The mission itself was exciting for all involved, because even though units train for this in peacetime operations, it doesn't happen often, claimed Sgt. Lee A. Davis, loadmaster, VMGR-234.
"It went great," the 21-year-old Arlington, Texas native claimed. "It's really rare for us and we don't get to do it that often so we really love it when we get the chance."
The older recon pathfinders, none of whom were under the rank of staff sergeant, may have been even more excited than the younger loadmaster, he noted.
"These guys were waiting their whole careers to do this in combat," he said.
The insertions made in past efforts by the recon Marines have varied from using ground and aquatic vehicles to just plain walking. Smalenberg also down played the excitement a bit by mentioning that a parachute insertion seemed like the method of choice for the Marines.
"Every time we roll out of the camp in vehicles, the enemy knows," he said. "I feel safer doing this than driving my vehicle out of the camp. This is the best means (of insertion). Besides, it's just another way to get to work."