'Greyhawks' return home after trial by fire

7 Sep 2004 | Sgt. Nathan K. LaForte

Lt. Col. David W. Coffman, commanding officer of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 161, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, and squadron Sgt. Maj. Charles L. Booker, cased their squadron colors and the Stars and Stripes at their headquarters building here Sept. 2.

The squadron will return home shortly to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., after spending six months here and flying 3,042 combat flight hours in support of some of the most heavily engaged ground units in Iraq.

The "Greyhawks" mission since their redeployment to Iraq has been casualty evacuation, which is the evacuation of personnel, friendly or enemy, from the battlefield in their CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters.

The journey for the squadron started half a year ago when the "Phrog" squadron initially deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

Since they began their journey, they have seen high and low points during their deployment. Some of the high points of their journey included the support they provided to the Marines operating in Al Fallujah, Iraq, during Operation Vigilant Resolve.

They continued flying support missions throughout the area of Iraq known as the "Sunni Triangle," where much of the heavy fighting and enemy resistance have taken place in the last six months.

Lt. Col. David W. Coffman, commanding officer, HMM-161, MAG-16, recalled a specific moment where his squadron's resolve was tested during a difficult time. May 2 was a regular day even when an indirect fire attack struck Camp Ar Ramadi, Iraq, and the "Greyhawks" were called for CASEVAC support.

The scope of the attack revealed itself quickly when the call was clarified from one set of CASEVAC helicopters to any and all assets available. In all, the squadron airlifted over 30 personnel from Ar Ramadi to different care facilities in the area of operations.

Coffman specifically remembered a young Marine asking him how long his Marines would keep coming, and he answered with a simple, but more far-reaching statement than he could have known.

"As long as you have casualties," said the 41-year-old from Eustis, Fla., "'Greyhawk' helicopters will keep landing in this zone."

When Coffman made his claim to the young Marine at the landing zone, it resonated throughout his squadron's entire stay in Iraq. While here they have evacuated 1,016 patients, including 328 urgent evacuations, which required surgical care within the hour to save "life, limb or eyesight."

The squadron has successfully achieved 100 percent mission accomplishment throughout all 752 consecutive on-time launches of their aircraft on combat missions

The ability to keep the aging Sea Knight airframes fully operational under these conditions was a total squadron effort since the beginning, noted Gunnery Sgt. Mark A. Arvizu, airframes chief, HMM-161.

"They haven't missed a beat since we deployed," said the 37-year-old from Phoenix. "Getting these planes flying from sitting on the ship and then not missing a single mission. This is a first to be at 100 percent like this."

The Marines attention to detail has allowed them to keep the squadron fully mission capable without the benefits of a rear-area supply chain, added Staff Sgt. Michael A. Miller, quality assurance representative, HMM-161.

"They did it all with minimal supplies," explained the 28-year-old Marine from Martinez, Calif. "If something was broke, they'd run out there and fix it with minimal time down. If something usually took an hour, they could get it done in 20 minutes because they are always on the line troubleshooting the aircraft."

A powerful factor that has led to the unit's "maintainers" putting in tireless hours is the knowledge of their own impact on the CASEVAC mission, revealed Chief Warrant Officer 2 Thomas R. Smith, avionics officer, HMM-161.

"I still remember the first time the maintainers washed blood from an aircraft," the 33-year-old Ontario, Calif., native remembered. "It was then they understood how important their job is."

It was then that the young Marines learned a valuable lesson that has stayed with them to the end, Miller said.

"Every time we launch, it's life or death," he stated. "It made the Marines strive harder to keep the aircraft in a flyable status."

All in all, "Greyhawk" aircraft came under enemy surface-to-air fire 57 times and had their aircraft hit eight separate times.

The most notable time was July 5, when a routine CASEVAC mission took a turn for the worse and nearly ended in disaster, Smith mentioned.

"We were about five miles from the northwest corner of Fallujah when we were hit," Smith explained. "We had 75 percent of the overhead cabin wires damaged from bullets. A lot of other wires were damaged from the aircraft fire. It was a flash fire and went out on its own, which was probably a good thing."

The aircraft took damage from small arms fire and also shrapnel from rocket-propelled grenade rounds, Miller explained.

"The engines were still fully functional," he said. "We were just thinking about getting back to base and landing."

Luckily, the damage to the aircraft would allow them to make it back to base; but not without injury, however. Both CASEVAC corpsmen aboard, Petty Officer 1st Class Jeanne M. Wilkinson and Petty Officer 3rd Class James R. Howeth, received Purple Hearts for burns sustained from the helicopter fire.

Coffman, the squadron's commanding officer, was shot in the front "chicken plate" of his flak vest through the front windshield of the helicopter. The bullet fragmented into his shoulder and chin, which broke under the force of the impact.

"The 'Charlie-Oscar' was still trying to fly a little bit because it didn't knock him out, it just buckled him a little," Miller explained of Coffman, who was the pilot for the trip. "Once they made the turn back to base, he gave the controls to (1st Lt. Steve M. Clifton), who got us home."

One thing the crew will always remember is the fact that Coffman walked off of the helicopter when it landed, Smith said.

Coffman was rushed to the medical clinic and found himself recovering in Naval Medical Center, Balboa in San Diego when he finally regained consciousness. His only thought was of his Marines and what would become of them in his absence.

In hindsight, he said he shouldn't have worried in the least. He hasn't forgotten their perseverance in the face of a challenge and it is this resolve that has earned his squadron the Edward C. Dyer Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron of the Year award for the year 2004.

"Great units thrive in adversity and this is how the (executive officer) put it to the squadron when I was evacuated," he said. "They could've fallen apart, they refused to fail."

"They decided on a course and did it," he continued. "What could've been a degrader, they turned around. Someone had to lead that and Maj. (James R.) Kennedy had the challenge of doing that."

With the commanding officer's return after just under two months of recovery, the squadron has packed up their personal belongings and transferred their well-maintained helicopters to the "Red Dragons" of HMM-268.

Coffman addressed his Marines about the job they have accomplished since their arrival in Iraq. He mentioned the low statistics the squadron has accumulated.

The "Greyhawks" lost no aircraft to enemy fire - even the aircraft in which Coffman himself had been shot. They also lost no Marines, dropped no missions or had any mishaps since they began.  This, Coffman noted, are the stats of which he is most proud.

"Marines and Sailors, you have seized your opportunity to serve Corps and country in combat," he said to them after casing the squadron colors. "You have served with honor, courage and commitment. You have done everything asked of you and have made a difference."

Take that success and plant it deep in your heart," he continued. "Remember it, cherish it, and celebrate it for the rest of your life. Know that you did your best and your best was good enough. Well done Marines, well done."