AL ASAD, Iraq -- Normally, the United States Navy is associated with ships and the blue waters of the world's oceans, but 15 sailors with the Mobile Air Cargo Handling Team have moved several hundred miles inland to support the long-standing Navy and Marine Corps team.
As part of Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 16, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), the MACH Team is responsible for the movement and tracking of aviation parts and equipment used to keep the Marine aircraft flying in Iraq.
"Not a lot of people know the Navy is over here in Iraq," said Navy Lt. j.g. Christopher B. Pickford, the MACH Team officer-in-charge. "We have nine people at Al Asad, Iraq, and six at Al Taqaddum, Iraq. Really, what we're used for is to track cargo as it travels from place to place."
The cooperation and can-do attitude of the sailors and Marines existed from the start of their working relationship, commented Pickford, a Gloucester, Va., native.
"The MACH team helps the MALS-16 Deployment Support Unit provide logistical support to the flying squadrons," said Capt. Joshua M. Jabin, the MALS-16 Supply Management Division officer-in-charge. "The DSU gets the aviation gear, and the MACH Team takes it out."
According to Jabin, the MACH Team ships about 2,000 parts per month, half of which are high priority, meaning an aircraft cannot fly without the parts, so they are needed immediately.
"They play a very important role in getting the parts to the right places," said Jabin, an East Brunswick, N.J., native. "Moving gear around the forward operating bases is not as easy as it may sound. It's not just picking it up and moving it. It takes a lot of close coordination."
"The first day I got here, I sat down with the DSU and talked about how we are one team," said Pickford. "It's a big joint world out here. Every service is tied together, and that's really impressive."
The word mach, the team's name, is appropriate, as it represents the ratio of speed of a jet aircraft in flight. Even though their forklifts will never match the mach numbers of the aircraft they support, the team gets the job done quickly.
"When squadrons need a part, they don't care how it gets to them, just that it does quickly," said Jabin. "The MACH Team always gets it there within 24 hours. They are an absolute group of professionals and make our job easy."
With dozens of flights leaving Al Asad and Al Taqaddum daily, the potential for cargo ending up on the wrong aircraft and going to the wrong destination exists, but the MACH Team has a method to prevent this from happening.
"We've got our fingers on the gear all the way. From when it leaves Al Asad, to when it gets to its destination," said Pickford. "In the past, cargo could be put on the wrong aircraft, so now we physically watch it go on the birds. That way we know it's on the right bird and going to the right place."
An unblemished record is a result of attention to detail and years of experience by the sailors, who are mostly reservists from the Navy Air Cargo Handling Battalion 1, based in Fort Dix, N.J.
"All but one of us are reservists. Many of these guys have been in the Navy a long time, but most had never worked with the Marine Corps before," said Pickford. "We've been out here for six months and go home in a few weeks, and in that time, we have moved four and a half million pounds of cargo and delivered 1,500 aviation support requests with no mishaps and no lost cargo."
While they don't travel around Iraq with their cargo, the MACH Team understands the importance of their role in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"The truth of it is, we never leave the wire, but our moving this cargo could save a life, and we really believe that," said Pickford. "If we don't get a part to a squadron, then maybe their aircraft can't fly and save a Marine's life on the ground."