Hot to trot, Warhorses take to Iraq’s skies

20 Nov 2006 | Cpl. Jonathan K. Teslevich

World class assault support … Any time, any zone is the motto for operations conducted by the most-recent heavy helicopter squadron to arrive in support of Coalition Forces in western Iraq.

Marines and sailors with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 465, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), arrived at Al Asad, Iraq, in October to replace their fellow CH-53E Super Stallion squadron, HMH-361, and have been hauling personnel and cargo across the Al Anbar Province since.

The Warhorses were welcomed to Al Asad with good operating helicopters and a refurbished workspace and are now operating much as they had in their previous three deployments to Al Asad, Iraq.

“The types of operations we do are really the same as last time,” said Lt. Col. Mitchell E. Cassell, the squadron executive officer. “The battle space for the I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) has changed a lot since then. As a result, (CH-53) Echoes don’t operate in the same zones we did before. Now, our operations are limited to a smaller portion of the Al Anbar Province, so we go to the same forward operating bases all the time.”

The change in the operating environment has created a challenge for the Warhorse aircrews: complacency.

“It’s all the same mission, transporting people and their gear from one forward operating base to the next, but the flying isn’t nearly so interesting anymore because the variation of the type of flying and places we go to is cut in half,” said Cassell, a Charleston, Mo., native. “It’s tough, because we’re fighting complacency regularly, seeing the same things day in and day out.”

One change in their operating environment that does not test the squadron’s abilities to adjust is the improvements made to their workspaces on the sprawling desert airbase.

“The facilities are significantly better than last time I was out here. The spaces, inside and outside, have been improved,” said Cassell. “We have the Big Iron Café (dining facility) now, whereas before we had a tent, which was ok. Now, it’s a building, and having our own chow hall has really improved morale.”

In addition to improved work spaces, HMH-361 also turned over a well-kept group of helicopters that the Warhorse maintainers have been battling wear and tear on, as they haul cargo day and night.

“The maintainers are doing a great job,” said Cassell “We were fortunate to have a lot of experienced people who have been over here in the operating environment before. It was a good mix for all the new Marines we have.”

The work being performed by the dozens of helicopter maintainers would be all for naught if it wasn’t for the complete support provided by the Marine Corps’ supply system.

“The planes are in great shape,” said Cassell. “Being a force activity designator one unit gives us a priority for support -- specifically, logistics, maintenance and parts support. So, when we need parts, we get them before everybody else and quicker than everybody else. That translates into: when a plane breaks, we can fix it in short order.”

It is no short order and no small task for the young Marines who have stepped up to take on the responsibilities of fixing the hulking aircraft and quickly getting them in flying shape again. 

“In the maintenance section, we lost a lot of senior sergeants from our last deployment,” said Lance Cpl. Justin W. Holleman, a CH-53E helicopter mechanic. “Now, those of us who may not have the rank but do have the job experience are the ones responsible for getting the job done right.”

The transfer of responsibility to himself and his fellow junior Marines who have deployed to Al Asad strikes Holleman as a big change.

“It’s different. On our last deployment, we were told to do this and that,” said Holleman, a Clifton, Texas, native. “Now, we watch others and tell them how to do jobs they don’t know. They don’t have any choice but to pick it up. There’s no time. They may have to learn on the job now, but then, they won’t need the supervision to do it right the next time.”

It is that kind of get-the-job-done mentality that is going to carry the Warhorses through the end of their deployment successfully.

“As the commanding officer says, ‘Do it better, safer and more efficiently than anybody else. We’re going to prove to 3rd MAW, the rest of the Marines Corps and the rest of the world that we are better than everybody else,'” said Cassell. “That does not in fact mean we are going to cut corners, cheat and steal, and do all this other stuff to get it done. No, it means we’re going to do it right the first time, every time and make a name for ourselves as we provide I MEF the lift and transport out here in the Al Anbar Province to accomplish their tasking.”

“We haven’t missed any launches, so we have completed 100 percent of our tasking and that is our goal,” he said. “The only thing that can stop us is ourselves and the weather, and we can’t control the weather.”

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