AL ASAD, Iraq -- From the flight deck of the USS Enterprise, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251, a carrier based squadron from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C., took to the sands of Al Asad, Aug. 29 for a shore based detachment.
"This is the first time for the squadron to have the opportunity to conduct land-based missions in Operation Iraqi Freedom while simultaneously supporting Operation Enduring Freedom," said Lt. Col. Michael Orr, commanding officer, VMFA-251, Carrier Air Wing One, Carrier Strike Group 12.
The squadron has been to the Arabian Gulf several times before aboard an aircraft carrier to conduct OIF and OEF missions. It's exciting for the Marines to get this Al Asad experience, according to Orr, a native of Jacksonville, Fla.
"Our mission right now is to provide air support for Marines, soldiers and other coalition forces on the ground here in Iraq," said Orr.
When the squadron was packing up in Beaufort to go aboard the carrier, some were hesitant to bring 782 gear, according to Sgt. Maj. Michael Gonzales, sergeant major, VMFA-251.
"I had every Marine bring their packs, all their gear and made sure we had enough rifles and pistols to equip the squadron. I had it packed away in the carrier's armory," said Gonzales, a Los Angeles native. "There were many people that questioned the idea, saying we were only going to be out at sea. I knew what we were doing -- being prepared for any situation. Now, I'm even happier that we brought everything with us."
It took a lot of teamwork between the Enterprise staff, Carrier Air Wing One, Marine Aircraft Group 16, and the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) in order to complete the detachment, according to Orr. The squadron conducted rapid planning, focusing on the logistics and maintenance requirements ashore. Marines had to quickly work with their counterparts here in Iraq to help put together a plan. Normally, this planning process takes months, but the Thunderbolts compressed it down to about 10 days.
"It was hard to pack the shop up to come out here in short notice since we are a big shop," said Cpl. Courtney Keeler, airframes mechanic, VMFA-251. "Then to transit most of the squadron and keep track of everything was a challenge."
The overall transition went well, and the squadron appreciated the support received by the personnel aboard the carrier and in Al Asad. Marines and cargo were transported without delay and all the aircraft took off on time. It was a dedicated professional effort by everyone, according to Gonzales.
"Within 24 hours, these Marines had everything up and running," said Orr. "We had all our jets up and ready to conduct combat missions the next day."
After four months out to sea aboard an aircraft carrier, the Thunderbolts now prepare for the changes and challenges of operating in Iraq.
"We always train for both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions," said Orr. "While aboard the carrier we were able to flex between the two missions, but here it's all about the battlefield and close air support."
While temporarily land based, the squadron can be more flexible because they are not attached to a carrier launch and recovery cycle, and maintenance can be conducted as required.
"The changes here, compared to being on the carrier, will be similar to what it was like back in Beaufort, South Carolina," said Keeler, a native of Townsend, Tenn. "We don't have to request parts and certain things that we may need through the ship. On the carrier we have to launch and recover jets at the same time, which creates constant movement and preparing jets in between each flight. We don't have to worry about that here."
The operations tempo here will remain the same, with slight modifications, according to Gonzales. The Marines have switched to working 12-hour shifts from noon to midnight and midnight to noon. This allows the Marines to share some of the daylight each day, letting no one specific group of Marines work under the hot sun all day.
"The hours are not a big change from the carrier," said Keeler. "It will be tough keeping the jets running and clean of dust and dirt. Yesterday was our first day of flying, and we already had a couple of our jets have maintenance problems. We'll definitely be busy."
This is the first time Keeler has deployed to Iraq and she explained that one of the reasons she joined the Corps, was to be able to come out here and have the chance to experience Iraq.
"I'm enjoying the environment and being off the carrier," said Keeler. "It also gives us a little more freedom and room to breathe out here."
With the change of locations, there are many benefits and opportunities for the Marines ashore.
"In their off-duty time, the Thunderbolts are able to physically train -- whether it be outside running or at great gym facilities -- and enjoy the chow hall, the Post Exchange, as well as the recreational facilities," said Orr.
According to Gonzales, the squadron has pilots from both Navy Strike Fighter Squadrons 86 and 136 out here alongside the Thunderbolts as part of the Carrier Air Wing One detachment. The pilots and Marines that remained aboard the carrier are continuing to fly operations with other squadrons in OEF and will be rotating to Al Asad to allow them the opportunity to participate in OIF sorties.
"By rotating pilots, it allows to complete our mission while maintaining our carrier landing proficiency," said Orr.
This past July, Orr assumed the role of the commanding officer of the Thunderbolts and expressed that having the opportunity to lead his Marines into Iraq has been truly motivating.
"I couldn't ask for a better experience as a commander," said Orr. "This is everything I wanted for the squadron to be able to do. We are ready to get down to business and do what we do best - supporting forces engaged in the daily struggle here in Iraq."