AL TAQADDUM, Iraq -- The Purple Foxes of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 364, Marine Aircraft Group 16 (Reinforced), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), assumed authority from the Red Dragons of HMM-268 at Al Taqaddum, Aug. 29, for providing casualty evacuation, general transportation and raid flights.
The turnover of responsibilities is the second go around for the Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based squadrons and held few hurdles for the experienced Marines and sailors.
Within hours of the official turnover, Marines and sailors with HMM-268 were headed for their living quarters to pack up their gear. At the same time, their HMM-364 counterparts were hard at work fixing the aging CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters left by HMM-268 or racing out to the helicopters at the sound of the CASEVAC bell.
"This is the seventh cycle in the CASEVAC mission. There are only three units that do this right now, so the transition was very smooth and methodical," said Maj. Stephen M. Griffiths, executive officer, HMM-364. "(HMM-268) told us about the changes since we were last here in 2005. Really, it's pretty much the same except that we're flying more general support missions during the day."
The previous combat experiences of the Purple Foxes enlisted and officer ranks are making the nonstop flight schedule easier to handle, according to Griffiths.
"We are a pretty young squadron. We have junior officers and enlisted Marines, but a lot of those lieutenants and lance corporals are on their second and some third tours," said the Santa Ana, Calif., native. "We are able to have a good mix of experienced and new air crews."
One of the experienced crew members, Sgt. Brian D. Kraatz, on his second deployment to Operation Iraqi Freedom with the Purple Foxes, said the squadron began their preparations for this deployment at Exercise Desert Talon in Yuma, Ariz.
"Many of us are pretty much used to how things work out here, but we use that experience to train the new guys who haven't," said Kraatz, a CH-46 Sea Knight crew chief and Rescue, Calif., native. "The biggest thing for us now is fighting complacency."
With the Purple Foxes in the air, evacuating casualties and ferrying cargo across western Iraq, the Red Dragons packed up and reflected on the events of the past six months.
"It has been a trial by fire; a good test for me to see if I can handle being a corpsman," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Kevin L. Fugate, a corpsman with HMM-268. "I am taking home with me an experience and new friends I could not have gotten anywhere else.
"Most of all, I have gained respect for the Marines. These guys out here are great," said the Fremont, Calif., native. "Whether they're wing or ground, they moan and complain, but always get the job done."
On the eve of their return to Camp Pendleton, members of the Red Dragons could be seen and heard playing musical instruments and singing songs about their time in Iraq and planned activities in the United States.
"We're ready to go home, this is our third time out in Iraq," said Lt. Col. Patrick A. Gramuglia, commanding officer, HMM-268. "A high-tempo flight operations schedule, the weight of the mission and being away from family resulted in a strain on all the Marines.
"It's nothing that isn't manageable, but it doesn't matter what you're doing for six months. With only five days off, there will be fatigue, but we were motivated by the mission," said Gramuglia, a San Diego native. "We have flown more than 5,800 hours and evacuated almost 400 urgent casualties -- that's where it counts."
The thousands of passengers and hundreds of casualties the Red Dragons transported only saw the corpsmen, crew chiefs and pilots, but on the ground behind the scenes, hundreds of Marines toiled 24 hours a day in the maintenance and staff sections to get the mission accomplished.
"They did their jobs without complaint, with outstanding results and with great attitudes," said Gramuglia. "I am very proud and honored to be part of this great group of Marines, and they have my heartfelt thanks, respect, and life-long admiration."