U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY -- The helicopter is coming in low from the left side. The gunner presses the IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) switch, the tone comes back unknown. He engages the weapon system by depressing the actuating switch. The sound comes back like music to his ears, the weapon is active, the head seeking and searching for the target.
The gunner elevates the weapon waiting for the TL (Team Leader) to give the order to engage. The helicopter is in range, the missile is live, and the tone is steady. Time to launch. The TL yells to engage, the gunner presses the button, a loud bang erupts, and the missile leaves the tube, flies 200 feet and then hits the sand.
A miss? A malfunction? No, this was all a training exercise and had the missile been real and not a training round, the enemy would have one less helicopter in its arsenal and the Stinger team would have had a kill.
This is the life of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operation Capable) Aviation Combat Element's Low-Altitude Air Defense (LAAD) teams. They come equipped with Avengers and shoulder-fired Stingers to give the MEU the air defense that they need to conduct their missions, and make their life easier without worrying about what may come at them from above.
"We are out here for two reasons. The primary reason is to get cross training with the other units. To integrate with the Battalion Landing Team, Assault Amphibian Vehicles, the Combined Anti-Armor Team and Fox Battery," said 1st Lt. William Clester from Belle Plain, Kansas, officer-in-charge, LAAD Detachment.
"The second reason we are here is for our guys to get the chance to live-fire the M3P .50 caliber machine gun that is mounted on the side of the Avenger and to do simulated Stinger Missile firings at actual aircraft."
The Avengers' main purpose is to provide air defense for the MEU when they are in a combat area. The Avengers will provide a 360-degree field of fire and engage any targets of opportunity that may arise. With the ability to fire while on the move this makes the Avenger and its crews a unique team that can be very dangerous in a combat situation.
The Avenger is a modified High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle that has a turret in the back where the gunner would sit. The sides of the turret feature two Stinger missile launchers that can be fired while moving, and a M3P .50 caliber machine gun.
With these weapons at their disposal, the Marines embraced the chance to train in the desert and get experience working in this type of environment.
"In this part of the world the training makes us more aware of cover and concealment. We are used to training in an area that has trees and brush so it is easier to hide. Here you don't have that. You have to use your training to keep from being spotted. The up side to all of this is, if you can see us then that means that we can see you and that is a very bad thing," said Cpl. William Sheppard, a native of Danielson, Conn., Stinger gunner.
"Being out here is more realistic than being back in Cherry Point, N.C. Here you have the enviroment that we expect to fight in, while back home it is all wooded areas and more of a European type area," said East Lansing, Mich. native, Staff Sgt. Michael Meyer, section leader, Stinger Detachment. " We want to make sure that our guys are ready and that we can do our job of protecting the MEU's assets from air attack. So this helps us to prepare for what may come if it comes to that."
Training does have its advantages and that is the reason that the LAAD is out here. To make sure that the Marines that make up the LAAD Detachment know their jobs, know the terrain, and know what they are up against.
"I like being here. It gives us an idea of the enemy's environment and the climate that they train and fight in," said Selma, Ala. native Cpl. Lavon Rogers, Stinger gunner.
With Avengers paving the way for clearer skies, making the convoy routes and the ASP (Ammo Supply Point) safer places to be, Marines of the 24th MEU (SOC) can rest easier at night knowing that they do have, in a sense, a guardian angel watching over them and protecting them from whatever may rain down from the heavens above.