U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND AREA OF RESPONSIBILITY -- Every night the Marines around the base camp here are treated to a spectacular light show with bright red or green traces of light rocketing out of the sky to the ground below.
Then comes the sound of thump, thump, thump across the horizon as Marines from Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 263, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable)'s Aviation Combat Element light up targets with rockets and machine guns during live-fire training.
The live-fire training is part of a bilateral exercise the MEU is conducting within the CentComm AOR.
"Basically what we've been doing here is serious forward air control training and providing close-air support for the Battalion Landing Team," said Maj. Duane Opperman, safety officer and UH-1N Huey helicopter pilot. "We are also refining our ordnance delivery techniques and making future attack pilot commanders.
Acting as forward air controllers, the pilots from 263 are able to survey and locate enemy targets or positions and bring to bear the MEU's combined arms capabilities.
"We put the enemy on the horns of dilemma," said Maj. Darrin Kazlauskas, logistics officer and AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter pilot. "If the enemy decides to stay in his hole we can call in and hit him with indirect fire. If he gets out of his whole he gets hit with direct fire."
Along with acting as forward observers the "Thunder Chickens," as they are known, have been conducting several live-fire fire shoots a day.
"We have six aircraft shooting both day and night," said Kazlauskas. "That means we are doing 12 runs a day and we are carrying ordnance on every run."
But Kazlauskas noted that these runs wouldn't be possible without the hard work of the rest of the Marines here.
"Our advance element came in here and set up our fuel and ammo site," he said. "We are also able to do basic maintenance on our aircraft -- without those guys we wouldn't be here. All of them are real hard-chargers."
Being able to refuel here allows the ACE better response time and longer time on station when they show up. It also gives them practice refueling in a harsh desert environment.
"We don't fly in this environment often," said Opperman. "This training is good in that it allows us to use all of our capabilities in an environment we are not used too. We don't get to do this kind of training back at New River, N.C."
Along with getting experience in a different environment, the pilots are gaining basic flight leadership skills that will help make them section and division leaders.
While the pilots gain flight leadership skills, the Marines on the ground are also getting the chance to do some things they don't normally do.
"This is great training," said Sgt. Brian Cook, aviation ordnance. "We don't get the chance to do hot-tube (rapid) loading in this type of environment back at New River."
"This is some good experience in a desert environment," said Lance Cpl. Kevin Smith, bulk fuel specialist. "I think this will make us ready for combat in this type of environment.