USS NASSAU (LHA-4), Underway -- As the Marines and Sailors from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) make their journey home after completing an extended deployment in which they played key roles in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, one section of Marines will bring to a close an interesting chapter in Marine Corps history.
They are the Marines in the CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter section of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 263 (Reinforced), the 24th MEU (SOC)'s Aviation Combat Element.
Not only did these Marines do a superb job of supporting the Marines of the 24th MEU, Task Force Tarawa and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force during Operation Iraqi Freedom, but they were also attached to the MEU from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 772, a reserve helicopter squadron from Willow Grove, Pa. that was activated in January 2002 to support the 24th MEU's heavy lift requirements.
Along with Iraqi Freedom, the Marines from the CH-53E Detachment have participated in every exercise and operation the MEU supported including Operational Rehearsal Dynamic Response 2002 in Kosovo and other operations in the Horn of Africa and U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility.
During these operations, they gained the experience and knowledge that would prepare them for what they would face in Iraq.
"The entire squadron surged to support Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF)," said Lt. Col. Brian C. Phillips, detachment officer-in-charge. "For the 53 detachment specifically, our five months of operating in Djibouti had prepared us well for OIF and the work that would be required, both in flying and maintaining the aircraft."
During their time in Djibouti, the 53s, based on requirements directed by U.S. 5th Fleet, supported Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). The CH-53E detachment remained on "dirt det" in Djibouti for approximately five months.
During this evolution the detachment supported CJTF-HOA directly with assault support capabilities that included long-range, heavy-lift (internal or external), and special patrol insertion and extraction (SPIE) capabilities.
During this period the detachment trained directly with the Army Special Operations Forces (SOF), Navy SEAL Teams and Air Force Special Operations Detachment-Africa.
The detachment training included troop insertion and extraction, aerial refueling, aerial gunnery, fast-rope insertion, long-range training, external lift training, SPIE training, mixed aircraft insert training and Night Vision Goggle High Light Level and Low Light Level training.
Once the squadron became involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom all six CH-53's were reconstituted onto Amphibious Ready Group shipping.
After HMM-263's AH-1W/UH-1N and six CH-46 aircraft were pushed ashore into Iraq, the two CH-53E's that had spent the deployment operating from the USS Austin were brought to the USS Nassau. This would be the first time the entire detachment was consolidated on one ship, according to Phillips.
During Iraqi Freedom, the detachment was primarily used to move personnel and parts from different ships in the Persian Gulf to forward deployed units in Kuwait and Iraq.
Once the initial movement of parts was made, the detachment flew numerous flights into Iraq in support of Marine units throughout the southern sector of Iraq.
These missions included troop insertion extraction, cargo runs, emergency medical evacuation, emergency re-supply of water and food and troop retrograde.
During this entire period the CH-53s remained aboard the USS Nassau but supplied four aircraft almost daily for direct support to Iraq. Normal mission flights lasted from six to ten hours due to transit times and mission requirements. During Iraqi Freedom, the detachment flew almost 500 hours.
While maintaining this surge, the detachment conducted in-depth phase inspections on four aircraft. Once the aircraft returned from flying, they were turned around in an eight-hour period and were ready to fly the next morning. Many of the missions required the aircraft to remain overnight at a Forward Operating Base.
"Initially when we did this, we only had the aircraft and aircrew on them to maintain the aircraft though we did receive some support from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464, who was already shore based at the FOB," said Phillips. "Once our squadron sent in a CH-46 det to join our AH-1Ws and UH-1Ns that were already shore based, we sent in some 53 maintenance personnel to be there for any support that we might need."
With these capabilities, the CH-53s became one of the most valuable assets in support of Iraqi Freedom.
But it wasn't just the pilots in the squadron who made the unit stand out. The crewmembers, mechanics and other support personnel worked long hours, behind the scenes keeping the airplanes turning and operating safely.
"The numbers from this deployment speak for the workload of the maintenance Marines," said Phillips. "They were on a consistent high operations tempo, putting everything they had into their aircraft. The hours were consistently long but they did their job with a motivation and pride that is commendable. We had over 2,000 flight hours through 24 April," he said.
"One of the biggest highlights was the attitude and morale of the squadron since we had been just several days away from re-deploying for home when the call came for us to join in the fight and thus extend us for the second time during this deployment," added Phillips.
After the MEU's role in OIF was complete, the CH-53 Marines spent a few days performing maintenance and washing down all their airplanes before setting sail for home with the rest of the MEU. During this time, many of the Marines took time to reflect on everything they had accomplished over their extended deployment with the 24th MEU.
"The detachment had many accomplishments during this deployment. The operations in Djibouti, Africa stands out as the most successful because of the austere and sustained mission accomplishment enjoyed by the detachment," said Phillips. "During OIF the detachment easily surged to support operations. Though the support time was limited to three weeks, the detachment could have easily continued at the pace we had set for a much greater length of time."
With the 24th MEU expected to return to North Carolina on Memorial Day, the Marines from HMH-772 will return to Willow Grove with the satisfaction of a job well done and enough sea stories to last them a lifetime.
"The Marines of the CH-53E detachment are proud of their many accomplishments. They know that they were called upon to do a job and they did this job in a professional manner," said Phillips. "The Marines believed they were ready when called upon and supporting OIF capped off that belief. As for the future, we will have a new experience to draw upon when other commitments come up for us."
"For a reserve unit this has truly been an experience that will last a lifetime. Our Marines that are reservists will have a new appreciation for what the active duty side of the Marine Corps is like. They also will have gained so much experience in a much shorter time frame than they would have if we had not been activated," added Phillips "Our young active duty Marines will come to the fleet after their tour with us, better equipped and more experienced than they would have had we not been activated or deployed."