KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan --
A CH-53E Sea Stallion flies low over the vastness that is Afghanistan’s red desert. The tail-gunner squats over a machine gun, scanning the horizon as the helicopter pitches and sways. Below, trails of varying size appear with no discernible origin and a lone camel casts a shadow on a sand dune.
Abruptly red becomes green as the aircraft approaches vegetation surrounding the Helmand River. Square mud and straw compounds with high walls pepper the ground below and just as suddenly as it becomes green the landscape melts back into rolling red sand. The trip from Kandahar Airfield to Forward Operating Base Dwyer is almost over. The small fort sits in the desert like a lonely tile overlooking the “green zone” a few kilometers away.
For more than 100 days the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Aviation Combat Element has supported Marines on the ground conducting operations across Afghanistan – their focal point being the Garmsir District of Helmand Province.
At more than 3,000 combat sorties and counting, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (Reinforced) Marines have filled their days and nights flying, fueling, fixing aircraft and firing munitions.
“If you look at a typical MEU ACE and what a typical MEU ACE supports, we’re not asked to do anything unreasonable out here,” said Capt. Brandon L. Whitfield, officer in charge, Tactics and Plans, HMM-365 (REIN), 24th MEU, ISAF. “It’s the same missions as always but a typical MEU ACE supports a company …max, at a time, for two weeks to a month. Where here, we support a battalion and sometimes a combat logistics battalion and we’re doing it for eight months. It’s a huge difference.”
Comprised of AV-8B Harriers, KC-130J Hercules, CH-46E Sea Knights, CH-53E Sea Stallions, AH-1W Super Cobras and UH-1N Hueys; ACE Marines perform a multitude of tasks to include battlefield illumination, re-supply, insertion, extraction, casualty evacuation, close air support; and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
Gearing Up for the First Op – triple-fronting the ACE
With combat operations launching more than 100 miles from Kandahar Airfield, the squadron staged its assets across two provinces. Support and attack helicopters are set to launch from Forward Operation Base Bastion, located north of the operating area. More support and attack helicopters are joined by controllers, rearming and refueling Marines just west of the operating area at FOB Dwyer while the squadron headquarters, with support and attack aircraft, operates from Kandahar.
In total, preparations for the operation included 498 hours of training and reconnaissance flights; 198 hours of assault support; 279 hours of escort and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR); and the transportation of 1.4 million pounds of cargo and 2,152 personnel.
Traversing the Desert
All this planning and training was first tested the night of April 15. An indirect fire attack on Kandahar Airfield interrupted the final confirmation brief for the first ground convoy departing Kandahar for FOB Bastion. It hit nothing, but foreshadowed an attack later in the evening that was not as harmless.
This first convoy was comprised mostly of Combat Logistics Battalion 24 Marines who had to spread their resources across the two provinces as well, but theirs had to be moved by ground since most of their assets were trucks and other vehicles which were to be used as part of the logistics train.
For this initial convoy the ACE provided air support in the form of fixed and rotary wing aircraft as the convoy began its journey just after 10:00 pm.
The ground movers made steady progress navigating chosen routes and called in as they passed established checkpoints. Sixteen minutes after they passed one such check point, a Cobra pilot escorting the convoy radioed that a vehicle in the convoy had struck an Improvised Explosive Device.
“We saw it, felt it, and smelled it,” said Lieutenant Col. Duane Opperman, the squadron’s executive officer and a UH-1N Huey pilot flying escort for the convoy. “We came around to look for small arms fire because usually an IED goes off and then there is somebody shooting.”
The pilots determined it was a Marine vehicle after the escorting harrier pilots could analyze data and say that it did look like ‘one of ours’ said Opperman.
“It was hard to tell because we were low. I couldn’t tell it was a HMMWV, I thought it was a roadside car, a VBIED (vehicle-borne IED),” he said.
The pilots started counting vehicles and it started to feel like it wasn’t a VBIED said the Huey pilot. “There was one vehicle that wasn’t checking in,” he added.
The pilots were still counting when the medical evacuation was requested and at this point Opperman was running out of fuel. “I did not want to land down there because the zone was not secure. I was still looking for an ambush on the first responders,” Opperman said.
It was also known that there were two wounded Marines, Opperman landed.
“We had nothing, just an open space on the cabin floor,” he said. “The ground guys had the wounded on their stretchers and they laid them in the bird.”
Crewmembers Staff Sgt. Addison Hall and Sgt. George Joyer started bandaging and stabilizing the two wounded Marines from the convoy. Both completed the combat lifesavers course and were prepared to provide aide, aide that preserved the lives of the two evacuated Marines said Navy LT Wayne Smith, MEU Surgeon, 24th MEU, ISAF.
“They ran out of the bird, past the tail rotor, went back there and grabbed stretchers. I looked back there at one point and there were medical bags ripped open, they were doing all kinds of stuff on those guys,” said Opperman.
Two weeks later Operation AZADA WOSA commenced with HMM-365 (REIN) conducting a battalion minus insert during low light level conditions into Garmsir District. This was the first night insert of this magnitude by the Marine Corps since Vietnam.
Waves of Marines required insertion into predetermined landing zones by support helicopters. C-130’s provided aerial refueling and battlefield illumination for the Marines on the ground while AV-8B Harriers and attack helicopters provided close air support. At one point during the night at least one of every type of airframe in the squadron would fly in support of the battalion insertion.
That evening, helicopters lined the runway at FOB Bastion as infantry Marines loaded the aircraft under a moonless sky.
“We watched the clock and waited for the time to lift,” said Capt. Clay Dye, CH-53E pilot, HMM-365 (REIN), 24th MEU, ISAF, who flew the lead aircraft in the second wave and totaled four trips to the insert area throughout the night. “We staggered it by time so the first element took off and then about five minutes later I took off.”
The helicopters, loaded with combat ready Marines, departed and crossed over the Helmand River to the east following it south.
“We were high altitude on our route down which made it difficult with no illumination, no horizon with all four aircraft - trying to keep them together,” Dye said.
The trip was silent, except for the hum of the rotors, until the first element passed their last checkpoint before the insert – then the radios came alive.
“We could hear the escorts in the objective area talking. We had the benefit of hearing how the insert went with the first element,” said Dye.
“As we got closer to the objective area, our route actually turned back to the north almost making a ‘J’ so we could look over to the right and see the other aircraft at that point,” he said. “We were probably only about 7-8 kilometers away as they made their turn back to the north which was reassuring, watching that happen and knowing where they were,” he added.
The second wave timed their final approach into the landing zone as the first element was leaving the zone, a difficult proposition.
“We didn’t allow enough time in between waves for the dust to clear so when we came in it was very difficult to pick out the zone,” Dye said. “We were able to pick it out at the last minute. Fortunately it was clear.”
As the night wore on – the dust hid more than just the landing zones.
“We really hadn’t watched where they were going so our landing points in that area were now filled with Marines setting up and moving into their positions,” said Dye. “Coming through that dust cloud, thinking we had a safe place to land, and there’s a squad of Marines on the ground. It made it difficult.”
Irrigation ditches also made things challenging with the dust hiding their locations until it was almost too late to alter course.
“Looking for a smooth level place to land, you can’t see the ground until the last second, and then there’s a ditch there,” Dye said. “It was a lot of work for the crew chiefs in the back because they weren’t able to pick up the ground until the last 10 feet and it was barely enough time for them to see something, to tell us and then for us to make a correction – particularly with the weight we were carrying. Certainly we are used to the luxury of excess power, but there and at that point, we were coming down whether we liked it or not.”
Supporting the Allies:
As if supporting the two battalions wasn’t enough – the MEU’s ACE also supports other American and International Security Assistance Force units.
“Flying is flying, we’re more concerned with who we are supporting,” said Capt James Tanis, pilot, AV-8B Harrier detachment, HMM-365 (REIN), 24th MEU, ISAF. On May 2, days after Operation Azada Wosa launched, Marine harriers flying over Garmsir were tasked to support British forces who were receiving rocket-propelled grenade and heavy machine gun fire in the Kajaki Dam region.
“We were in the middle of supporting the MEU when we were called away,” said Tanis. “Within 15 minutes of being re-tasked, we were flying overhead the Brits. Then we returned to Garmsir. That was interesting, flying another mission in the middle of the mission.”
According to Tanis, the most intense day was June 15, when they supported five sets of Troops in Contact.
“For one of them, not only could we hear the machine guns at the Forward Air Controller’s position returning fire; we could hear them taking fire, I heard the rounds impacting near the FAC as he talked us in,” Tanis said.
“We hear some interesting accents on the ground when we fly in support of ISAF,” said Tanis who also added that they could tell the more experienced ones.
All forces in Afghanistan use some version of a nine-line, a standardized way of requesting support. Even during the most intense fighting on the ground, pilots in support are required to read back certain vital pieces of information such as the location of the target and the distance from the target to friendly forces.
“Sometimes we get the information we need and we get great feedback on our effects like ‘Bloody hell mate; Direct hit!’ Sometimes, with less experienced ones, we support them as quickly as possible while trying to calm them down and draw the information we need from them,” Tanis said.
“Working with our own guys is nice because we know them, they know us and our procedures.” said Tanis. “When you’re working with, for example, a Dutch joint tactical air controller or a Brit, some of them are extremely professional, they will talk you in like they should, big to small, to confirm what target they need you to hit. Others, you just need to take that extra minute or two to confirm how close friendly forces are and where they are in relation to the fire they are taking.”
The FAC will say what they need and based on what the supporting aircraft has, the pilot can make recommendations as far as what effects the troops on the ground want on the target.
“That is the most rewarding thing, knowing that you are going to support guys who are taking fire and you are hopefully going to take out the enemy,” said Tanis. “Mostly the requests we get is an over-watch scenario. The troops on the ground are moving from A to B or they are doing a patrol. We will look for suspicious activity, IEDs, etc.”
For the last five weeks the harriers have flown in support of ISAF every morning while being on alert to support the MEU.
Tanis sums up the ISAF experience by saying, “It’s pretty wild that you can talk to a Dutch, an Italian, an Army guy, a Brit - all these guys in one flight. And then we have Australians controlling us as we return to the airfield.”
The Harriers are not the only MEU airframe supporting the allies. In late May a section of skids – an AH-1W cobra and a UH-1N Huey – were escorting a Charlie Company convoy in Garmsir.
“We were doing route clearance for them and then we hear something over the radio which just sounds like garbled static in the background and I can’t hear it,” said Maj. Samuel L. Meyer, cobra pilot, HMM – 365 (REIN), 24th MEU, ISAF. “But the XO hears it is coming out of FOB Delhi and they are in trouble.”
Opperman said the voice on the radio was asking for any FAC. “I thought he wanted a radio check so we didn’t answer him but about the third time it sounded like he was running and he was out of breath. He was Scottish so he was hard to understand. I came over the radio and identified that I was a Huey and that the FAC was otherwise engaged at the moment.”
The Scot said he was taking fire and that they were in a troops-in-contact situation. Since Opperman had the better communication with the soldier he took the lead toward the man’s position. The pilots saw two vehicles and one of them looked about ready to go up in flames, gas was burning in front of the vehicle. The soldiers on the ground were in a trench line and were running away from the fire.
“He was just saying, ‘We’re taking fire! We’re taking fire!’” said Opperman.
We asked him from which direction he was taking fire, said Opperman. “Whatever direction he was saying …I couldn’t understand what he was saying. So I said, ‘I can see the direction you are travelling, are you taking fire from your left side or from your right side?’ He kept coming back with something … I couldn’t understand him.”
"He was definitely Scottish,” said Meyer. “It sounded like he was saying he was taking fire from the east, or from the west.”
At this point Meyer was low on fuel and Capt. Dan Gomes, cobra pilot, HMM – 365 (REIN), 24th MEU, ISAF, was prepared to come out. Meyer returned to FOB Dwyer and Gomes’ cobra joined the scene.
“The guy was still running and we couldn’t quite figure out what he was talking about, southeast or southwest, he had a thick Scottish brogue. There was a lot of ‘If I put you here will it make you happy?’ So we would say, ‘Yes, we’re very happy,’” said Opperman.
Then Gomes saw where the enemy was firing from. “Thank God because I was looking in the entirely wrong direction,” said Opperman. “I was looking southwest and the bad guy house was southeast.”
Gomes fired a Hellfire missile into the building. Meanwhile, Meyer checked back on station from refueling and the Scot came back up on the radio and marked his position. Their conversation went as follows:
“Do you have my position?”
“Contact your pos.”
“I am popping red smoke. Do you see the smoke? The color is red.”
“Roger, tally smoke.”
“Everything south of the smoke is bad. Everything’s bad!”
Then the Scot said, “Cleared hot.”
“That was the only time we (the skids) were challenged for language,” said Opperman. “We flew in support of the battalion. It was only because that guy came up over the radio, was under contact, was in duress and was asking for help from anybody … we just happened to be there.”
Despite language barriers, environmental challenges and non-stop required maintenance the ACE keeps flying, always ready for the next squawk of the radio.