AL ASAD, Iraq -- The deployment of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 142 earlier this month in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom marks the first time in 50 years that a Marine reserve fixed wing tactical fighter squadron has deployed to combat operations.
The Gators, based at Naval Air Station Atlanta, Marietta, Ga., were told about this deployment in early December and have been running full force since their activation.
Before deploying to the combat zones the Gators were given upgrades to their F/A-18A+ Hornets.
“Our upgrades were ready within a week and a half of receiving word of this deployment,” said Lt. Col. Dwight Schmidt, aviation maintenance officer, VMFA-142. “By January we were activated and were quickly sent to Yuma, Ariz., for a two-week air to ground exercise to become more proficient with the new gear and upgrades to our aircraft.”
Most of the pilots in VMFA-142 are very experienced and have more than 2,000 flight hours. Most active duty squadrons might have two or three pilots who are close to 2,000 flight hours in the Hornet, according Schmidt, the Atlanta, Ga., native.
“We have a very experienced squadron,” Schmidt said. “Most of us have been together for about five to seven years.”
He said, along with the pilots, the maintenance Marines are also very skilled and experienced.
“These guys are by far the best maintenance crew in the Marine Corps,” Schmidt said. “To pull off what they did, in time to deploy, they have to be.”
During work-ups the Gators were required to test new gear and acclimate their Marines with new procedures, especially when it came to the ordnance.
“Our Ordnance crew had 17,000 ordnance tests in the two months prior to deployment,” Schmidt said. “Just for the simple reason when we are back home there isn’t much ordnance that can be used. We had a fairly inexperienced ordnance section, but they quickly picked up the slack and have been phenomenal.”
The Gators used the expertise of a fleet response team, which is a team of professionals who work with a unit on the intricacies of the fighter aircraft and help educate the Marines, according to Schmidt.
“In three weeks we were able to take care of every gripe about our aircraft and fix it,” Schmidt said. “Everything from avionics, ordnance to radar was up to par. After that, the fleet response team said we had some of the best maintenance staff anywhere.”
“The amount of talent in this squadron is remarkable,” Schmidt said. “The maintainers and the service and support shops, got us here,” he added. “To pick up from nothing and in two months be in country performing combat operations 20 hours after landing, is phenomenal. These Marines worked 18 to 20 hour days to get us where we are. Now that we are here, they’re working 12-hour days.”
Working long hours and deploying to Iraq also came with many personal dilemmas for some of the Gators.
“I have four Marines whose spouses had babies within a week of our departure. Also I have a Marine who was offered good jobs to make really good money, but chose to deploy with us,” Schmidt said. “While a lot of Marines are making personal sacrifices to be here, they still wanted to come and be a part of this.”
This deployment also gives a lot of the Marines the opportunity to step up and take a leadership role within the squadron.
“This is giving all of our reserve Marines, who usually drill a couple of times a month, the opportunity to show what they know,” said Gunnery Sgt. Gregory Gossett, maintenance control, VMFA-142 and Savannah, Ga., native. “We need to make sure everything is ready on these aircraft, without having to look over their shoulder, and help accomplish our mission.”
Through the long days and nights, the Gators will lean on each other to meet their goals during this deployment.
“The camaraderie between our fellow Marines is all we have,” said Sgt. Allan Martinez, maintenance control NCO, VMFA-142 and Corvallis, Ore., native. “We need to rely on each other to accomplish our mission, keep everyone safe and return to our families.”