Photo Information

Sgt. Jacob M. Zamora, 23, Corpus Christi, Texas, air traffic controller, communicates with a CH-53 Sea Knight helicopter pilot before lifting off. This Marine is assigned to Marine Air Control Squadron 1, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, Al Qaim, Iraq.

Photo by ARLEDGE

Controlling the air from Al Qaim

29 Mar 2005 | Gunnery Sgt. Shannon Arledge

The Marine Corps prides itself as being one of the only armed services offering air and ground support from land and sea.  Just like Marines on the ground, the Marines in the air require support from other units unique in aviation support.  Air traffic controllers and communications technicians provide pilots an edge by acting as their eyes on the ground in all types of environments.

Located 11 miles to the east of Syria is a small unit of Marines supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Global War on Terrorism.   The Marines at this forward operating base provide air support to Marines operating in this region.

A variety of job specialties have a place in Al Qaim, but one area of expertise lies in the hands of skilled Marines...Marines skilled in the art of controlling aircraft.  These eight Marines have guided a growing number of flights to either takeoff or approach at this desert-landing site.

A small strip of asphalt has been transformed from road to landing field.  Although vehicle travel in the form of tanks, amphibious assault vehicles, supply convoys and other traffic continues to charge through here, this piece of pavement gives priority to helicopters of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.

With their headquarters, Marine Air Control Squadron 2 (Forward), located in Al Asad, Iraq, these Marines, Marine Air Control Squadron 1, have deployed to this western air field to provide a key ingredient to air support.

"These [helicopters] support the ground Marines.  Without us those Marines wouldn't get the important transportation or the necessary fire power our warfighters need," said 1st Lt. Kevin P. Brackeen, 28, a native of Albuquerque, N.M., and officer-in-charge of the mobile team deployed to Al Qaim.  "Our team is an absolute necessity here."

Four other Marines play a central role in the success of the air traffic controllers.  Similar to a nucleus, these Marines serve as the nerve center of air traffic support.

"I make sure we have the power to do our job," said Lance Cpl. Grant W. McCurdy, 23, from Baton Rouge, La.  "The generators we have are vital, and if they don't run the air traffic controllers can't communicate," added the 2000 graduate of Christian Life Academy High School.

These Marines are at the midway point of their deployment, having arrived here in January.  Each of them looks forward to going home, but know they must stay the course to support security and stability operations here.  They've seen first hand that times are improving for Iraq, and have a sense of pride and self-worth in seeing the success in this country.

"When Iraq held its first elections they flew volunteer poll workers here to support the elections in nearby cities," said Brackeen.  "We see a lot of negatives about what's happening here from the media.  But, when the elections were over, and while the Iraqi volunteers were waiting for air transport, they started singing and dancing ... celebrating.  I wish the media would have seen that," added the 1999 Colorado State graduate, who is expecting his first child in September.

Departing and arriving aircraft to this forward operating base sometimes depend on special instruments to reach their destination.  This team is outfitted with navigational equipment that emits signals telling pilots coordinates and direction, distance and even the locations name.

"My gear allows the pilot to return back to Al Qaim," said Sgt. Mauricio Cano, 23-years-old, and navigation electronics technician.  "My equipment helps the pilots leave and return safe.  Whether they are providing air support or retrieving casualties, my gear allows them to get back or navigate here," added Cano, a native of Naples, Fla.

The Marines controlling air traffic at Al Qaim admit they don't have heavy volumes of aircraft landing or taking off, but that doesn't diminish the responsibility they have.

"Communication with the aircraft and to the Marines on the airfield is critical to their safety," said Cpl. Shawn M. Snyder, 21, and native of Green Bay, Wisc.  Snyder's job is to maintain the communications equipment used by controllers, pilots and ground crews.  "I love knowing that I'm supporting the infantry Marines and pilots.   Communications can't be down.  If it's broke, I fix it.  If I don't fix it, the aircraft doesn't fly or land."

"Traffic is light here," said Cpl. Darwin R. Colon, 22, from Brentwood, N.Y.  "All air traffic through here must receive clearance from us.  We control five miles of airspace, up to 3,000 feet.  I have a clear picture of what is expected of me, and I'm here to control aircraft, and provide safety to the pilots and Marines on the airfield," added the air traffic controller.

The Marines of Marine Air Control Squadron 1, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Al Qaim understand how they affect the daily mission in this part of Iraq.  These Marines play a vital role in the security and stability of this country.  Faced with the growing democracy that all Iraqis are starting to enjoy, these eight Marines know that if their aircraft are not in the fight, terrorists and insurgents wait in shadows to rip freedom away.