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AL ASAD, Iraq - Lance Cpl. Jesse W. Kohler, a heavy equipment mechanic assigned to the utilities section of Marine Air Control Squadron 1, Air Traffic Control Detachment Alpha, torques down a headbolt on the engine of a diesel generator April 15. Kohler from Eagan, Minn., is one of the Marines in charge of maintaining the generators that power the air traffic controlling equipment here.


Utilities Marines generate continuous flight ops

18 Apr 2005 | Sgt. Juan Vara

The second largest air base in Iraq requires the expertise of many Marines to keep flight operations happening day after day.

An average of 550 helicopters, jets and planes land and take off here every day and Marine Air Control Squadron 1, Air Traffic Control Detachment Alpha has its hands full directing them.

Using multimillion-dollar equipment, the controllers, navigation and radar technicians can pinpoint the location of an aircraft and direct it toward a runway where it can land or take off without interfering with other aircraft. Radars, radios, data recorders, signal transmitters and countless other devices are relied on to make this happen in a safe, organized manner.

But all of the equipment wouldn’t be of any good without electricity.  Behind the scenes, away from the air traffic control tower, are the Marines of the detachment’s utilities section.

The utilities Marines maintain the 30-year-old generators that provide power to all of the detachment’s high-dollar gear. They also conduct the necessary maintenance on the air conditioners that keep the equipment cool.

The air traffic control site, which is split in half, has one generator-pit for each half.  Each pit has four generators. Two run continuously while the others get a break and receive maintenance if required. There are also other generators near the air traffic control tower to power the equipment there.

“The Marines are good at keeping the generators up,” said Sgt. Sao Saechao, an electrical equipment repairman serving as the detachment’s utilities chief. “The most important thing is doing their checks. If they just sit around, the equipment would break and we would never know.”

A San Jose, Calif., native, on his third tour in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Saechao said he’s lucky to have a good group of Marines working for him.

Saechao’s position is generally assigned to a Marine of higher rank, but his vast knowledge on generators and electrical equipment, added to his experience in the region, make him the perfect Marine for the job. He credits those under him as the ones making things happen.

“The Marines work during the sandstorms, they work when the sun is blazing and they don’t complain,” said Saechao. “They know the job needs to get done and once the job is done they get to relax a little.”

The air conditioners on the site also play a big role in keeping flight operations here running smooth. Without the air conditioners, the gear used to track down the aircraft and talk to the pilots would overheat and break, causing delays in flight operations, decreasing the combat effectiveness of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward).

Sgt. Robert J. Guillot, an air conditioner mechanic from Simmesport, La., is one of the two Marines responsible for helping the detachment keep its cool. He’s no stranger to the Iraqi heat, last year he served as the utilities chief of a different air traffic control detachment at Al Qaim, another base in the Al Anbar Province.

“Keeping the air conditioners working requires very low maintenance, especially now because it’s not too hot,” said Guillot. “We mostly do our checks and help these guys out with the generators.”

The air conditioners are checked three times a day. They’re designed to work at an ambient temperature below that of the Iraqi desert, but the utilities Marines keep them running thanks to knowledge and experience gained from previous tours in Iraq.

“I remind the Marines not to be complacent. They shouldn’t just get into a routine of doing their checks and the maintenance,” said Saechao. “Without the gear we’re powering and keeping cool, the controllers can’t talk to the aircraft that are evacuating the wounded or providing the air support for the ‘grunts’ when they need it.”

One of the Marines in the section is Lance Cpl. Jesse W. Kohler, a heavy equipment mechanic from Eagan, Minn., who takes personal pride in ensuring the equipment has continuous power.

“If I’m doing my job right (Marines) don’t even notice that I am doing my job,” he said. “All they know is that they continue to have power and there are no interruptions.”

The supervisors of the other sections in the detachment have a healthy respect for what the utilities section does and they constantly tell him and his Marines about it, according to Saechao.

“Even though we’re a small part of the picture we’re as equally important when it comes to getting the mission done,” added Guillot.

- For more information about the Marines reported on in this story, please contact Sgt. Juan Vara by e-mail at -