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AL ASAD, Iraq - Sgt. Seth Thornton, a CH-53E Super Stallion crewchief assigned to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 465, talks with the helicopter aircraft commander after shutting down the aircraft after a mission May 19. Thornton, from Abilene, Texas, is on his third deployment to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Photo by Cpl. Alicia M. Garcia

What is it about Iraq? Abilene Marine keeps coming back

22 May 2005 | Sgt. Juan Vara

Sgt. Seth Thornton, a CH-53E Super Stallion crewchief assigned to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 465 and Abilene, Texas, native, never imagined he’d be serving his country in Iraq. Since January 2003, he’s deployed here on three different occasions.Recently, Thornton had the opportunity to soar the Iraqi skies with a fellow Texan who also calls Abilene home. Brig. Gen. Robert E. Milstead Jr., 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) commanding general, was aboard the helicopter Thornton was crewing during one of the missions assigned to the squadron.The son of a Marine reservist, Thornton grew up looking at his father’s uniforms and photographs and listening to him tell Marine Corps stories. All this sparked the fire that would motivate the young man to enlist in the Corps as soon as he was old enough to join the military.After graduating from Wylie High School, Thornton experienced The Golden State’s heat when he set foot on the yellow footprints at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego in July 2000.Showing he had what he takes to be one of the few and the proud, Thornton left the depot after earning the title Marine and reported to Marine Corps Base, Camp Pendleton, Calif., where he attended Marine Combat Training.After two weeks of instruction and practical application of basic infantry skills, Thornton transferred to Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Fla., to attend the Naval Aircrew Candidates School.It’s in that school where Marine Corps and Navy aircrew candidates go through some of the most demanding physical and mental challenges. The candidates learn about first aid, survival swimming and endure the helicopter dunker, which helps the students develop survival techniques.After graduating from the school he was given the option to continue training to become a CH-53E crew chief or a UH-1N Huey crew chief. After giving it some thought, Thornton made his decision.“I remembered seeing movies about the Vietnam War and seeing Hueys there and that was really cool, then I thought ‘I’ve never heard of a CH-53. Let’s try it out,’” he said.The next step in Thornton’s training took him to Marine Corps Air Station, New River, N.C., where he joined Marine Helicopter Training Squadron 302 for instruction as a basic CH-53E mechanic.Once done with mechanic school he moved on to the squadron’s crewchief school, which he attended from April to July 2001.After more than a year of training, Thornton returned to sunny California. He reported to HMH-361, based in MCAS Miramar, in August 2001.With HMH-361 Thornton took part in a Combined Arms Exercise at the Marine Corps Air/Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif.After the attacks on America on Sept. 11, 2001, the squadron sent a detachment of Marines and aircraft to reinforce the aviation combat element of one of the Marine expeditionary units based at Camp Pendleton, which was scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan.Thornton didn’t deploy but helped the unit prepare the aircraft for transport inside U.S. Air Force C-5 Galaxy cargo planes. His turn to deploy and see the world would come.In August 2002, HMH-361 sent a detachment of aircraft and Marines to reinforce the Aviation Combat Element of the Camp Pendleton-based 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable), which was preparing to deploy to the Middle East in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom I. Thornton was one of those Marines.After six months of training aboard the USS Tarawa, from where the Marines in the CH-53E detachment conducted several troops insertions and extractions and flew missions integrated with other types of aircraft, the unit embarked on their journey in support of the Global War on Terrorism.The unit operated out of Jalibah, an air base in southern Iraq, and remained in country until July 2003. “I’d never been gone that long,” said Thornton. “I learned how to deal with going without water, without showers and not getting any real chow, eating only (meals ready-to-eat).”After the war, Thornton returned to California and was temporarily attached to HMH-466. With this squadron he had an opportunity to deploy to MCAS Yuma, Ariz., and support the Weapons and Tactics Instructors Course.He didn’t go through the course, but he supported the squadron by crewing aircraft and serving as a test crewchief. Not going through the course didn’t affect him, since he had already acquired some of the qualifications offered in the course before deploying to Iraq.His temporary squadron needed volunteers to transfer to HMH-465 and deploy with the Aviation Combat Element of the 11th MEU (SOC) in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II. “I raised my hand,” said Thornton.After six months of work ups Thornton and the unit flew to this former Iraqi air base and started using aircraft that were brought here by another squadron.“It was a little bit different this time,” he said. “Flying around we got to see a lot of the forward operating bases as they were first being built.”During this deployment the unit supported several operations and Thornton was again constantly flying. In less than four years, he has flown more than 1,200 hours and has earned several qualifications and collateral duties that make him more proficient at his job.While still in Iraq, Thornton volunteered to come back with whichever squadron would be taking part in the ongoing Operation Iraqi Freedom. After getting back to California in January, he had some time off to visit friends and family in Texas and in March he was here again, reinforcing the 2nd MAW (Fwd).One of the reasons Thornton said encouraged him to come back for a third time was to pass on to the younger crewchiefs the knowledge he’s gained throughout his time in the Corps and his deployments to the region. “A lot of these crewchiefs are my friends and I wanted to be here and take care of them,” he said.Planning on leaving the Corps after he’s done with this deployment, he wants to attend the University of Texas in Austin pursuing a degree in aeronautical engineering. “I’d like to stay in the aviation field,” he said. “I kind of have a hand on it now and I like it.”Returning to the Corps as a helicopter pilot is not a decision he’s completely made, but he said it’s definitely something he’ll look into once he graduates from college.Following his father’s footsteps Thornton has lived experiences he never imagined possible. Though friends and family members suggested for him to join the Navy or the Air Force, he stuck to his guns and joined the same service his father did years ago.“I wanted to be the best of the best,” he said. “But I never thought in my entire time in the Marine Corps I would see any type of combat. I had no clue.”- For more information about the Marines reported on in this story, please contact Sgt. Juan Vara by e-mail at -
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