AL ASAD, Iraq -- Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 224 wrapped up a seven month deployment this week as the unit began its trek home. The unit’s F/A-18 Hornet aircraft, along with approximately 200 Marines and sailors, arrived to support Marine and coalition forces as well as the newly formed Iraqi Security Forces Jan. 15.
The ‘Bengals’ provided close air support for the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force to include raids on anti-Iraqi Force strong holds, counter-mortar and counter-improvised explosive device operations and search and seizure operations.
Additionally, the squadron provided tactical reconnaissance imagery for Marine and coalition forces. Immediate close air support and reconnaissance of roads and highways also made up a share of the squadron’s tasking.
Flying operations throughout Iraq, the ‘Bengals’ flew from as far north as Mosul and Tal Afar, to the industrial centers of Baghdad and Ramadi, and to the western edge of the country to both the Syrian and Jordanian borders.
According to Gunnery Sgt. Fred Lanning, maintenance administration chief, and Thompson, Ohio native, one of the largest challenges was moving into work centers that had not been occupied. The Marines of VMFA(AW)-224 were required to power all work sites, install computer networks, and satellite connectivity in order to perform at the level expected.
“We improved all work centers to the standards that Marines are used to,” said Lanning. “Before we arrived our work areas were [not used]. This squadron was the first to operate from our side of this large base. We stayed focused on the mission, and I am proud that I am here serving my country.”
“It has been an exhausting 24-hour grind of combat operations in support of our Marines, soldiers and coalition forces,” said Lt. Col. Will Thomas, squadron commanding officer, and Kingston, Pa., native. “We will all reflect upon as serving our nation in time of need, and the fact that we did our part in defense of freedom.”
When the unit arrived in mid January they were immediately put into action providing air cover for voter polling stations during Iraq’s first free elections. The squadron supported several other operations during their seven month deployment.
A successful deployment is sometimes due to the personal sacrifice and commitment of the Marines and sailors who make up a unit. According to Sgt. Maj. William Burton, his squadron displayed excellence throughout the entire operation.
“The Marines and sailors feel good, especially about being the first squadron from Beaufort to deploy in support of OIF for seven months,” said the sergeant major, and native of Harlem, N.Y. “The squadron has set the standard and I’m sure the squadrons that follow will maintain a high standard of excellence that we’ve achieved.”
All units face challenges on deployment, especially during combat. High operational tempos, long work hours, living in close conditions, and the Iraqi heat is enough to wear on any Marine. According to Capt. Robert Dyer, weapons systems officer, and Seattle, Wash., native, serving in a combat environment was stressful, and the separation from family and loved ones was a first for many in his unit.
“The challenge comes at night, when you are alone and away from work,” said Dyer. “To be able to take your loneliest times away from family and friends, then decide that this is what you still want to do with your life and reenlist as so many Marines here have done. [Their decision] is something that I will stand in awe of for the rest of my life.”
Continuous combat operations was the norm for the ‘Bengals’ who are returning to Beaufort, S.C. The success of the unit is attributed to the Marines on the ground who kept the Hornets in the air.
“The Marines performed above and beyond,” said Lt. Col. Todd Taylor, executive officer, from Middlesboro, Ken. “Every mission was accomplished through their hard work and sense of pride.”
“We don’t own the jets we fly,” said Dyer, referring to the pilots. “The Marines who keep them airborne do. When we borrow the jets to fly for a short amount of time [we] get the glory the Marines well deserve. There is no other service in the world that performs like Marines. The ‘Bengals’ know that and performed much better than anyone could ever ask.”
The ‘Bengals’ boast an impressive number of combat flight hours and sorties. Since arriving they’ve flown more than 7,000 hours, with approximately 2,400 sorties in direct contact with the enemy. The accomplishments felt here would normally take two years to accomplish training in the U.S.
“As a squadron we have flown over 1,000 flight hours each month,” said Cpl. Rachel E. Dodd, ordnance technician, from Chattanooga, Tenn. “This is virtually unheard of. Our maintainers have been able to keep our jets flying non-stop for the past seven months. Each of our weapons has hit their target and worked as advertised. Within the unit, we have kept the faith in each other that the mission would be accomplished. We have done it all safely, without incident. I am very proud to be a member of the Bengals.”
The ‘Bengals’ of VMFA(AW)-224 are proud. Not only have they maintained an impressive state of readiness, they have served the Iraqi people during an historical point in their country’s history.
“We are striving to help a nation of people maintain their freedom,” said Dodd. “All humanity has an innate right to live in peace … with a government that exists for the people it governs. If it is my duty to ensure that every man and woman of Iraq has a chance to live in freedom, then I’m very happy to do it.”
“One day over Mosul we provided overwatch for a group of soldier and Iraqi commandos,” said Dyer. “These newly trained commandos helped conduct a raid under heavy enemy fire. House after house they stormed in and did what they could to make their new country safe. [From what I was told] they were all wearing masks [since] so many were targeted by terrorists. Through all that, they still risked their lives in the name of a free country for their families. It is these Iraqi citizens who will be tomorrow’s heroes.”
“I sincerely wish what is best for all of the Iraqi people,” added Thomas. “They have courageous leaders stepping forward to chart their course to a new Iraq, and I hope that they are guided by what is best for all of their people; freedom is a powerful force.”
While the ‘Moonlighters’ of VMFA(AW)-332 stand ready to assume the Hornet’s responsibilities in theater. The ‘Bengals’ of Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 224 have established a bond during this combat deployment. Each Marine and sailor takes ownership in the unit’s accomplishments. They are proud of their performance, they are most proud to have played a role in the establishment of a government for the people of Iraq.
“I hope that one day soon the country of Iraq will be able to stand on its own as a nation and celebrate and enjoy freedom,” concluded Burton. “It’s worth fighting for.”