AL ASAD, Iraq -- Marines from three Marine Air Control Squadrons recently expanded the scope of sight in Iraq’s skies.
The Al Asad Air Traffic Control detachment, primarily based out of Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., is a mix of Marines from Marine Air Control Squadron 1, based at MCAS Yuma, MACS-2, based at MCAS Cherry Point, N.C., and MACS-24, a reserve squadron based at Ft. Worth, Texas. In addition to their regular mission of supporting Al Asad, the detachment began providing information to the U.S. Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Qatar.
“As an ATC detachment, our focus is the control of aircraft in and around Al Asad,” said Capt. Jeffery L. Meeker, the detachment commander. “Additionally, as a component of the Marine Air Command and Control System, ATC detachments have the capability to push our radar picture out to other command and control agencies in theater.”
Adding Al Asad’s radar coverage increases the overall picture commanders use in theatre, Meeker, an Oceanside, Calif., native, said.
“Our picture, in addition to the picture coming out of Al Taqaddum’s ATC detachment, will be the CAOC’s only eyes in the Marine Expeditionary Force area of operations,” Meeker said. “Combined with United States Air Force radar feeds, the CAOC will have visibility over the majority of theater air assets.”
The extra mission did not translate into additional Marines, but the group of dedicated technicians and operators has responded to the challenge, said Sgt. Eric Orth, an air control electronics operator who joined the detachment from the MACS-1 Tactical Air Operations Center.
“Some of us are doing two jobs at once so we can see what is out there,” said Orth, an Albuquerque, N.M., native. “Everyone is taking it as just another mission. We are here to accomplish whatever mission we’re given.”
Bringing two missions, air traffic controlling and command and control support, under the same roof is not often attempted in an expeditionary environment, Meeker said.
“This is one of the few times where an ATC detachment has actually provided a C2 (command and control) early warning capability in addition to the primary ATC function in a real world operation,” Meeker said. “We train for it, but real world application is scarce.”
The detachment also includes tactical air defense controllers, a different path in the military occupational specialty field from ATC controllers. Bringing together Marines from different jobs, units and backgrounds is one of the unique aspects of the detachment, said Staff Sgt. Keith Wilkinson, an ATC communications technician and Dansville, N.Y., native.
“It has been good to see how everyone comes together to get the job done,” said Wilkinson, a MACS-1 Marine. “We have really integrated into a team nicely and that helps when we’re doing our job.”
The challenge of juggling a new mission with their regular workload was greeted with enthusiasm by many of the Marines, Wilkinson said.
“Marines love challenges and this has been a good one,” Wilkinson said. “For me it has been exciting because I’m working on new gear and learning and doing new things.”
In a field environment, room for error is slim to none, according to Sgt. James Wuestman, a tactical air defense controller and Trenton, N.C., native. However, the MACS-2 Marine said the detachment is turning the pressure into a positive.
“All these things I’m doing out here are totally different from regular jobs I’ve had (in Cherry Point),” Wuestman said. “Not only completing two missions, but serving as the operations chief for the squadron has made this a real gratifying experience. I like being able to learn and work at the same time.”
That attitude and work ethic is what makes Marines extremely capable in a combat environment, said Gunnery Sgt. Jonathan Goforth, an ATC radar technician and Midwest City, Okla., native.
“A basic Marine Corps guideline is to adapt and overcome,” Goforth, a MACS-24 augment, said. “We are just doing the best job we can, no matter what we get tasked with.”
Part of Goforth’s mission is keeping the detachment’s radar equipment in working condition. That is easier said than done when all the equipment is surrounded by sand and scorching temperatures, Goforth said.
“Cleanliness is godliness out here,” Goforth said. “This equipment has to be kept clean. Dirt can add to the temperature because layers of dust keep the heat trapped in. It’s a constant fight but so far we are winning.”
Working from a small part of the Iraq desert, the Al Asad ATC detachment Marines know while they might not get a lot of glory, they are still contributing to the big picture, said Lance Cpl. Richard Larger, an air control electronics operator and Reno, Nev., native.
“We’re here to improve theater awareness,” Larger, a MACS-1 TAOC Marine, said. “If nobody really notices us, it’s not a big deal. We know we’re helping the people who need to see what’s in the sky.”