AL ASAD, Iraq -- Sergeant Craig Meltzer did not want to leave his wife and 2-month-old daughter at home while he deployed to Iraq's Al Anbar province for six months. But, as much as he hated to leave his wife and daughter, the idea of watching his Marine family deploy without him was unthinkable.
Meltzer, a 26-year-old Virginia Beach, Va., native, deployed with the Bulldogs of Marine Attack Squadron 223 from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., in August. As the senior noncommissioned officer in the AV-8B Harrier squadron's flight equipment section, the Salem High School graduate oversees inspection of the aviation life support system worn by pilots.
"When I'm inspecting a pilot's gear, I am their last line of defense," Meltzer said. "The system is something their life depends on. It's my job to make sure they're good to go."
Meltzer spends most of his working day concerning himself with the welfare and safety of the squadron's pilots, but thoughts of his wife and daughter in New Bern, N.C., are never far from his focus.
"Everything we've done during this deployment is nothing I'm not used to," Meltzer said. "What makes it hard is knowing I'm away from my baby."
Meltzer deployed twice with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, making stops in Kosovo and Turkey the first time out, Iraq and Liberia the second time around. Prior to this deployment, he had an opportunity to trade spots with a Marine from another unit. By then, his wife had become an experienced veteran of the separated lifestyle. But, with an infant daughter to look after, Meltzer hesitated to join the Bulldogs in Iraq.
"There was a corporal who volunteered to take my spot, and I would've joined his unit," Meltzer said. "It was tempting because I really did not want to leave my wife and daughter, but I didn't feel comfortable letting my Marines deploy to Iraq without me. None of them had my experience, they had only been on small detachment training deployments. I just felt like I needed to be with them."
Meltzer decided deploying with the squadron was the lesser of two evils. Meltzer has been a large part of the section's success during the deployment, said Gunnery Sgt. Daryle W. Everett, VMA-223's flight equipment staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge.
"He's been a life saver for me and a huge boost to the squadron as a whole," Everett said. "I haven't had any experience with Harrier flight equipment, I've only worked C-130s and F/A-18s. I haven't deployed in 10 years on top of that, so his knowledge, attitude and experience have really carried the weight for me."
Meltzer's sacrifices paid off recently when the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing's Aviation Logistics Department gave the squadron's flight equipment section high marks during an inspection.
"They said we scored as high as any section in the Wing," Everett said. "To me, 85 percent of that success belongs to Sgt. Meltzer. His drive really pushes us to be on top of our game."
Meltzer said it feels good to see his actions make a positive impact on the squadron, but can't help but think about how much he could be helping his wife at home.
"She was used to us being separated because of my previous deployments, but this is our first child," Meltzer said. "She's still working full time and learning how to be a mom. I hate that she's going through all this stuff by herself."
Meltzer has even become a father figure to most of the junior Marines in the squadron. He consistently puts the morale and welfare of younger Marines before himself, Everett said.
"He takes being the senior sergeant in the squadron seriously," Everett said. "Whether he is handing out mail or delivering chow, he always makes sure everyone else is taken care of. There's times when he'll bring chow to pilots who are in our shop just to make sure they've had something to eat."
Meltzer's efforts around the squadron have made him a role model for young and old Marines, Everett said.
"His technical skills are outstanding, but what really impresses me the most is the care and concern he shows for the Marines," Everett said. "Tons of Marines look out for one another, but he just takes it to a level that makes him a little bit more special than your ordinary Marine."
Meltzer has taken several personal blows during the deployment. His grandfather passed away and his grandmother was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. Despite all his personal pains and sacrifice, the sergeant the rest of the squadron sees never misses a beat, Everett said.
"I know he's had bad days, but only because I hear the phone calls or he tells me what's going on," Everett said. "But, if it wasn't for that, I would never see a crack in his smile and determination. He doesn't let anything get in the way of making this a positive experience for the people around him."
Counting down the days until he can be reunited with his wife and daughter will not distract Meltzer from his goals for the deployment, he said.
"Troop welfare is very important to me," Meltzer said. "Beyond that, I want to go home safe with everyone who came out here."
He may have sacrificed time with his family for this deployment, but in the near future he'd like to spend as time at home as he can, Meltzer said.
"I'll try to get to a nondeployable unit after this," Meltzer said. "Spending time with my family is definitely going to be my top priority."
The support Meltzer's wife has given him, at home and abroad, is the real secret behind his success, he said. The squadron may give him praise and recognition for his work and sacrifice, but the real love of his life is waiting for him in North Carolina, Meltzer said.
"I couldn't ask for a better wife," Meltzer said. "By taking care of my daughter, she is letting me take care of my Marine family. I'll never be able to repay her for that."