AL ASAD, Iraq -- The Moonlighters of Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 332 are sticking to one job during their deployment here, supporting the Marines on the ground.
The F/A-18 Hornet squadron based aboard Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C., joined the deployed 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing in July. The Moonlighters have been actively supporting II Marine Expeditionary Force in the Al Anbar province since Aug. 1.
“We have had a single focus since our first flight, support the personnel on the ground,” said Maj. William Wainwright, a weapons and sensors officer and the squadron’s operations officer. “That is all we’re thinking about, whether we are flying or not.”
The Moonlighters provide II MEF personnel with 24-hour operations including close-air support, reconnaissance and convoy escorts. The squadron has logged more than 1,500 flight hours during nearly 650 sorties, or missions, since beginning combat operations. The Moonlighters have dropped approximately 50,000 pounds of ordnance, all aimed at assisting ground forces with security and stabilization operations in the province, Wainwright, a Virginia Beach, Va., native, said.
“They are the supported and we are the supporters,” Wainwright said. “The pilots sleep, plan and fly with that in mind. Watching the backs of II MEF units is the primary, secondary and tertiary objective of every sortie we fly.”
The Marines who maintain the squadron’s Hornets feel a strong bond to the troops on the ground, despite being removed from the heat of battle, according to Lance Cpl. Joshua Pelkey, one of the Moonlighters’ powerline mechanics and a Dry Ridge, Ky., native.
“The idea that what we’re doing has a huge impact on our ground forces really keeps us motivated,” Pelkey said. “Every time pilots go out, I want to know what they’re doing and where they’re going. It’s motivating to know that, even though I’m not firing rounds, helping keep jets in the air makes the job easier for Marines on the ground.”
The Marines have maintained their high morale and positive attitudes since the beginning of the deployment, according to Wainwright.
“I’ve never seen Marines with this level of motivation,” Wainwright said. “They are pumped up to be here, it’s why they joined the Marine Corps.”
Despite working continuous 12-hour shifts, the junior and veteran Moonlighters have bonded together to excel during the deployment, according to Pelkey.
“We have a good mixture of young and experienced Marines,” Pelkey said. “I think the junior Marines have responded to the pressure out here really well because of the team atmosphere our squadron has. We’re very tight knit as a whole, it’s like a big family. Everyone looks out for one another.”
Safety has not taken a backseat to mission accomplishment for the Moonlighters. The squadron became the first Marine tactical jet squadron to achieve 100,000 mishap-free flight hours in May. Maintaining their record through a combat deployment is a goal for many of the maintenance Marines, according to Pelkey.
“That was a great accomplishment for the squadron,” Pelkey said. “That is something we really want to continue. It really shows how well everyone works together. Keeping the record going is a big goal for a lot of us on this deployment.”
The maintenance Marines have logged more than 12,000 hours of work on the squadron’s aircraft during the deployment. Their preparation, leadership and motivation has been a key part of their success so far, said Chief Warrant Office 2 Mario Valle, the squadron’s maintenance material control officer.
“This group of Marines has trained up to this deployment for the past nine months,” Valle said. “Staff noncommissioned officer leadership, training, teamwork and supervision are our greatest assets. The Marines’ performance has been extraordinary. They continue to tackle all challenges and missions with determination and poise.”
From administration to maintenance, corpsmen to pilots, the Moonlighters are dedicated to providing the best aviation support possible, said Pelkey.
“Everybody has their own part,” Pelkey said. “I’m glad to be here and I hope everything I do helps in some way.”
While each member of the squadron has their own tasks to accomplish, they are united and devoted to their mission, said Valle, a La Salle, Ill., native.
“Bottom line, the Marines in this unit want it for the Marines they are here in support of, the 2nd Marine Division,” Valle said.