AL QAIM, Iraq -- “Gunshot 66 we will never forget,” is the meaning behind the GT66 WWNF patch the Gunfighters of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369 are wearing in Al Qaim, Iraq.
Gunshot 66 was the call sign Capt. Mike Martino and Maj. Jerry Bloomfield, both AH-1 Cobra pilots with the Gunfighters, had when their Cobra crashed, Nov. 2, in support of operations near Al Taqqadum, Iraq.
When the Gunfighters at Al Qaim learned two of their brothers had been killed, some of the pilots spontaneously took their name patches off and inscribed GT66 WWNF on them.
“Words can’t even explain what this patch means to me,” said Sgt. Brainard D. Shirley, the Gunfighters’ airframes collateral duty quality assurance representative and a Kirtland, N.M, native. “It represents all of us, doing our part in this war. The causes we believe in, the freedom we’re trying to help these people achieve. Every day, the patch makes me want to push even harder to do the best I can to keep these aircraft flying.”
The detachment of Gunfighters has been in Al Qaim for more than two months. They are providing direct support for ongoing operations in the Al Anbar province, seeing combat on a daily basis.
“I wear this patch out of respect to the two pilots and their families, and for all the Marines and Soldiers who have gone before them” said Lance Cpl. Cole Wilcox, an airframes mechanic with the Gunfighters and LeRoy, Minn., native. “I remember when I found out they had gone down, I felt we had lost a really big part of our squadron.”
When Wilcox and Shirley learned about the patches, they immediately asked if they could have one.
“I told the pilots Martino was our former (officer-in-charge),” said Shirley. “One of the pilots immediately took off his patch and gave it to me. I will always remember the time we spent working together and all the things he did for me and the Marines. I’ll always remember what I was doing and how I felt when I found out. He was a cool guy.”
Shirley said Martino would joke around with his Marines. But, he said when it came to business he was completely focused.
“We respected him a lot more, because he treated us with respect,” said Shirley. “We would do anything for him. I remember seeing him every day and asking how his bird was doing. Whatever maintenance he needed done on the bird, we would do back flips to make sure it got done. He always took care of us, and we in turn took care of him.”
Whenever he looks at Cobras, Shirley said he is reminded of his fallen brothers.
“I was friends with both pilots, we had been in the squadron together for a little while,” said Maj. John Barranco, the officer-in-charge of the Gunfighters’ detachment at Al Qaim and a Boston native. “Our squadron is very tight knit, and they fit in and were loved. Everyone here took it hard, but we know this is something that happens in war.”
Barranco said he and the other pilots wear the patch constantly to keep their fallen comrades in their minds and hearts.
“It’s a small way to show our appreciation and sorrow,” said Barranco. “It’s something that helps us show everyone externally how hard we have taken the loss, and how unified we are in our admiration for them. Internally, it helps us reflect on who the pilots were.”
Barranco served with Bloomfield for several years as part of Marine Aircraft Group 29. He said they had a strong friendship and Bloomfield was smart, funny and a great father to his young son.
“Even though Bloomfield was a little older, he still tried to be one of the guys,” said Shirley. “Bloomfield and I came out here advanced party. He would joke around with us, even using some of today’s slang in his speech. But when it came to work, like Martino, he was completely focused.”
Sergeant Maj. Troy Couron, the Gunfighters’ sergeant major and a Nebraska native, said when he first joined the squadron in March, Bloomfield was probably one of the only officers who ever took time to just stop by and see how he was doing.
“He always had something to say, and always wanted the sergeant major's perspective on things,” said Couron. “He was a great man, and I miss him along with all the other Gunfighters. As I walk the flightline even today, I can feel his presence asking me, ‘Sergeant Major, how are the Marines doing today?’”
Barranco stressed that although the patch may be small, it serves as a reminder of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the fight against terrorism.
“I speak for everyone in the squadron, when I say this will be something we think about for the rest of the deployment and the rest of our lives,” said Barranco.