AL ASAD, Iraq --
The Marine Corps has changed its tactics in the years since the initial invasion of Iraq. It’s no longer about the “shock and awe” attacks designed to quickly eliminate enemy threats, it is more about rebuilding the country while weeding out insurgents. As such, the role of some units in Iraq has changed.
With their F/A-18D “Hornets,” the “Vikings” of Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 225 have become a strategic “eye in the sky” for coalition forces on the ground as opposed to their traditional role of using standoff weapons to destroy the enemy from on high.
“Mostly we’ve been doing counterinsurgency operations and overwatch with the guys on the ground,” explained Capt. A. Kristian Larsen, a pilot with VMFA(AW)-225. “Just telling them what we see, and basically helping out on the ground. We give them a God’s eye view.”
“To put it into perspective, if you are on the ground you would want us overhead being able to see everything that’s going on,” added Larsen, a Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, native. “We also have our weapons, that at anytime we are ready to put on target.”
The Marines out on the Viking flightline know that what their squadron is doing is vital to the mission. They know that their fellow Marines on the ground are depending on them to get the support they need, according to Sgt. William Chevalier, a maintenance control clerk with the Vikings.
“I guess it’s a good thing that we’re not dropping (ordnance), because that means what we’re doing out in the field is working,” said Chevalier. “Although honestly it would be nice for jets to come back empty every now and then. But so far I think morale is high. We know why we’re here, and every now and then we get reminded. It’s for the guys on the ground, making sure that they’re covered.”
Since they arrived a month ago, the Vikings have assumed the responsibility of providing fixed wing close air support. As the only Hornet squadron in the Al Anbar province, the Marines of VMFA(AW)-225 are kept pretty busy.
“We are flying a tremendous increase in hours,” explained Larsen. “Back home you typically fly 15 to 20 hours a month as a pilot. Out here it’s more like 60 or 70 hours.”
The Vikings are flying missions around the clock. The burden of keeping the jets in the air falls squarely on the shoulders of the Marines on the flightline. When a problem arises the Marines must quickly fix it, ensuring that the aircraft is safe to fly.
“We pretty much have a jet, or a section, in the air 24 hours a day, and those guys down there (on the flightline) are making it happen,” said Capt. Justin Archibald, a weapons and sensors officer for the Vikings and an Oak Harbor, Wash., native. “They’re awesome.”
For the maintenance and ordnance Marines working on the flightline, it is not so much the operational tempo that changed as it is the urgency with which their work must be done. The nature of their work changes when they are deployed, according to Chevalier.
“The tempo isn’t necessarily all that different, although the urgency is there,” explained Chevalier. “Here, we’re doing what we do to save lives, and preserve order. At home we’re training. You know that you have to get it done, but there’s not the sense of urgency that you have here. In that sense, you add a whole level of stress, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it keeps you on your toes.”
The hard work of the Vikings is paying dividends. The junior Marines, as well as the officers, know that what they do on the flightline and in the air has a profound effect on their brothers on the ground.
“With respect to our mission, I know the guys that are out there in our (Area of Repsonsibility), I think it definitely means a lot to them after talking to them on a daily basis,” said Larsen. “I know it makes them feel a lot safer, a lot more secure, knowing that we’re overhead and providing that overwatch for them."