Monday, December 1, 2008

MWSS-172 armorer keeps mission rolling

AL ASAD, Iraq – Tucked away in a corner of the Marine Wing Support Squadron 172 armory, Cpl. Christopher Loftin peered intently at the springs and pins of a trigger mechanism in an M-2 .50 caliber machine gun.

A bead of sweat ran down the Valley Mills, Texas-native’s forehead as me made subtle tweaks and nudges to the weapon – ensuring it would fire correctly.
Loftin undertook similar tasks every day while deployed as an armorer with MWSS-172, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward). Yet the repetitive nature of the job never dulled Loftin’s concentration. He knew that even in an increasingly peaceful Iraq the weapons he maintained and repaired could still be the only thing between a fellow Marine and an enemy.
“My job kept my unit mission capable in theater,” said Loftin, who recently completed his first combat tour. “Armorers maintain the lifeline of the Corps, their weapons.”

In addition to maintaining, repairing and accounting for the unit’s more than 300 weapons, Loftin dedicated significant time to weapons training.

Some of the Marines and sailors had the opportunity to refine their weapons skills at live-fire shoots at the ranges here, according to Loftin. These refresher courses on weapons employment were critical to mission readiness.

Loftin’s supervisor, Staff Sgt. James Gross, described the 20-year-old as continually focused on his duties and an asset to the unit.

Prior to joining the Corps, Loftin went to college for a year and also worked for his uncle’s construction company. He came to the realization that “something was missing” in his life. Influenced by a friend who had recently joined the Corps, Loftin decided to enlist.

“I joined the Corps for the pride of serving my country,” said Loftin. “In my experiences, I not only have found that pride but have become mentally and physically stronger.”

Buffalo native serves as Huey crew chief in Iraq

AT TAQUADDUM, Iraq – One Buffalo native may be the only female crew chief with the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 367 here, but that’s not why she stands out among her peers.

With a commitment to excellence and a strong sense of duty, Cpl. Lisa M. Bodenburg, a UH-1N Huey crew chief, has continually distinguished herself in her two years in the Marine Corps.

“Corporal Bodenburg stands out not because she is a female, but because she is very knowledgeable about the job and her performance speaks for itself,” said Sgt. Daniel Basan, a fellow crew chief with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) squadron. “Any command she goes to in the future will be lucky to have an asset like her.”

After graduating with honors from Kenmore East High School in 2005, Bodenburg excelled at boot camp, graduating as her platoon’s honor graduate and earning a meritorious promotion to private first class.

As she advanced in her Marine Corps career, Bodenburg graduated in at least the top four of all her job training courses. She recently earned her combat aircrew wings, allowing her to serve as the mission crew chief without having a training crew chief on board.

Bodenburg also has a flawless physical fitness resume, scoring perfect on nine straight Marine Corps physical fitness tests. She credits that impressive streak to four years of running high school track and cross country.

Graduating high school at 17 years old, she had some time on her hands before she could enlist. Rather than waiting around, she took some college courses and worked at the police department. As soon as she turned 18, she went to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C.

Before stepping into the Marine recruiter’s office for the first time, Bodenburg wanted to become a force reconnaissance Marine. Discovering that females can’t fill ground combat jobs, she chose one that allowed her to get close to the action but with a birds eye view – a Huey crew chief.

“Crew chief isn’t a job females can easily obtain and at one point in time, couldn’t obtain at all,” said Bodenburg. “Being a crew-chief is how I’m able to get into the fight and help the ground units.”

Her inspiration to join the Marine Corps came from her brother, a policeman with the Baltimore Police Department, and from history classes that highlighted for her how lucky she is to be an American.

“I remember reading the history books and I came to the realization that being an American is a privilege that we have,” said the 20-year-old. “I chose to serve my country out of respect for those who did before me.”

When she originally told her family about her decision to serve in the Marine Corps, her mother didn’t share her enthusiasm. Over time, she accepted and supported her decision to pursue a career in the military.

“I didn’t want her to join the military at all when she got out of high school,” said Cheryl Bodenburg. “However, I support her in every decision that she’s made and I couldn’t be more proud of her for what she’s doing. She’s come a very long way in a job that is pre-dominantly male.”

Bodenburg and HMLA-367 will wrap up their deployment before the end of the year.

Norwich alumnus takes to Iraq skies during second combat deployment

AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq – When another student mentioned ammunition and weapons in Dustin Blecha’s senior year at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood, Colo., Blecha overturned a desk, took cover behind it and pretended to be leading troops on a battlefield.

Teenage Blecha’s passion for all things military suggested that his future included a uniform and a stint in basic training.

He describes his high school self as aggressive and high-strung – a young man who already knew he belonged on the battlefield.

“I was ‘that guy’, already wearing the cammie clothes and combat boots along with a military haircut in high school,” he said.

Today “that guy” stands tall in his flight suit as a UH-1N Huey pilot with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 269, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward).

After his high school graduation, Blecha headed to Norwich University, in Northfield, Vt., where he enthusiastically embraced the military world.

“It’s a mindset that drove me to the military,” said Blecha. “A lot of my decision to join the military had to do with perception and the way that I perceived the world and understood things.”

The ROTC scholarship recipient decided that joining the corps of cadets at Norwich would help him develop as a leader and emulate the leaders he read about in history books.

During his first week of college, ‘rook week’, he stood in formation with the other freshmen in their tan slacks, white t-shirts and silly purple hats. For one moment he wondered what he’d gotten himself into and what would happen next.

“Hells Bells” by AC/DC blared from stereo speakers. A canon blasted and the freshmen began their lives as cadets. Cadres, as more senior cadets are known, descended on the freshmen.

“That was one of my most memorable weeks in that school,” said Blecha. “Your whole world turns upside down.”

During his sophomore year, Blecha chose to serve as a cadre.

“I thought training the freshman was awesome,” he said with a smile. “It kept me in line and helped me to develop discipline.

“You have to set the standard with physical fitness and appearance and you have to set the standard with grades,” he added.

Blecha was wearing a drill cover and “Hells Bells” had just ended when he met his future wife, Nicole Babis. Needless to say, the couple doesn’t use words like romantic or sweet to describe their first meeting.

Nicole didn’t care for Blecha much when she first met him.

“He was mean and gave the rooks a hard time,” said Nicole, currently an Air Force first lieutenant serving as an operations officer with 4th Operations Support Squadron at Seymore Johnson Air Base in Goldsboro, N.C.

But he never gave up on the rooks, according to Nicole.

The couple began dating after Nicole had completed her first year at Norwich. Two years later when the couple wed, they walked into the reception hall to the tune of “Hells Bells.”

“It was the first song we heard together,” Nicole explained.
“At Norwich, he was all business and he always talked about military history and past battles,” said Nicole. “After the 9/11 attacks, he talked about the future wars we would all be fighting.”

Blecha graduated from Norwich in the spring of 2003 and earned his commission in the Marine Corps May 10, 2003 and headed to Pensacola, Fla., to train as a helicopter pilot.

The 27-year-old has earned the call sign ‘Francis’ from the character of the 1981 movie “Stripes.” His fellow pilots see Francis’ enthusiasm for battle in Blecha.

“He’s a very professional individual who doesn’t get trapped up in minute details and is functionally-minded as well as mission-oriented,” said Capt. Paul Barron, a friend and fellow pilot in HML/A-269. Barron has twice deployed with Blecha.

Blecha and his wife agree that he’s adapted his aggressive passion for the military from mock battles behind overturned desks to a professional passion for being a pilot. Reining in ‘that guy’ has been no small feat and Blecha attributes much of his success to finding “the woman who could put up with a man like him.”

When speaking of his family, comprised of his wife and their 3-year-old son, Blecha’s pride and dedication is obvious.

When he was a cadre, Blecha believed the conduct of his platoon represented him as an instructor and as a person. He sees a similar connection in the relationship between parent and child.

“If they turned out bad, then I didn’t do my job,” said Blecha. “I would really like my mark on the world to be the conduct of my children.”
Blecha will return home to his wife and child in early 2009.

Bellows Falls native returns home after six-month deployment; sees progress in Iraq

AL ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq – Crowds of children playfully surrounded Sgt. Karter Elliott while on missions through small Iraqi villages in al-Anbar Province.

The children knew Elliott, a Bellow Falls, Vt. native, as one of the Marines who brought them small toys and candy while leading security patrols with Marine Wing Support Squadron 274, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward). The children’s parents, mostly farmers and herdsmen, also recognized Elliott as he always loaded the unit’s patrol vehicles with extra water and food to share with them.

“I enjoy my job out here,” said Elliott during one of his last deployments outside the gates of Al Asad Air Base. “I enjoy helping the people of Iraq. The more they trust and work with me, the more security we can give them.”

Elliott often focused his attention on the children, believing that their trust will contribute to establishing an enduring peace in the region. The three-time veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom has seen significant progress in the region.
“I like the interaction with the Iraqis,” said Elliott. “It lets me see first hand all the progress that is being made.”

The Bellows Falls Union High graduate followed his older brother, Master Sgt. J.J. Elliott, by enlisting in Marine Corps.

After graduating boot camp, Elliott headed to Keesler Air Force Base, Biloxi, Miss., where he was trained as a Marine weather observer. Serving as a patrol leader during this deployment took Elliott out of his normal duties, something his brother thinks was good for him.

J.J. Elliott, the operations chief with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group at Camp Fallujah, Iraq, said this deployment helped his brother develop as a leader by putting him in charge at a small unit level.

“It’s important as a sergeant in the Marine Corps to experience leadership at all levels,” said J.J. “This will only develop him as a more well-rounded noncommissioned officer.”

Elliot’s previous combat deployments and his compassion for the Iraqi people set him up for success as a patrol leader, said Gunnery Sgt. Raymond Secoy, Elliott’s supervisor.

“Sgt. Elliott was a great asset to our team,” said Secoy. “He has proven himself as a Marine and a leader.”

Friday, November 28, 2008

U.S. military begins partnership with Haditha Hospital

HADITHA, Iraq – U.S. military medical personnel from the 345th Combat Support Hospital aboard Al Asad Air Base have taken the first steps toward establishing a partnership with the Iraqi hospital here.

Army personnel from the 345th along with service members from the Navy and Marine Corps headed to Haditha Hospital Oct. 30 to participate in the first key leadership engagement between the two hospitals.

The partnership is designed to increase the capabilities and quality of care available at Haditha Hospital. During the visit, Army doctors met with Iraqi doctors and hospital administrators to gather information regarding what it will take to return the Iraqi facility to its full capabilities.

The biggest challenges will be to increase the quality of basic services and modernize the facility that deteriorated under Saddam Hussein’s regime, according to Col. Dwight Shen, the key leader engagement team leader and the deputy chief of clinical services at the 345th CSH. Shen described the hospital’s current state as “primitive.”

The 2nd Class Petty Officers Association out of Camp Pendleton, Calif. helped to kick start the partnership between the two hospitals by donating more than 200 medical textbooks to the hospital. Petty Officer 1st Class Jesse Tossetti, a corpsman with 3rd Bn. 7th Marine Regt., participated in the initial visit to the hospital and delivered the textbooks for the association.

“This partnership can only benefit the local people of Haditha,” said Tossetti.
Initially doctors and corpsman from the U.S. military will focus their efforts on teaching Iraqi medical personnel about basic hygiene, infection control, preventative medicine and the essential skills of basic life support, according to Shen.

“This program needs to use all resources available and is not branch specific,” said Shen. “Depending on what Navy, Marine and Air Force personnel are available, their expertise will be fully utilized in supporting this partnership.”

As Shen and the other members of the engagement team toured the 110-bed facility, they noted the hospital’s dire need for basic technology. Patient rooms and surgical suites often lacked monitors, IV machines and standard operating room equipment. The shortage of modern medical equipment puts the Iraqi doctors at a significant disadvantage, according to Shen.

“Once they get this technology, then they need the knowledge to operate the technology,” added Shen. The partnership will help the Iraqis learn how to acquire and operate new medical equipment.

On average, the approximately 25 doctors at Haditha Hospital see about 600 patients a day. The doctors are supported by just five nurses, but a nearby nursing school established in 2007 should help improve the deficit of qualified nurses, according to Shen. The school is the first nursing school in Haditha and provides a three-year training program. Two classes of Iraqi women have enrolled at the school since its doors opened, meaning the hospital should have a fresh crop of 46 qualified nurses by early 2010.

“The Iraqi doctors are well-educated and motivated to provide the best care for their patients and to rebuild their healthcare system,” said Shen.
From Shen’s perspective, U.S. personnel participating in the partnership will also benefit as they learn about the Iraqi healthcare system and contribute to strong, friendly relationships between the two countries.

Shen’s team would like to formalize the partnership within the next few weeks and ensure that it is a program that will continue as U.S. units rotate in and out of the combat support hospital aboard Al Asad Air Base. They’d also like to see the benefits of the program filter out to other Iraqi medical facilities in the region.

New York's 2/25 attacks Shadow Range

AL ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq – Activated reserve Marines from the Garden City, New York-based Fox Co., 2nd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) tackled the challenges of combined-arms training here Oct. 20 – 25. The Marines were the first to train at the recently completed training facility known as Shadow Range.

As the role of Marines deployed to Anbar continues to shift to advising Iraqi security forces, the facility affords troops a means of maintaining combined-arms capabilities while supporting over-watch missions in the region.

Fox Co. practiced combat scenarios that challenged their ability to communicate and move under fire. Simulated enemies fired at the Marines from trenches. Marines dashed to covered positions and practiced establishing mortar firing points. Squad leaders barked orders into radio handsets setting teams of Marines in motion on the training range.

The company concluded their training with a live-fire assault course in which the Marines put their refreshed combat skills to the test. Squads moved through the course employing a variety of weapons – mortars, rocket launchers, machine guns and their service rifles. During the movement, they engaged a simulated enemy hidden in the desert hills.

“The company hasn’t had the opportunity to do thorough refresher training,” said Maj. Tom Armas, the company’s commanding officer.

“Now that we have the range, we have the ability to get the Marine skills back up to the level they were when they departed from the states.”

The exercises provided the unit an ideal opportunity to refresh ground combat skills and afforded instructors at the range an opportunity to evaluate the new facility and their curriculum.

“The range is still in testing phase right now,” said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Stuart White, gunner, Advanced Infantry Training Center, Multi National Forces-West. “After the first group goes through, the instructors will look at the reports and make adjustments to the range to get the most out of the training.”

During their six-month deployment, the unit will continue to rotate Marines through combined-arms training at Shadow Range. Marines who have completed the training will return about once a week to maintain their combat skills.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

3rd MAW (Fwd.) aircraft refuel

AL ASAD, Iraq – A CH-53E Super Stallion with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 462, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) receives fuel here Oct. 9. The Super Stallion was preparing for a refueling mission with 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. George J. Papastrat) (Released)

AL ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq – Marines with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 462, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), unload refueling equipment from a CH-53E Super Stallion Oct. 9. The Super Stallions flew to a remote helicopter landing pad in al-Anbar Province to refuel vehicles with 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. George J. Papastrat) (Released)

AL ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq – A CH-53E Super Stallion with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 462 lands at a remote helicopter landing pad in al-Anbar Province Oct. 9. Two Super Stallions with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) squadron refueled vehicles of the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. George J. Papastrat) (Released)

AL ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq – A UH-1 Huey with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 269 touches down at a remote helicopter landing pad in al-Anbar Province to refuel Oct. 9 during a scouting mission. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. George J. Papastrat) (Released)