By Staff Sgt. Jennifer Poole, 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade
UNDISCLOSED LOCATION, U.S. CENTCOM -- The sun has barely cracked the horizon and the alarm is going off, signaling the day’s start. Get up, shower, shave, and head into the office-except a day in the office consists of donning a flight suit and helmet, and jumping into the cockpit of an AV-8B Harrier.
The aircraft and their pilots are with Marine Attack Squadron 231, Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Central Command. The squadron, better known as the “Ace of Spades,” is currently supporting kinetic strike missions in the Middle East in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in the fight against ISIS .
The squadron, strategically placed in the USCENTCOM area of responsibility, offers “a wide range of capabilities to the CENTCOM commander to include close air support, deep air support and active air defense for major contingency operations,” said Lt. Col. Charles Del Pizzo, commanding officer of VMA-231, SPMAGTF-CR-CC.
When Operation Inherent Resolve began, the squadron was able to quickly pivot to flying offensive air missions in support of the ground scheme of maneuver.
Del Pizzo stressed “our mission here, first and foremost, is crisis response. [Our strategic location] allows our Marine squadrons, VMA and Marine Wing Support Squadron, to rapidly respond to crisis throughout the theater. In the case of OIR, through the use of airborne tankers, the squadron is able to support the CJTF while allowing the SPMAGTF to maintain a distributed base posture.”
Since the squadron arrived in theater nearly six months ago, it has supported 644 strikes during the course of more than 3,500 flight hours alongside coalition forces in order to fight ISIS and support the battle for Mosul.
“This has truly been a once in a lifetime experience to serve and to fly in support of combat operations,” said Lt. Ben Britten, a Harrier pilot with the UK Royal Navy attached with VMA-231.
Britten, who recently returned to his home in the United Kingdom, said “most of all I will miss the camaraderie and professionalism from each and every Marine I worked with.”
“Our pilot exchange programs foster the open exchange of tactics, techniques and procedures which allow us to operate alongside each other during coalition operations,” Del Pizzo said. Lt. Britten will be one of the first F35B pilots in the UK. The experience gained on this deployment, especially flying combat sorties as a part of OIR, will no doubt help shape the future of distributed short takeoff and vertical landing operations for both of our countries.”
These strategically important strikes would not be possible without maintenance crews working around the clock to keep the birds flying high, and are divided into two, 12-hour shifts, day and night.
“We produce flight hours, from safe, reliable aircraft to support combat operations,” said Master Sgt. Travis Dusenberry, the maintenance chief for VMA-231. “We are very much like a factory, and within that factory, you don’t just walk in, flip the switch on and everything runs smoothly. There are endless hours that go in to maintaining these aircraft.”
The squadron has supported 40,147maintenance hours since the start of their deployment.
The maintenance side of the squadron consists of different sections to keep the aircraft flying in tip-top shape. The sections include the airframes shop, avionics, powerline, ordnance, flight equipment, tool room, ground support equipment, maintenance administration, aviation logistics, and quality assurance.
“Each and every Marine plays a part in the whole ensemble in order to keep the aircraft flying to support our mission forward,” said Gunnery Sgt. Mark Richesson, powerline chief with VMA-231. “Everyone’s pulling together to accomplish the mission. It’s very important and rewarding when you’re able to maintain or fix something … it’s good to have that tangible aspect to our mission accomplishment.”
The squadron, just like the majority of the Marine Corps’ enlisted Marines, is very young, said Dusenberry. For most of the Marines, this is their first deployment, however in their military occupational specialties, they are afforded great responsibility.
Lance Cpl. Sierra Mendibles, a flight equipment technician with VMA-231 and Fresno, CA, native, has been with the squadron seven months and understands the responsibility her job entails at just 20 years old.
“There have been instances where a pilot needed to use a piece of the survival equipment and just knowing the gear worked properly is extremely rewarding. We are there as a safety net, while the pilots are out there supporting operations forward, its important we’re doing our job back here to ensure the good guys, our Marines, come back home.”
Nearing the end of his 10th deployment, Dusenberry explains what kept the squadron’s Marines motivated during such long hours.
“Marines will get tired … have a bad day, but ultimately you come to work, and you get to do your job. Us, doing our mission, this is what we have trained to do. You get to fix the plane, watch bombs be put on them, watch the aircraft take off, then return. And then you come back the next day and do it all over again. These Marines get to see for themselves the end game. Most of the time in a true factory, you don’t get to see the end game, and ultimately you get to see that here. Everything you’ve ever been told, you get to see that come to fruition here. These Marines get to see that every day. It’s a good day every single day.”
SPMAGTF-CR-CC continues its commitment to support OIR and USCENTCOM through employment of kinetic air strike missions, security cooperation and crisis response assets within the region.