Photo Information

Pfc. Stephanie Brown, student, Low Altitude Air Defense Gunner’s Course 3-15, performs the 13 critical checks on the FIM-92 Stinger Missile, prior to firing it as part of the class’ culminating exercise aboard Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., Aug. 22, 2015. The purpose of the 13 critical checks is to ensure the issued weapon is ready and functional with no discrepancies. (Official Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Charles Santamaria/ Released)

Photo by Cpl. Charles Santamaria

LAAD gunners aim high

28 Aug 2015 | Story by Lance Cpl. Medina Ayala-Lo Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms

Through the sights of the weapon, a Marine scans the horizon, searching for her target. The unrelenting desert sun shines down, failing to break her concentration. Unwaveringly, she continues to gaze through the sights, acquiring the target. She locks on and fires.

The Marines of Low Altitude Air Defense Gunner’s Course 3-15 conducted a Stinger Missile Live-Fire Exercise for their last graded assignment aboard Yuma Proving Ground, Aug. 22, 2015.

“This was our culminating event for the LAAD Gunner’s course,” said Master Sgt. Michael Buxkemper, LAAD training section staff non-commissioned officer in charge, Air Control Training Squadron. “The [FIM-92] Stinger Missile is just a short range air defense weapons system. It utilizes an infrared seeker to lock on to the heat in the engine's exhaust and shoot down low flying aircraft.”

Prior to shooting the missiles, students were required to perform 13 critical checks on the weapon from top to bottom. The purpose of the 13 critical checks is to ensure that the weapon that’s been issued is functional and that there are no discrepancies. The targets shot were ‘Outlaws’, miniature remote controlled aircraft, one fifth the size of an actual target. Out of the 35 missiles shot there was only one complete miss.


“That percentage of hits is usually unheard of with the size of this class, and the experience that these gunners have actually had,” Buxkemper said. “As a group I couldn’t ask for a better class. They clicked as a team from the start. There have been no issues with this class and I couldn’t be more proud of the students we’re about to release into the fleet.”

Class 3-15 will be the first to graduate four enlisted female LAAD gunners.

“I couldn’t be more proud of my MOS or my job,” said Lance Cpl. Cody Meade, LAAD gunner, unit. “It feels really good to be part of a class that’s made history, but at the end of the day, we’re all Marines and gender doesn’t matter.”

According to Buxkemper, LAAD is the only air defense unit within the Marine Corps, making it a close-knit community. From the very start, the students are made aware of how important the responsibilities entrusted to them are.

“Starting from day one we start piling on the stress,” Buxkemper said. “As the students get closer to graduation, they’ve had enough rehearsal time with the stinger missile and enough time dealing with stressful situations, that there is no issue when it comes to actually firing.”

Throughout the two-month course, all 30 students were taught the basics of the stinger missile as well as the knowledge needed to succeed in their MOS.

 “The students start off with a three-week [High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle] course to get their license,” Buxkemper said. “They then learn the missile’s characteristics and capabilities, after that they move into practicing on simulated aerial target ranges.” LAAD gunner has been an all-male MOS that the Marine Corps has recently opened to females. These gunners are hoping their success as a whole will continue to break down barriers.

“You want to go through your career knowing you made a difference,” said Lance Cpl. Jade Woodend, student, Low Altitude Air Defense Gunner’s Course 3-15. “Our job is one of the few that have females in a combat-related MOS. It’s a really good feeling knowing that I’m part of that history. I plan on going as far as I can. As long as I’m being productive and making moves that are going to benefit the Marine Corps, then I’ve accomplished my goal.”