The US Marine Corps pride itself on its rich heritage – and it's a heritage new recruits are constantly drawing on for new inspiration.
Recently I had the privilege of visiting Marine Squadron 469, also known as “Vengeance”. The Squadron, when not deployed, operates out of the huge base known as Camp Pendleton near San Diego, and is comprised of 2 “legacy” airframes, the UH-1Y Huey and the AH-1W/Z Cobra (Whisky/Zulu). The Huey’s original airframe served in Vietnam, the Cobra began its service shortly after as a result of the lessons learned in that conflict in Asia.
The squadron, led by Lt. Col Edward W. Powers, is tasked with providing close support for Marine ground units in a combat zone. The term “support” can translate into logistical support such as transporting Marines, forward looking reconnaissance, Close Air Support (CAS), and Medevac when the need arises.
The UH-1Y Huey generally operates alongside the AH-1W/Z as a team in tandem. The Huey can defend itself with rockets and heavy machine guns, while the Cobra packs a bigger punch in the form of Hellfire missiles and 20mm cannon fire.
Another tool utilized by the Squadron are Marine JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) personnel. The JTAC’s job description is coordinating fire towards the enemy and providing Marine pilots with a clear picture of the battlefield.
Before our mission, Master Sergeant Oran Root, himself a senior JTAC with a long resume of operational experience, was waiting to meet me prior to our crew brief. Msgt. Root explains in detail about his primary mission, which is making sure the right type of weaponry is used on the target in the safest way possible to avoid friendly casualties. The JTAC duty is basically to streamline the interaction between the aerial unit such as the HMLA 469 squadron and the forces on the ground.
The mission I was privileged to participate in was a recon operation dedicated to training younger “Vengeance” crewmembers on how to facilitate fire support and task delegation during combat.
With the briefing starting at 6:00 a.m., and all crewmembers present, Maj. Carl Bailey, the mission commander and the Squadron’s Aviation Maintenance Officer, stresses the objective of the exercise. Additionally he makes know the extra safety measures needed to ensure passenger safety (for me), since the flight will be a combat training sortie with doors open.
All crewmembers are key to the mission; leading it is the Mission Commander and instructor Maj. Bailey with a younger Co-Pilot in training, Captain Neil Quinn, alongside two crew chiefs essential to the tasking and, in the Major’s words, “keeping their heads on a swivel” – which translated freely means they should be keeping their eyes open and staying alert constantly throughout the two-hour mission.
Following the crew brief we head out to the flight line. Rows of Marine rotary aircraft are all over the line in seemingly controlled chaos; helicopters start their engines in various locations along the line, and we head over to our designated UH-1Y Huey to board.
We get a short brief by the crew chief, I strap a gunner’s belt on for safety, the Marine Pilots get the engines started up and within minutes we are flying over the vast area that houses Camp Pendleton southwards into the California Desert.
Our objective today is to seek out rebel armies infiltrating the California border from Mexico. The story is obviously made up, but the objectives are identical to those faced in real-life combat situations. The pilot in training in the right seat is learning how to identify targets and coordinate an assault on the objective. For training purposes Major Bailey will indicate areas that ground fire is coming from, and Capt. Quinn will have to adapt to the new scenario and learn how to maintain focus on his objective while avoiding the threats posed to his Huey.
The mission takes us to the Mexican border, which often reminds Marines of the scenic view common in Afghanistan. The ground is littered with old rail lines and boxcars, and serves for a unique staging area. After several engagements and low level passes, Maj. Bailey seems content and we start heading back to base.
Whether flying close to home, or thousands of miles from the California Coast, wherever they seem to be, the ability to answer a call for help just seems to be in the squadron’s DNA. At one point during the mission, we encountered a brush fire, and went in immediately to make sure the proper action was being taken.
Following the landing there is a short debrief and I meet with several key personnel from the Squadron.
The squadron’s tempo varies between leading up to deployment, deploying and scaling down from deployment. Currently the Squadron is recovering from its last deployment to the Western Pacific, where the Marines spent six months in Okinawa and the Philippines training alongside local forces. At the conclusion of their deployment they were tasked to Nepal to assist with relief efforts following the devastating earthquake which struck the country.
While performing countless humanitarian missions including transport of food and supplies, rescuing injured and evacuating civilians from remote areas within Nepal, the Squadron suffered a tragic loss when one of its Huey’s crashed while operating in a remote area. All eight Marines on board and two Nepali civilians perished in the crash.
These Marines are no strangers to tragedy. In fact, HMLA 469 was established following the brutal terror attacks of 9/11. The War on Terror demanded that the US Armed Forces beef up their forces, and HMLA 469 was one of the units established to provide the US Ground Forces with extra air support.
HMLA 469’s call sign is “Vengeance” taken from George Bush’s call for vengeance while standing on top of the remnants of the World Trade Center in the days following the attacks. The tail insignia of its aircraft are “SE” – September Eleventh. Speaking with members of the squadron, it is very clear that those events are ever apparent with them.
LtC. Powers expresses what he expects from his Marines: “Professionalism. I expect our customers – whether a Marine ground force or any other combat force – that when they see our unit operating, my Marines, they should know that the objective to assist them will be performed in a professional and timely fashion."