KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan --
If the heat was the only indication for 100 Marines crammed into a squad bay May 16, they may have thought they were back home at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz.
But these Marines, with Marine Attack Squadron 513 and Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 13, were a full day’s travel and half a world away from their homes and loved ones. They stood ready, no more than two hours into a seven month deployment to Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan.
“Who’s first deployment is this?” asked Master Sgt. Timothy Saunders, the VMA-513 maintenance chief, and native of Jacksonville, N.C.
In response, about half the Marines and sailors raised a hand.
“Who’s first combat deployment is this?” he continued.
A few more troops raised hands.
Saunders paused for a moment, and then smiled.
“Who’s been on a combat deployment?” he asked.
To this question only a dozen or so Marines, mostly staff noncommissioned officers, stood with hands raised.
For the Marines this was a reminder that despite months of workups and training, many were about to begin their first Afghanistan deployment.
While the “Nightmares” of VMA-513 are relatively junior in personal experience, with many enlisted and officers on their first deployment, there is no doubt they are up to the task.
“They’re ready, trained, equipped and motivated,” said Sgt. Maj. Scott Cooper, the VMA-513 sergeant major, and a native of Huntington Beach, Calif., “Excited, ready and eager to do well is the best way to describe this group.”
VMA-513 was one of the first squadrons to see action in Afghanistan, spending nearly a year on deployment from October 2002 through the autumn of 2003. And though the squadron has deployed multiple times to Iraq and with Marine Expeditionary Units, nearly a decade has passed since it last soared the Afghan skies.
Now the Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier squadron will operate with 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), the air combat element of the NATO International Security Assistance Force’s southwestern regional command.
“My number one goal is to provide the highest level of support we possibly can to the ground combat element,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lee, VMA-513’s commanding officer.
The pilots will use the Harrier’s short take-off and vertical landing capabilities to provide close-air support for U.S. Marines and their Afghan and coalition partners in Afghanistan’s Nimroz and Helmand provinces. But squadron leaders said aircrews aren’t the only vital members of the command -- just as mission essential are the maintainers and support Marines. No role, be it an aircraft mechanic or operations clerk, is trivial.
“There is nothing impossible for them,” said Saunders. “There has not been a challenge we have put in front of the Marines they have not been able to face.”
Though the weather is similar, other aspects of the environment in Kandahar are vastly different from Yuma. Unlike the Arizona air station, and Helmand province’s Camp Leatherneck, U.S. Marines are the vast minority at Kandahar, and play guessing games at which uniform belongs to which country to help pass the time. The weekly bazaar offers a glimpse into Afghan culture that some may never experience again.
“When you think about it, this is where everyone wants to be,” said Lance Cpl. Jerrit Ybarra, a VMA-513 aviation logistics information management systems specialist, and a native of Stockton, Calif. “We’re going to be a part of history. No matter what you did here, you can say, ‘I was there in Afghanistan when the [fighting] was going down.’”
The Marines and their jets have hectic hours in front of them. Maintenance and a steady demand for support will keep them operational at hours when most Marines have retired for the day. Here, the Marines will contend with half day-long shifts compounded by Afghanistan’s dust and heat, in constant rivalry with Yuma for triple-digit temperatures.
Regardless of the trying work environment, Lee is confident in the squadron’s abilities, and of its overall contribution to Afghanistan’s transition into an autonomous state.
“We’re confident that we’ll provide the same level of support that [Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 122] provided,” said Lee of the F/A-18 squadron VMA-513 replaced. “We’re going to continue to help neutralize or eliminate mid- to high-level insurgent control structure and allow the people and military of Afghanistan to continue to establish themselves as a secure presence.”