CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan --
To Cpl. Leonard R. Knudsen Jr., his job can feel the same whether he is at Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C., or Camp Bastion, Afghanistan.
An airframe mechanic with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464, Knudsen has been in Afghanistan fewer than two weeks and said he feels his environment changed, not his job.
“I fix parts on the aircraft,” Knudsen said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m in New River or here. The only difference is now it’s hotter and dusty.”
That was until the sunken-eyed Chicago native was asked to repair something he never had before – a bullet hole.
Recently, one of the squadron’s CH-53E Super Stallions returned from the peril of the dusty Afghan oblivion having taken enemy small-arms fire. One of the rounds entered the underside of the aircraft and went through a steel rail used to attach cargo to the hull of the helicopter.
“Seeing that gave me a sense of greater purpose,” Knudsen said, sweat beading on his forehead. “They were standing directly underneath it when they shot. If they’re that close, it shows how dangerous it is out there.”
The dust at Camp Bastion is oftentimes so thick, earth and sky become nearly indecipherable. With a graceful whirl of large blades, HMH-464’s Super Stallions frequently depart the security of the squadron’s hangar and disappear into the sandy expanse to provide a broad range of support for the Marine infantryman and their NATO coalition and Afghan partners on the ground.
Utilizing the largest helicopter in the American arsenal, the squadron supports the fight in Afghanistan with heavy-lift capabilities, resupplies, and troop insertion and extraction.
Knudsen said when he first arrived, he would stare at the vastness in front of him and it wouldn’t seem real.
“In every photo I had ever seen of Afghanistan, there were mountains,” Knudsen said. “All I saw here was dirt.”
One morning, Knudsen walked out onto the flightline when the dust had settled just enough and he was able to see the jagged outline of a mountain on the horizon.
“That’s when it hit me that the enemy was out there, and we had guys out there going after them,” he said.
Knudsen has smoothed out the steel surrounding the helicopter’s wound. His next task is to cut a piece of metal proportionate to the size of the hole, rivet it to the rest of the railing and sand it down – returning it to an unblemished piece of steel.
As he spoke of his duties with quiet intensity, Knudsen briefly allowed his mind to drift back to his loved ones back home.
“I’m excited to deploy, but naturally I miss my wife and kid,” the soft-spoken Marine said of his wife, Britney, and his 11-month-old son, Kyler. “When I’m tired from a long day, I go home and call my wife, and I can sleep pretty good.”
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