HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
While the current brood of Marine Attack Squadron 513 AV-8B Harrier pilots is providing close-air support from the sky to Marines on the ground, one former VMA-513 pilot is fulfilling his role on the ground.
Capt. Daniel Fiust, the air officer and a forward air controller for 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, currently serves as the coordinator between the battalion and the fixed- and rotary-wing assets of 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward).
A battalion air officer acts as a liaison for aviation squadrons supporting ground Marines, directing and dispersing air assets across the battalion’s area of operations.
“We integrate all functions of aviation with ground combat missions,” said Fiust, a San Carlos, Calif. native whose battalion is deployed to Afghanistan with 2nd Marine Division (Forward). “Basically, anything aerial, we have a role in.”
From the stratospheric crescendos of Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers to the cyclical percussion of AH-1W Super Cobras, Fiust is responsible coordinating flight times and routes for dozens of aircraft for the ground Marines they protect.
Fiust’s aerial roots trace back to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., where VMA-513 is stationed. There, he flew with both VMA-211 and VMA-513. He’s deployed with the former in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the latter as part of a unit deployment to Japan.
After spending more than three years with the flying squadrons, he reported to the air officer’s course, part of Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1’s Weapons and Tactics Instructor course.
“I really wanted to work with infantry units,” said Fiust. “As a [close-air support] pilot, I wanted to see what things were like on the ground and do my part to contribute.”
The air officer is the senior forward air controller in a battalion. He supervises the battalion’s forward air controllers and enlisted joint terminal attack controllers, who patrol with their squads and protect them by calling in air strikes.
Sgt. Ronald Stokes III, the joint terminal attack controller of Company K, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, and an Estes Park, Colo., native, still remembers the first time he called in an air strike.
“May 27. A date that will live in my mind,” Stokes said. “I couldn’t believe I was actually dropping a bomb on the bad guys.”
Fiust said he believes the ongoing relationship between air officers on the ground and the squadrons creates a ripple effect that saves lives, not only in the short term, but the long term as well.
“We look at what type of support the Marines need, and update our tactics based on what we’re seeing of the enemy from the air,” said Fiust.
While Fiust has traded his seat in the cockpit for a seat in the command structure, he says the experience has given him a new perspective on the war.
“As a pilot, I sometimes felt detached from the situation,” he said. “As an air officer, you’re more emotionally invested.”
There are times Fiust waxes nostalgic, when the Harriers are high above protecting his Marines. But the explosions on his screen let him know that the grunts he serves are in more than capable hands.
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