CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan --
It’s Sept. 12, 2001. The wreckage from the attacks the day before still smolders. An aircraft carrier with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit lies off the eastern shore of the United States.
Several CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters with engines running rest on the deck. The flight lead is a young Marine captain, Alison Thompson. Her freckles and biting blue eyes are veiled by her visor and flight helmet.
She wants to take off.
“We had six 53s turning on the line. I kept calling to get clearance,” Thompson said. “The plan was we’d load supplies, embark the MEU, go up to New York City, provide any support they needed with our helicopters and go straight over [to the Middle East] from there. I kept calling for clearance to take off and at that point all aviation was grounded, civilian and military.”
The mission was ultimately called off. According to Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York, thought a visible military presence might instill panic among the people.
The day before, Thompson was at home in Jacksonville, N.C., asleep when the phone rang. It was her dad. She sprinted downstairs and turned on the T.V. just in time to see the second tower get hit.
A few short months later, 9,000 miles away, the 53s are once again on the deck of the ship, turning on the line and Thompson is once again in the pilot’s seat.
This time they’re cleared for take-off. This time they will push into Afghanistan.
The Marines entered Afghanistan, some riding in Thompson’s helicopter. They took Camp Rhino and Kandahar Airfield, then pushed north into the Tora Bora mountains, continuing to seek out the enemy.
Ten years later it’s September 2011 and Alison Thompson is back in Afghanistan. Now she’s a lieutenant colonel at the helm of a new mission – commanding Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464. As the first woman to command a squadron in combat, she leads the only CH-53E squadron in the region.
Thompson’s experiences over the course of her career have prepared her for command. She spent time as a military legislative assistant for former North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, served as an aide for the Deputy Marine Corps Commandant for Aviation and returned to HMH-464 as the operations officer.
But she said her most cherished experiences came in 2001.
“I felt very fortunate to be where I was when I was,” Thompson said. “It was very expeditionary, a lot of tough terrain, a lot of unconventional things we were doing.”
“It was a strange period, kind of eerie. It was exciting too,” said Lt. Col. Pete Gadd, commanding officer of HMH-463, a CH-53D Sea Stallion squadron adjacent to HMH-464 on the Camp Bastion flight line. As a major, Gadd was part of the CH-53E detachment with Thompson in 2001 and accompanied her on many of the missions. “It was the Wild, Wild West back then. We operated out of a lot of mud huts and thatched rooms.”
“She was a great pilot back then, she’s a great pilot now.” said Maj. Dennis W. Sampson.
Sampson, a CH-53D pilot with HMH-463, and the squadron’s operations officer, also participated in the initial invasion, flying some of the first missions in Afghanistan a decade ago.
“We did a lot of raids and take-downs. She was our tactics officer and it was vital for us to be able to follow her lead back then,” Sampson said.
Now Thompson leads several hundred Marines and sailors – pilots, crew chiefs and aircraft maintainers, among others.
“She’s going to do great things in Afghanistan,” Gadd said. “HMH-464 is in great hands.”
“I just want the opportunity to make a difference,” Thompson said, “whether it be tactically or with the individual Marines. From a unit standpoint I take care of them so they’re not fighting internal friction so they can focus on their job.”
Thompson grew up in Michigan, Nebraska and Kansas wanting to be a pilot but never imagining being a Marine. When she attended the Naval Academy women were not allowed to serve in combat in aviation.
“It just so happened that three weeks before I had to service select at the Naval Academy and I had to decide what I was going to do, congress lifted the combat exclusion,” Thompson said.
As one of the first women to pilot a Marine aircraft, and now as the first woman to command a squadron in combat, she said the feeling is the same – don’t mess it up.
“She’s a great leader,” Sampson said. “She’s got great strategic and tactical experience but more importantly, she cares passionately about her Marines and providing support for the Marines on the battlefield.”
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