CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan --
As the Marines and coalition and Afghan forces in the southwestern regional command of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force patrol the Helmand River valley, they do so knowing an overwhelming advantage is behind them.
With air assets led by 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), the coalition can strike the enemy at will, move troops around the battlespace safely and quickly, and medically evacuate service members or Afghans in need.
The coordination and communication driving that advantage, however, is a hefty task for a team of 64 Marines.
They are the Marines of the direct air support center and they make their home in the combat operations center on the headquarters compound at Camp Leatherneck, where an array of monitors and maps allow the Marines to seamlessly integrate aviations assets with ground combat forces across the region.
“We fall under the Wing, but coexist with the ground element,” said Capt. Andrea Goeman, a native of Byron Center, Mich., and the officer-in-charge of the Marine Air Support Squadron 1 detachment, which runs the center.
The center monitors all of 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward)’s helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and remotely piloted drones, in addition to all other air assets operating in Helmand or Nimruz provinces. If it flies in southwestern Afghanistan, the center’s Marines are watching it.
“The airspace here is some of the busiest in the world,” Goeman said.
The center is responsible for processing immediate air support requests from ground forces, integrating aviation with ground fires, and procedurally controlling aircraft.
On hectic days the Marines can be responsible for as many as 20 aircraft at a time, according to 1st Lt. David Roodhouse, a senior air director for the center and a native of Cincinnati.
The secret to success lies in the center’s ability to communicate, Roodhouse said.
The Marines not only communicate with each other, but also with infantry battalions, other government agencies, and the center’s own air support liaison teams that work with the ground combat forces in Afghanistan.
They then relay requests to 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward)’s tactical air command center, which approves and assigns aircraft for assaults and medevacs.
The direct air support center communicates with forces across the region by way of instant messaging, allowing the Marines to process a large amount of information from several sources at once.[
“[Chat rooms provide] our primary means of communicating with everyone who isn’t flying,” said Goeman. “The most challenging part of our job is prioritizing all the information we have. The individual tasks themselves aren’t difficult, but once you put them together, it turns into managing chaos.
“Most people don’t realize how complex it is to coordinate an airstrike or a medevac,” said Goeman. “The Marines in [this center] really get to make a difference. The better we do our job, the quicker the ground forces get the support they need.”
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