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The day before the first mission, Capt. Michael Gagnon briefs his Marines at Patrol Base Alcatraz, Afghanistan, Oct. 20, on the plan to construct a helicopter-landing zone for a special operations outpost in the Helmand River valley. Gagnon, a native of Oxford, Mass., commands a team of roughly 20 men dubbed “Task Force Nomad.” Over the next several weeks, the task force will construct or improve helicopter landing zones along the Helmand River valley in southwestern Afghanistan.

Photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

Marine Corps task force builds aviation support network in Afghanistan

3 Nov 2011 | Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

Southwestern Afghanistan’s Helmand River Valley resembles a paradise in the midst of a seemingly endless expanse of rock and sand.

Its beauty is misleading.

The thin stretch of lush green farmland and densely-populated countryside has set the stage for some of the harshest fighting of the Afghan war.

Patrol Base Alcatraz sits atop a sandy bluff on the valley’s rim. The outpost, home to 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion and 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, overlooks miles and miles of the valley.

A small contingent of men with Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 recently made Alcatraz their home – at least temporarily.

They call themselves “Task Force Nomad,” a small team here to construct helicopter landing zones in the valley.

“It ain’t sexy, it’s good old-fashioned hard work,” said Master Sgt. Rex Coste, the senior enlisted Marine on the task force, a native of San Antonio and the staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge of expeditionary airfield systems for Marine Wing Support Squadron 371.

Task Force Nomad’s helicopter landing zones allow rotary-winged aircraft ranging from light attack helicopters to MV-22B Ospreys and heavy support helicopters access to the dozens of patrol bases that pepper the Helmand River valley.

The bases help rid the region of violence and terror while earning the trust of the Afghan citizens. As Afghan and coalition forces hunt down the enemy and integrate with the populace, they do so knowing the dynamic capabilities of Marine Corps aviation lay just beyond the clouds.

Marine Wing Support Squadron 371, and its small task force, is in place to provide those air assets with whatever they need on the ground.

“Our role as a Marine wing support squadron is to support flying squadrons, whether for medical evacuations or attack aircraft,” said Capt. Michael Gagnon, a native of Oxford, Mass., who commands the small detachment. “What we’re doing here allows troops to get resupply and casualty evacuation.”

The small team of roughly 20 men is made up of Marines and a Navy Corpsman from more than 10 different occupational specialties. Together, they will construct landing zones, allowing the full might of Marine aviation to support the forces operating in the valley.

2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), headquartered at Camp Leatherneck, commands and controls aviation for the region.  It provides coalition forces with the ability to move safely and quickly around the battlespace, receive vital supplies, strike the enemy with lethality and accuracy, and medically evacuate wounded coalition forces or Afghan civilians.

“Personally, what we’re doing has a real honorable cause behind it,” said Sgt. Eric Zauner, the task force’s senior motor vehicle operator and a native of Greendale, Wis. “Anything we can do to get medical attention for the Marines faster – that’s first and foremost in my mind.”

In the early morning hours of Oct. 21, the task force left for its first mission.

Convoying down Route 611, an important and busy road in Helmand province busy with cars, trucks and motorcycles, the convoy pressed on under the watchful eyes of the military policemen tasked with protecting the task force’s operations.

“Convoying up these routes with all this traffic is difficult. It’s hard to have vehicles all around your convoy and feel secure,” said Gunnery Sgt. Ronald D. Williams Jr., of Saint Charles, Mo., who heads the military police platoon for Marine Wing Support Squadron 371. “We’re going to stay vigilant, stay alert. My guys are well trained and know what they’re doing. I have great noncommissioned officers, they run the show.”

The convoy arrived at their destination to build a gravel helicopter landing zone. The unit’s compound was built alongside a village.

Task Force Nomad began the work enabling a viable and safe helicopter landing zone that would support the weight of a Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter or MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft.

“Enabling medevac is huge, reducing the time from when someone is injured to when they’re in the hospital,” Coste said. “If we can do that, it’s worth any effort or sweat.”

Cpl. Christopher Cane, a heavy equipment operator with Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 and a native of Olympia, Wash., manned an armored bulldozer, spreading gravel for the construction of the landing zone.

“It’s always a challenge coming into a situation not knowing what you’re going to find,” Cane said. “Luckily we can move the earth beneath us.”

“I’m proud of these guys,” Coste said at the end of a successful operation. “We went somewhere we’ve never been and we didn’t know what we would find when we got there. There were a lot of unknowns and we made it happen.”

Gagnon, who is on his third Afghan deployment in two years, said future successes come with challenges.

“This is a thinking man’s war,” Gagnon said. “The enemy is watching. If I do things the same way twice, the chances dramatically increase for an incident.”

Gagnon said his Marines were the most important asset to the mission.

“There are only three things I need – weapons, equipment and my personnel,” Gagnon said. “They bring a unique skill set central to setting up [helicopter landing zones].”

“If at any point we get into trouble or take enemy fire, I have no doubt this detachment can handle it,” Zauner said. “It’s what we’ve been training for, it’s what we’re here for.”

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