CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan --
Somewhere in the darkness, beyond the barbed wire and concrete walls of Camp Leatherneck an improvised explosive device detonates, killing one Marine and injuring another.
Shortly thereafter in a dimly-lit, windowless room on the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) compound, a phone rings. In many ways, the war is calling.
On the receiving end of the telephone, the burden now belongs to the Marines, sailors and coalition troops with the Tactical Air Command Center. They now must dispatch a medevac to carry the wounded warrior and fallen hero from the battlefield.
“No later than 15 minutes after a request comes in, we have an aircraft in the air,” said Lt. Col. Robert Cooper, a senior watch officer for the command center, and a native of Tulsa, Okla. “The standard is to have the person back within an hour to get them the medical attention they need, and we’re typically well inside that.”
“We’re the first link in getting someone back,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeffrey T. Whitson, a native of Vidalia, Ga. and one of the corpsmen who stands medical watch for the command center.
2nd MAW (Fwd.), the aviation combat element for the southwestern regional command of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, is also a primary provider of close-air support, aerial reconnaissance, troop movement and aerial resupply.
The wing provides a dynamic array of support to ground forces as they work with the people of Afghanistan to rid the region of insurgent activity.
Cooper said air power is invaluable to those efforts.
“It’s the asymmetrical advantage,” Cooper said with an astute, confident smile. “Aviation provides a great kinetic effect and the ability to protect our troops, but often overlooked is the mobility. Traveling just two kilometers can be hazardous here because of IEDs, but the ability to aerially insert quickly, that’s probably the biggest thing we bring to the fight.”
The room from which 2nd MAW (Fwd.) commands and controls that ability is small. Tiered rows point toward an array of monitors featuring maps, charts and live footage from Marine aircraft targeting systems. The troops man their posts in 8- to 12-hour shifts. Led by the senior watch officer, they must both execute a planned strategy and react to calls for medevacs and close air support from the troops on the ground.
“No plan survives contact with the enemy,” Cooper said.
In the six months that 2nd MAW (Fwd.) has been responsible for the air above Regional Command Southwest, in addition to many planned operations, the wing has supported 2,000 medevacs and double that number of immediate close-air support requests, Cooper estimated.
The high demand for air support means the Marines, sailors and coalition members under the senior watch officer’s charge must be able to quickly anticipate, prioritize and react when lives are on the line; a task that is often difficult.
In May, the enemy launched a coordinated assault on multiple positions simultaneously, a day 1st Lt. Martha A. Hiett, a senior representative for the Marine Air Command and Control System at the command center, described as one of the most hectic days since she arrived in Afghanistan in February.
Insurgent activity was at abnormally high levels near Camp Leatherneck, and at many of the small combat outposts and forward operating bases that line Afghanistan’s Helmand River valley.
“It was the day we took indirect fire here,” said Hiett, a native of Willow Springs, Mo. “We received about 20 requests in an extremely short time frame, all priority or immediate.”
But after a few hours of precision air strikes coordinated through the command center, Marines and their coalition partners had beaten the enemy back.
“We had no one killed in action that day, but we did have a few minor injuries,” Hiett said. “But overall it was a very bad day for the enemy.”