CENTRAL COMMAND AREA OF OPERATIONS -- When the AV8B Harrier IIs of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) recently shot off the flight deck of the USS Wasp, bound for the skies over Afghanistan, their wing stations bristled with ordnance and imagery equipment that enabled them to accomplish the first aerial combat missions of the unit's current deployment.
Responsible for preparing and loading that equipment were the ordnance technicians of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 (Reinforced), the MEU's aviation combat element. Easily distinguished by their red vests, these highly-skilled Marines scurried around the aircraft ensuring the Harriers were properly equipped for their combat missions that were executed over a number of successive days.
During the MEU's deployment, which began in late February when the three ships of the Wasp MEU Amphibious Ready Group left the coastal waters of Camp Lejeune, N.C., the 'red shirts' have loaded live ordnance on the Harriers on several occasions. They have flown with live ordnance during a fire support exercise in the east African nation of Djibouti, during key geographical transits, and as alert aircraft during operations and exercises ashore.
However, arming and equipping the aircraft for the flights into Afghan airspace put the Marines in a different mindset even though they weren't specifically told the Harriers' destination.
"There seemed to be greater unit cohesion," said Staff Sgt. Eric C. Wilson, an ordnance technician from North Providence, R.I., who said the Marines had a good idea as to where the aircraft were headed. "No one talked about it, but everyone knew something was happening. People just got out of our way so we could get the job done."
Each day, the Marines assembled 500-pound GBU-12 'Paveway' laser-guided munitions and hoisted them onto the Harrier's wing stations, carefully ensuring the weapons were properly armed and in sync with the Harriers' onboard weapons systems to ensure a smooth delivery should the need arise.
"We conducted business like we do every time we prepare and load ordnance, but this time there was an added sense of purpose," said Wilson, commenting on loading the ordnance onto an aircraft going into harm's way. "We all had a sense of excitement that we were quite possibly making a difference in the war on terrorism."
"It's not every day you can load live ordnance on aircraft for real missions," said Cpl. Jacob L. Beach, of Lakeville, Ind., an ordnance technician. "Whenever we deal with live ordnance, we are naturally more attentive, and loading for these missions made us all feel good because we got to do something for the cause, and it was exciting to see the aircraft take off."
In addition to munitions, the ordnance technicians were responsible for outfitting the aircraft with necessary counter-measures such as flares and 'chaff,' a metal filament dispersed in clouds behind the Harriers to disrupt incoming enemy missiles. Wilson and his crews also loaded onto the Harriers a new imagery and targeting system known as the Litening II Pod. Closely resembling a gun or rocket pod, Litening II is mounted on a wing station and provides the MEU with unique imaging and targeting capabilities.
The Marine Corps received the Litening II Pod in late 2000 and immediately put the system through a lengthy and exhaustive test run before deploying it with the 22nd MEU (SOC). It consists of a forward-looking infra red (FLIR) sensor for its targeting mission and a charged coupled device (CCD-TV) camera for video reconnaissance, effectively combining what in the past were several systems into one, compact package.
"We're doing something really good out here," said Beach, commenting on his unit's role in the first-ever operational employment of the Litening II Pod. "We're the first ones to use Litening and we're setting the standards for lazing targets in future operations."
Lance Cpl. Brendon B. Garcia is an ordnance technician from Walsenburg, Colo., and said his team pulled together when the need arose.
"We all worked together really well and tried to treat it as a normal evolution even though we all assumed there was a possibility of the pilots needing the ordnance and equipment we were loading."
"We [the MEU] are out here as the 'tip of the spear', and as ordnance, we're the very point of that tip," said Wilson a safety observer for HMM-261 (Rein). "All the maintenance and labor that goes into the Harrier stops with ordnance. We're the reason the aircraft was created and everyone works so hard to keep them flying."
These missions in Afghanistan were the latest in a string of exercises and operations conducted by the 22nd MEU (SOC) in the ongoing global war against terrorism, most of which are still and will remain undisclosed.
For more information on the 22nd MEU (SOC), visit the unit's website at www.22meu.usmc.mil.