KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan -- AV-8B Harrier II attack jets from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) recently conducted ground attack missions against anti-coalition militia in Afghanistan's Oruzgan province in support of the MEU's ground forces.
Based out of Kandahar Air Field, the Harriers have seen extensive use flying escort and reconnaissance missions, but the missions beginning on June 2 marked their first true combat sorties since the MEU's arrival in Afghanistan in mid-April.
"We've been flying a lot of aerial reconnaissance missions, helicopter convoy escorts, and now, finally, close air support," said Lt. Col. Sean Blochberger, officer-in-charge of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced)'s Harrier detachment, as he suited up for another mission.
Perhaps best known for its ability to take off and land vertically, the Harrier has been the mainstay of the Marine Corps' fixed-wing ground attack inventory for nearly 20 years. It has seen extensive combat in Operations DESERT STORM, ENDURING FREEDOM, and IRAQI FREEDOM, Bosnian peace-enforcement operations, and with deploying MEUs since the late 1980s.
The six-plane detachment assigned to HMM-266 (Rein) is drawn from Marine Attack Squadron 542 (VMA-542) out of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., and many of its pilots and ground support personnel are veterans of last year's war in Iraq.
"It feels good to finally be utilized like we're supposed to," said Sgt. Jason Cordoza, of Whitefish, Montana, an aircraft maintainer, commenting on the current rash of ground sorties undertaken by the Harriers.
"Everything's running really smooth," he said. "The tempo's the same for us, but there's a greater sense of urgency because we know we need to make sure we send the planes out so they can do what they need to do."
According to the Marines, so long as the grunts need their support, the planes will keep flying, dropping bombs, firing rockets, and shooting its 25mm gun pods.
"We've really picked up the pace in the last few days," said Capt. Jonathan Lundy, an AV-8B Harrier pilot assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), the MEU's aviation combat element. "We're running longer missions and added sorties, but this is our bread and butter - supporting the grunts."
In addition to HMM-266 (Rein), the 22nd MEU (SOC) consists of its Command Element, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, and MEU Service Support Group 22. The MEU is in Afghanistan conducting combat and civil military operations as Task Force Linebacker.
For more information on the 22nd MEU (SOC)'s role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.