CENTRAL COMMAND AREA OF OPERATIONS -- Far from home in a region where temperatures regularly top 120 degrees and working on planes a decade older than themselves, a small group of KC-130R Hercules maintainers are working miracles behind the scenes and out of sight.
"Our detachment is young, but very experienced," said Staff Sgt. Eric Buchheim, of Virginia Beach, Virginia.
Buchheim is one of the senior Marines in the maintenance section of the two-Hercules detachment from Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 252 assigned to support the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) as it conducts combat operations in south-central Afghanistan.
"I'd say we have one of the most experienced dets in the squadron," he continued, commenting on the Marines' varied experiences supporting training exercises, Operations ENDURING and IRAQI FREEDOM, and the recent stabilization mission in Liberia. "Everyone knows their stuff. The Marines are tired, but busting their butts to keep the planes flying."
"Since we began flying into FOB Ripley [Forward Operating Base Ripley - the MEU's base of operations] on May 4 we've only had to cancel three missions due to mechanical problems," said Capt. Jason Kindred, a KC-130R Hercules pilot. "These guys are doing wonders keeping the planes flying in this environment."
Canceling three out of nearly 250 missions is a remarkable feat by any standard, and is made all the more impressive by the inhospitable conditions under which the aircraft's maintainers work.
"It's the same job, but made different by the environment," said Cpl. Kevin Jones, of Fair Oaks, Calif., one of the detachment maintainers. "The heat [120 degrees plus] is the biggest problem because it's hard on the Marines and the engines. We have to monitor the aircraft more closely and jump on any discrepancies the flight crew notice."
Based out of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C. and flying out of a remote airfield in an undisclosed country in the Central Command area of operations, the aircraft have flown daily into FOB Ripley.
Prior to a mission the ground crew's job is relatively easy. While they ensure the aircraft are topped off with fuel, flight mechanics assigned to the air crew conduct pre-flight inspections. It's upon the aircraft's return that the maintainers get busy.
"As soon as the aircraft land we get the list of discrepancies and get to work," said Sgt. Eric Williams, of Lone Pine, Calif., an air frames specialist serving as the detachment's quality assurance supervisor. "We have to make sure the aircraft are ready to turn-around as soon as possible, and once had to work up to 24 hours non-stop to get it done."
"The grunts have their dirty days, and so do we."
Williams knows first-hand the importance of his detachment's mission. Before becoming a KC-130R maintainer, the 28-year-old married father of three was a rifleman in BLT 1/6, one of the units he is supporting. In fact, he deployed with the 24th MEU in 1998 when Col. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the current commanding officer of the 22nd MEU (SOC), had the reins of BLT 1/6.
"I try to tell the young guys how important what we're doing is," said Williams. "Of course our job is the same whether we're training or in an operation, but now there seems to be a greater sense of purpose since we're in a fight."
In addition to BLT 1/6, the 22nd MEU (SOC) consists of its Command Element, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), 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.