CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- As the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) headed toward the United States aboard the amphibious assault ships of the WASP Expeditionary Strike Group, most of the unit's Marines and Sailors were looking ahead to their long-awaited reunions with family and friends.
However, the MEU's aviation combat element, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), took the time also to look back on their combat service in Afghanistan.
In a ceremony in the WASP's hanger bay, 52 Marines and Sailors were awarded the Combat Aircrew Insignia (CAI).
Anti-coalition militia learned first hand how sharp the claws of the Fighting Griffins were during the 3,600 hours of combat flight time HMM-266 (Rein) amassed during their tour in Afghanistan.
Stars on the combat air crewman wings designate how many flight hours or sorties the Marine has flown. For the Griffins to earn their stars, each crewman had to fly 15 hours of combat flight hours or conduct 11 combat sorties per star. Marines can wear up to three stars on their wings, though if the Marine earns more, the stars are kept in his record.
Their time in the air has only made them more prepared for whatever mission the Griffins have ahead of them.
"It's really good experience for me because being in the Navy and being a corpsman, I really wasn't into the flying thing," said PO3 Christopher White, of Indianapolis, Ind., one of several corpsmen who earned their CAI. "It's an experience a lot of corpsmen don't get to have."
Whether flying to drop Marines off in search of anti-coalition militia or picking up supplies in support of activities in Task Force Linebacker's area of operations, HMM-266 (Rein) aircraft were continually in danger of small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).
The crew chiefs, aerial observers and corpsmen of the squadron had to remain on their toes whenever they went "wheels up."
"Every day we flew, there was something new," said Sgt. Kenneth Matthews, a CH-53E Super Stallion aerial observer form Parksley, Va., who personally accrued 120 hours of combat flight time. "We were always on high alert."
The Griffins flew a over 2,800 combat sorties in Afghanistan, performing troop and cargo transportation as well as providing escort and air cover for Marines on the ground.
Among the CAI recipients were two search-and-rescue corpsmen attached to the MEU Command Element. For a complete list of those awarded the CAI, visit http://www.usmc.mil/22ndmeu/Profiles-of-Courage.htm.
In addition to HMM-266 (Rein) and the MEU Command Element, the 22nd MEU (SOC) Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 6th Marines and MEU Service Support Group 22.
For more information on the 22nd MEU (SOC), visit the unit's web site at http://www.22meu.usmc.mil.