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HMLA-775 Coyotes Prowl Iraqi skies

Marine Corps News

Release Date: 5/13/2004

Story by Sgt. Nathan K. LaForte

AL TAQQADUM, Iraq(May 14, 2004) -- "I can't tell the difference between an active-duty and a Reserve unit out here which speaks highly of the Reserve units we have operating in our different areas of responsibility," said Commandant of the Marine Corps General Michael W. Hagee during a visit here in April.

A perfect example of that quote is Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 775 from Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton, Calif. and Johnstown, Pa. HMLA-775 was activated in early December 2003 and is currently deployed here with Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.

Although Reserve Marines are being tasked with the same jobs and missions as their active duty counterparts while forward deployed, the work can sometimes be challenging because of the disproportionate amount of on-the-job training hours, according to Cpl. Michael A. Tamayo, UH-1N Huey crew chief, Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 775, Marine Aircraft Group 16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.

"If you add up my flying hours versus an active duty crew chief, that's been in for two years, there would be a big difference," the Los Angeles native stated. "It's difficult to learn the job and (learning) it as a reservist isn't easy. There was a lot of catching up once we were activated."

Since early March, the light attack squadron has been thrown into the fire, flying missions in support of coalition operations in and around the area known as the Sunni Triangle of Iraq.

"(We've) been doing armed reconnaissance, convoy and casualty evacuation escort, and close air support," said Staff Sgt. Mark J. Coville, UH-1N Huey crew chief, HMLA-775.

They speed the process up by getting ready ahead of time as the aircrews go into what is called a "strip alert" or standby mode, he explained.

"Typically, we go into our regular (shift) brief," the Rochester, N.Y., native said. "We'll prepare the aircraft, get it ready to go and the pilots will come out and do their radio checks. If we aren't going (on any missions yet), we'll stay with the aircraft and wait."

The Marine "mentality" has allowed the Reserve Marines to overcome any implied "disadvantages" they have in training time, the active duty staff sergeant said.

"Here, you can't think about any of the Marines as being reservists," he noted. "Every Marine wants to succeed. You give them a goal and they're going to do it."

The Reserve squadron was originally the first Reserve light attack squadron in the Marine Corps. The mix of active duty to reserve Marines is almost even, according to the Rochester, N.Y., native.

Contrary to popular belief, the reserve status of the pilots does not make them any less qualified than active duty pilots, said Capt. K.P. Pierce, HMLA-775.

"(We) have very experienced aviators," said the helicopter pilot. "A lot have been flying Cobras for a long time and all have different backgrounds that bring a lot to what we do here.

"All the experience is helping," he added. "Even the most junior pilot here is still very qualified, giving us a broad base of experience."

The Reserve squadron doesn't receive pilots from training squadrons, and the broad base of experience is valuable to current operations in Iraq, Pierce explained.

Members of the squadron realized firsthand the unstable nature of their area of operations when they escorted Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 161, MAG-16, 3rd MAW, while they evacuated more than 30 casualties from Camp Ar Ramadi after a hostile fire attack by anti-coalition forces.

"Stuff has been continuing to happen," Tamayo observed. "(Anti-coalition forces) kind of do what they want, when they want. We just respond accordingly."

The attack added another mission to the squadron's long list of support missions in which it has taken part since their arrival in country.

With all the flight hours, the pilots have taken hostile fire and the aircraft have received significant battle damage, but none have been shot down, Coville noted.

"We've been very fortunate to not actually have anything go down," he stated. "I don't know if someone is watching over us, but we have pulled through, by the skin of our teeth sometimes, without having anything catastrophic happen."

Tamayo said there could be two factors that contribute to the squadron's ability to stay in the air despite enemy fire. The first is at the beginning of the whole flight process and deals with aircraft maintenance.

"It has a lot to do mechanically with our maintainer," he explained. "They work all the time keeping (the helicopters) in the air and in the fight. I've seen them repair the planes overnight."

Pierce agreed that the maintenance Marines are a big factor in the squadron's flight operations.

"Our maintainers are doing a super job," he claimed. "They are making miracles happen everyday."

The other factor keeping the planes in the air is the crewmembers themselves, said Tamayo.

"It has to do with the pilots and aircrews keeping eyes not only out for the enemy but inside on the gauges as well," the 35-year-old crew chief said.

Coville described his actions under fire as automatic.

"A lot of times you get emotionally numb and you don't think about anything except what's going on with the aircraft," he revealed. "(My aircraft) took six (enemy) rounds flying over Fallujah. We reacted to the fire, but it wasn't until I got back that I thought about what could've happened."

The skill of their personnel and the desire of the squadron to succeed have driven its members to exceed their expectations, explained Tamayo.

"I think we always knew we could do that," he added. "I mean, reserve or active, we all earned the title of Marine."

The professionalism that Marines like Tamayo and Coville have, allowed the squadron to accomplish the missions with which it has been tasked, which is all that matters, claimed Pierce.

"The bottom line is we're out there doing the mission everyday and you wouldn't even recognize that we're a Reserve (squadron)," he concluded. "We're professional and dedicated to the mission and we want to do it well, which shows (in our performance)."

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