In preparation for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Marine Attack Squadron 311 participated in a month-long Integrated Training Exercise held at Camp Wilson aboard Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., Jan. 5 through Feb. 8.
With Marines from Marine Aircraft Group 13, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 268, Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 167 and Marine Wing Support Squadron 271 taking part in the exercise, the mindset of VMA-311 remains that of a squadron readying for a deployment on the horizon.
“It’s important because it puts Marines in an environment that ups the tempo,” said Sgt. Matthew Babcock, VMA-311 powerline non-commissioned officer in charge and a native of Hightstown, N.J. “It builds everybody up a little bit so they can get a taste of what we’re actually going to do.”
Integrated close air support training between Marines on the ground and air helped better prepare communication, mission objectives, and productivity for future forward deployment operations. The Corps first ITX, replacing exercise Enhanced Mojave Viper, provided the Tomcats with a strong, first-hand source of experience of what they’ll be doing overseas.
“Our Marines fix, fly and maintain the AV-8B Harrier, working 12-14 hours a day,” said Sgt. Maj. David Wilson, VMA-311 sergeant major and native of Sacramento, Calif. “They specialize in different parts of the aircraft – You have Marines that specialize working on the airframe itself, you have Marines that specialize with working on the engine and control the different aspects of maintenance; including all of the avionic components and communication systems.”
Getting back to their grassroots in Marine Air Ground Task Force operations, the Tomcats consider the ITX an opportunity for senior and junior Marines to refine their skills, build some synergy with participating units and take in the training necessary to prepare for an April deployment.
“It’s been awesome working with the units out here. One of the things you find being in the Marine Corps any length of time is that Marine units tend to not be too much different,” said Wilson. “So that when you go coordinate with your fellow Marines, whether they be from Camp Pendleton, Twentynine Palms, or Cherry Point – It always feels like home.”
To simulate a deployed environment, continuous operations throughout the exercise put the pilots, the squadron and supporting units in a high paced expeditionary setting that makes communication at all levels crucial.
However, ensuring mission readiness also means the squadron not only worked in conjunction with many commands, but made sure to work on their own basics. Ordnance technicians on the flight line practiced each of their roles; going over ammunition loading procedures and making sure birds came in and out on schedule.
“We have a lot more flights going on here than we normally would back in Yuma, a lot of ordnance being used,” said Lance Cpl. Miguel Pickett, a VMA-311 ordnance technician and a native of Sherwood, Ill. “It’s a great learning experience.”
Building confidence through mentorship was also a big part of the exercise. Those who’ve deployed as recently as 7 months ago take their junior Marines under their experienced wing and supervise. Spreading lessons learned and valuable know-how to ensure they fight next to well trained Marines is one of the many objectives of the pre-deployment ITX for VMA-311.
“I feel pretty confident about going over there and doing a good job, not really worried about it,” said Lance Cpl. Patrick Willis, a VMA-311 avionics technician and a native of Concord, Calif. “I’ve learned that smooth is fast and fast is smooth – It’s an experience where I’ve actually learned more about the jet and what I can do better.”
The Yuma, Ariz.,-based squadron is slated to deploy from MCAS Yuma, Ariz., to Afghanistan later in the year.