MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, CALIF. -- Part one of a four part series
In the Marine Corps, landing support Marines are distinguished from other Marines by squares of bright red cloth on their covers, trousers, and blouses. But when everyone else on base is wearing the Airman battledress uniform, the 20 landing support Marines assigned to March Air Reserve base stand out even without considering their red patches.
March Air Reserve Base hosts one of only three Marine Expeditionary Force Aerial Ports of Embarkation in the continental United States, the other two APOEs being located on Marine Corps Bases. The 20 Marines and 12 Airmen from the Aerial Port Support Flight work together to run March's APOE, commonly known on base as "the deployment hangar."
"We work hand in hand with the Marines, deploying I MEF assets daily. We coordinate with each other for successful mission deployments," said Tech. Sgt. Geoffrey Gaeraths, noncommissioned officer in charge of passenger terminal services for the 452nd Logistics Readiness Squadron. " We're both integral parts, working together to get the mission done."
During the World War II island hopping campaign, the landing support Marines were a part of the first wave onto beaches so they could set up the heavy equipment. But with the infantry Marines continuing forward, some of the landing support Marines would be swept ahead while some of the infantry Marines would attempt to stay back. The solution was the red patch, which is still used today to designate Marines in the landing support military occupational specialty (0481).
While landing support Marines still deploy on Navy ships as part of Marine Expeditionary Units, they now also have the mission of forming airfield departure arrival control groups (A/DACGs) responsible for processing Marines for flights in and out of the theater of operations.
Red patchers at March The A/DACG Marines are on temporary additional duty orders from Marine Logistics Group, Combat Logistics Regiment 17, Landing Support Company at Camp Pendleton. The TAD orders are for three months, but with more than half of the 400 Marines in the Landing Support Company deployed and the increase in flights that are a part of the troop surge in Afghanistan, the current A/DACG Marines' orders have been extended by three months. Not that they mind.
"We love it here," said Cpl. Cody Kramer, originally of Bloomsburg, Penn.
"Marine bases are hectic. This base is real quiet. It's calming out here," added Cpl. Eric Huff of Moore, Oklahoma. Gunnery Sgt. Jeremiah Rick, officer in charge of the March A/DACG, says working at March is a reward and a privilege for the Marines, who are selected to come to March based on their performance "at company."
Processing deployers At March, the Marines are assigned to two teams and they work alternating days. The Marines check the single mobility system computer twice a day for incoming missions. The team assigned to a given mission opens the deployment hangar and the Marines get set in their positions six hours before a flight is scheduled to depart.
"Each Marine has a specific job that they do somewhere inside or outside the hangar," Gunnery Sgt. Rick said. "To them it may not seem like much, but each Marine here has a vital role."
The deploying Marines arrive on buses and the A/DACG Marines brief them about hangar rules and the embarkation process. As deploying Marines file off the busses and into the hangar, they clear their weapons in a clearing barrel while an A/DACG Marine checks the chamber. With group sizes commonly exceeding 250, and some Marines carrying multiple weapons, this means the A/DAGC Marines could be observing 500 consecutive weapons clearing evolutions.
"We always get compliments on how well they [the A/DACG Marines] are doing," said Sgt. William Ducotey, the team leader for Bravo Team. "They're extremely hard workers. They're really dedicated to everything they do. Some of the smaller things they do could easily be overlooked, but these guys don't."
After the deployers have cleared their weapons, the A/DACG Marines weigh each passenger with their carry on and scan their military ID card to verify the manifest.
"The plane has to stand by on the tarmac until the count is perfect, " said Corporal Huff.
Meanwhile, A/DACG Marines are posted at both hangar entrances and the gate to control access, which can be tricky, especially when a Marine's family members show up unexpectedly. The watch noncommissioned officer tracks the incoming aircraft's progress and, via radio communication, finesses the steps in the embarkation process down to the minute.
"The Marines have an outstanding work ethic and if they're given a task or a job, they make sure it's done--accurately and precisely," said Sergeant Gaeraths.
Cpl. Carl Apilado, the A/DACG cargo manager, supervises a working party from the group of deploying Marines to move sea bags from the luggage truck onto a K-loader and, later, into the aircraft. Corporal Apilado works additional cargo-only missions, conducting joint inspections with ATOC Airmen to ensure the cargo meets both Marine Corps and Air Force specifications.
While the A/DACG Marines manage the details of the embarkation, the deploying Marines have a chance to unwind after saying good-bye to their families. They watch TV, play cards, read, and forage the snack table the deployment hangar volunteers operate.
"Their job once they get up here is to relax. They have six hours to kill before they get on the aircraft to fly out of here and the stress should be on me and my Marines," said Gunnery Sergeant Rick.
The A/DACG members also process Marines arriving and departing from Ontario International Airport, which includes II MEF Marines traveling to and from the Mojave Viper exercise at 29 Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, which is mandatory pre-deployment training for all Marines.
Through their job at the deployment hangar, the A/DACG Marines work in a facilitative role with high ranking officers and senior noncommissioned officers.
"When I first came up here, I was a junior Marine. What really surprised me was my authority up here," said Corporal Kramer, who is now on his second rotation at the A/DACG.
"Yes, you have rank in the military and you're always going to respect that rank, but they [senior leaders] also respect your authority."
"In the Marine Corps, if you get a coin from a higher up, it's a big deal. A lot of my guys have gotten coins," said Sergeant Ducotey. "They are extremely good at using tact."
Hard work, away from home
Although the Marines thoroughly enjoy duty at March, the job does come with challenges. Missions can come in at any hour of the day or night, and sometimes, there is more than one mission a day.
Additionally, when weather delays a flight, the Marines wait with the deployers for hours, sometimes even overnight.
"I've seen them go on no sleep for days. They just amaze me," said Laura Froehlich, director of volunteers at the hangar who has worked alongside A/DACG Marines for more than a decade. "The Marines are so helpful and courteous. They're very, very kind and eager to help. There's no group that works harder."
Because of the unpredictable nature of the A/DACG mission, the Marines live in base quarters and, therefore, sacrifice the little time they have with their families when they're not deployed themselves. The Marines do not take leave during the TAD and with just one day off at a time, it isn't easy to make trips back to Camp Pendleton to spend time with their loved ones.
To help ease the isolation, the Marines band together for PT when they have free time between missions, often pitting the Alpha Team against the Bravo Team in friendly competition. Froehlich helps, too, by taking the Marines under her wing, hosting barbeques, inviting them to volunteer in the community and, once, escorting them on a wine tasting excursion.
"The Marines don't report to anybody at March. They report to Pendleton. Sometimes they don't always get the word about what's all going on at base," Froehlich said. "They are team players. It's important that they can feel a sense of belonging here."
Another challenging aspect of A/DACG duty is staying behind while watching other Marines deploy.
"Marines want to deploy," said Gunnery Sgt. Rick. "I've sent about 15 friends of mine out of here. You see them going out there and doing what we're trained to do and you want to be out there with them."
Last month, the A/DACG processed a deploying group that included 40 Marines from the Landing Support Company who have served at the deployment hangar. As the group arrived, Froehlich's cell phone was flooded with text messages and voicemails from the Marines' mothers asking Froehlich to give their sons hugs when they arrived at March.
"Wishing the red patchers well and safety is very, very hard, especially when I've seen them up here working for three months or six months," Froehlich said.
Gunnery Sgt. Rick is set to deploy this fall and expects to process through the hangar at March. "It will be different because I'm so used to being in charge," he said.
But until then, Gunnery Sgt. Rick and his Marines will continue to enjoy their orders to March while meeting demands of the steady stream of missions to Afghanistan.