News

1st FSSG convoys look to sky for support

2 Jun 2004 | Lance Cpl. Samuel Bard Valliere

Marine helicopter pilots are using their bird's-eye view to combat concealed obstacles threatening convoys trekking through Iraq to deliver vital supplies to units throughout the country.

Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 775, a reserve unit stationed here, is sending its helos to accompany 1st Force Service Support Group convoys as they travel along the Al Anbar Province's dangerous highways.

The soaring sentinels speed ahead of a convoy hoping to set eyes on ambushes and homemade bombs before the vehicles reach them.

The number of convoy escorts has increased since April, when fighting in and around Fallujah kept only necessary convoys on the road, said San Francisco-native Maj. Christopher O'Balle, 34, the squadron's assistant operations officer.

Additionally, the helos were often tasked with high-priority missions such as protecting casualty evacuations and supporting infantry Marines in the city, leaving little time to support supply runs.

May saw a decrease in medical flights, freeing up pilots for the increased convoy escorts, said O'Balle.

The thumping choppers discourage insurgents from setting up traps, said Maj. Rob R. Russell, 37, a pilot who has escorted about ten convoys.

"It's intimidation, and they can't really defend against it," said 1st Lt. Austin J. Mroczek, Combat Service Support Company 113's motor transportation officer of Marcellus, Mich.

The helicopters aren't all bark, though. The squadron, which is based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Johnstown, Pa., sends out birds which pack plenty of bite, said Russell, an Oceanside, Calif., resident.

"If the convoy was ambushed, we could provide aerial fire to neutralize the threat and most likely destroy it," said Russell.

That knowledge sits well with the Marines of the 2nd Military Police Battalion, of which two platoons provide security for Combat Service Support Group 15's convoys.  The Marines are grateful to receive the help.

"They can see a lot more than we can see. It gives you more of a secure feeling," said 1st Lt. Nicholas P. Bialzik, 26, a platoon commander in the battalion.

Marines riding in the convoy's vehicles also appreciate the beefed-up security.

"(Air support) is invaluable in case we get hit," said Lance Cpl. Richard E. Leonard, a 20-year-old radio operator with CSSB-15 and Phoenix native. "It's good to have the eyes in the sky." 

Preparation for such joint ventures began in January, when the 1st FSSG began practicing convoy-escort procedures with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing's pilots during Exercise Desert Talon at the Marine Corps air station in Yuma, Ariz.

"Basically, it taught us how to do what we're doing now," said Mroczek of the exercise. "It helped us know what the pilots are thinking and vice versa."

There have been fewer enemy attacks during escorted supply runs, a fact he said serves as evidence that the Wing's support is effective.

"Every time I've had air on a convoy, I've never had any problems with attacks," said Bialzik, a native of Rosholt, Wis.
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