HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan: In a historic combat first, Marines from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 772, Combat Logistics Battalion 8 and 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment worked together to air lift two M777A2 lightweight howitzers from Fire Base Fiddler’s Green in Helmand Province and set them up for action at Forward Operating Base Golestan Sept. 28. A third was convoyed here to be carried by CH-53E helicopter the following morning.
“When the Marine Corps decided to procure a lightweight 155mm cannon in the 1990s, it was largely driven by the need to have a more air transportable capability,” explained 3/11 commanding officer Lt. Col. James C. Lewis. 3/11, operating under Regimental Combat Team 3, is the only Marine artillery battalion in Afghanistan. “Our maneuver tonight is the first combat test of that capability.”
While the Marines were moving the artillery pieces across country, 3/11 still had to maintain their capability to provide support when needed for the Marines around Nawa and Garmsir, where 1/5 and 2/8 have been operating since early July. So 3/11 sent Marines to Golestan to receive and emplace the guns upon their arrival.
“Sending an advanced party down to set up the gun positions while maintaining firing capability was important,” said Gunnery Sgt. Marcus Chestnut, Battery I gunnery sergeant.
In order to successfully pull off this complicated maneuver, these units which don’t normally operate together had to work hand-in-hand, according to Chestnut. As it turns out, bringing them all together was the key to success.
Rather than towing the howitzers as an artillery battery is trained to do, these guns had to be transported between Fiddler’s Green and Golestan by air because of unique conditions here. That’s where HMH-772 and CLB-8 came in.
“The IED threat and terrain constraints were a huge factor deterring 3/11’s ability from being able to safely (move) the guns to this position,” said Staff Sgt. Bryan T. Housel, CLB-8 landing support platoon commander. “By externally lifting the howitzer and gun teams by air, we were able to safely move the weapons into place without the added risk of ground transport to the weapon or Marines.”
Marines on the five-man Helicopter Support Team, a part of Housel’s platoon, are responsible for rigging loads with cargo straps so they will be balanced under the aircraft. Once the aircraft arrives overhead, one of them must guide the pilot who can’t see what is taking place underneath and 30 feet behind him. After the aircraft is guided down over the waiting cargo, another Marine smacks the helicopter’s dangling cargo hook with a metal rod to dissipate the static electricity built up by its rotors. Two others then hook up the cargo – in this case a 9,800 pound artillery piece – all while the second largest helicopter in the world bobs and weaves within arm’s reach overhead. This process usually takes place in less than 30 seconds.
Sling-loading equipment or supplies under a cargo helicopter is dangerous business. However, after a successful lift, the feeling of accomplishment is impossible to ignore.
“I am so proud of my guys for how flawlessly and professionally they performed,” Housel said. “Safely lifting that piece of gear is no easy feat, but you would not have known it by watching them.”
Now that 3/11 has another footprint in Golestan, they will be able to provide on-call artillery support when the Marines on the ground there call for it.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Lewis said. “The Marine Corps trains as an air-ground team and this is just a product of that coming together.”