TIRANE-RINAS, Albania -- The Marines and Sailors of Marine Aerial Refueler and Transport Squadron 252 have had a remarkable and challenging 2003 so far. From supporting the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) in Bahrain in March to the 26th MEU (SOC) in northern Iraq in April and again now in Albania, VMGR-252 has continued to answer the call for fuel and cargo support throughout the world.
In support of the 26th MEU (SOC), VMGR-252 was the "backbone of support upon which the MEU sustained itself during Operation Iraqi Freedom," said Maj. Scott R. Roys, air officer, 26th MEU (SOC).
"Their support was phenomenal in Iraq and again here in Albania. Whenever we asked for their support, they were always ready to go and offered all they could. A real force multiplier for us," said the Wadena, Iowa, native.
After returning home to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., in early May following support of the MEU's combat operations in Mosul, Iraq, the more than 40 squadron members spent just five days with their families and friends before packing their gear and heading to Albania for the 26th MEU (SOC)'s bilateral training exercise.
"I've never seen a squadron deploy as many aircraft and personnel in such a short period of time as we have in 2003," said Maj. Wayne M. Bunker, 35, the VMGR detachment officer-in-charge in Albania. "We've gotten very good at picking up and going on short notice," said the Knoxville, Tenn., native.
One of the big misconceptions about the Marine KC-130 community is that it is able to "self deploy" with everything it needs to sustain itself, Bunker explained.
"While we move our people, aircraft parts, personal gear and 'war bags' - filled with nuclear, biological and chemical gear and combat gear for all our personnel, we also have to bring our own armorers, satellite communications operators and our 'flight doc.' What we can't provide for ourselves are essential items such as tents, chow, water and ground support equipment. Those we have to get from the unit we're supporting," Bunker said.
Of all the support required for the KC-130's, one of the most difficult to overcome is ground support equipment.
"If you had a 1,000 lb. propeller to replace, for example, it sits 13 feet off the ground. You would need a crane and I can't bring that to the fight with me," said Maj. Rod A. Funk, 37, the executive officer of the forward-deployed detachment.
Even with these challenges, the maintainers have done a fantastic job, the Lancaster, Penn., native said. "The airplanes are holding up well and I think that everyone is generally pleased to be part of the Marine Air Ground Task Force here."
To support the Marines in Albania, VMGR-252 brought two KC-130 transport airplanes. The first is the KC-130F fuel tanker variant with a large fuel tank in the cargo area of the aircraft, and the other, a newer KC-130R model, has two 21,000 lb. capacity external fuel tanks and can carry a 23,000 lb. fuel tank in the cargo bay. The major advantage of the external tanks is their ability to refuel aircraft and carry cargo simultaneously, Bunker explained. "While the F model can transfer fuel much faster, the R model offers us far more flexibility," Bunker said.
For the Marines and Sailors of VMGR-252, "flexibility" has truly been key. Traditionally advertised as capable of deploying a two-plane detachment within four days of notification to support a deployed MEU, VMGR-252 has responded much more rapidly in recent months. When called to support operations in Mosul, for example, the squadron had its first two planes airborne in just 10 hours, said Bunker.
Further illustrating the importance of flexibility, the KC-130 planners spoke of the benefits of being collocated with the 26th MEU (SOC) command post in Albania.
"When we're operating out of Sigonella [Italy], Rota [Spain] or elsewhere, we're basically limited to running logistics runs," said Funk. "When we are here, we're better integrated into the training plan which allows us to incorporate our core training areas into the [Aviation Combat Element's] overall plan. We get to do some of the training that we want to accomplish while at the same time better supporting the MEU commander's needs. It makes things a lot more efficient because we can do face-to-face planning and can respond more rapidly to 'pop ups' as they arise," he said.
The squadron members were a little apprehensive at first when told they were headed to the field in Albania. "But after a few hours here, the camaraderie kicked in and Marines enjoyed simply being Marines," said Bunker. "I think that the Marines are in a routine now and are going with the flow."
For the Marines of VMGR-252, they are right where they want to be. "We love supporting our fellow Marines. Often, when a request for support has come down, it's not been a case of who has to go but rather who has to stay!" Funk said. "We all hope that the MEU commander asks for us again."
To learn more about VMGR-252 and the 26th MEU (SOC), visit them on the web at www.26meu.usmc.mil.