ABOARD USS KEARSARGE -- Each day as the helicopters and jets of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-162 (Reinforced) fire up the engines for flight operations here, the call sounds out over the ship’s public address system "Set TRAP alert 120" and approximately 24 Marines and one sailor from 1st Platoon, Golf Company, Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment spring to action.
TRAP stands for tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel. It’s a critical mission the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) must be prepared to execute on a moments notice. Should a pilot go down in a hostile environment, every second counts. For a recovery mission, the team must launch via helicopter from the ship as quickly as possible.
Once on the ground, their primary mission is safely recover the pilot.
Secondary TRAP missions may include repairing the downed aircraft so it can be flown back to the ship, or in an extreme case, destroying it in place with explosives to prevent it falling in enemy hands.
The "alert 120" is just one of several levels of readiness applied by the team to ensure they are prepared to respond quickly if the call comes in. It means the team can launch a TRAP mission in 120 minutes.
"Alert 120" is actually the second stage in a four-level alert status. The first stage is "alert 180" where the team simply ensures it has 100 percent accountability of each team member and all their gear.
The second stage is alert 120, one the Marines here have come very proficient at executing since operations in the Arabian Gulf region began. For "alert 120," the Marines don their combat gear and draw their weapons from the armory. The team then musters on the hangar deck of the ship to draw ammunition, stage their gear and account for all personnel and equipment. This alert level is established here each day that aviation missions are scheduled to take the aircraft inland. After the gear is staged the Marines return to their berthing areas and stand by for further direction. Each "alert 120" has ended the same to this point with the Marines gathering up their gear and standing down at the conclusion of the flight schedule.
The final two alert levels are ones that everyone hopes will not have to be used during this deployment, as they signal an actual incident.
"I would not want to actually be called, because that might mean that one of our own is hurt," said Sgt. Diego M. Gonzales, the 21-year-old team leader for TRAP platoon search team one. He went on to say that should that day come, he and the rest of the platoon are ready. "I have good confidence in our team, and I know the mission will get done right," he said.
Gonzales, a native of Santa Fe, N.M., went on to say that due to the extensive pre-deployment training, every member of the team, down to the lowest man, knows his job inside and out.
He said if there ever was a man down in the field waiting to be rescued, and he could tell him one thing in advance, it would be that "he is going to be in good hands with 1st Platoon."
The TRAP team has several configurations that are employed based on the mission at hand, explained Gonzales.
All configurations are built around two or three search teams of four or five men each and the headquarters element. The headquarters element consists of security personnel, combat engineers, a Navy Corpsman, a satellite communication operator, a forward air controller, a combat cameraman and the platoon commander and staff non-commissioned officer in charge.
The first priority of a TRAP mission is for the headquarters element to establish security and a base of operations in the landing zone. Next it’s up to the search teams to use their training to locate the downed pilot.
Gonzales, along with the rest of first platoon, rehearsed TRAP missions extensively during the work-up cycle. He said when the team hits the ground, they have already been extensively briefed and have grid coordinates and a good idea just where they are going to find their downed pilot.
Once the pilot is located, the team authenticates his identity in accordance with military standards. From there, the tempo of the operation depends heavily on any threats in the area and the pilot’s medical condition as assessed by the corpsman.
The hope is that if the team ever executes a recovery operation, they will find a healthy pilot ready to move to the helicopter on his own power. If not, Gonzales said it’s up to the platoon corpsman to stabilize the casualty for transport by stretcher. From this point on, the health of the pilot is the main concern and the corpsman often calls the shots, Gonzales said.
"If we are moving him on a stretcher, and say his heart rate drops, if the Corpsman says put him down, we do it," he said.
The TRAP force also supports another similar operation where the focus is on bringing back the aircraft.
For example, if a helicopter pilot experiences mechanical difficulties in flight and has to land his aircraft in a less than desirable location, it is likely he and the crew may leave his aircraft behind and fly back with another helicopter on the same mission. Or, if the environment permits, the crew may remain on the ground and wait for the TRAP force to arrive with the necessary parts and maintenance personnel to fix the aircraft and fly it back to the ship or nearby base.
In either case, the TRAP team would arrive with the maintenance technicians and aircrew necessary to fix the aircraft and bring it home.
Whatever mission may, or may not, await them, the TRAP platoon remains a vital asset to the MEU as it continues distributed operations in the Central Command area of responsibility. As Gonzales put it, "If something bad happens, we don’t have to rely on outside assets, we have what we need internally."
To learn more about the 26th MEU (SOC), log on to www.usmc.mil/26thmeu.