Photo Information

Colonel Mark Desens, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit commanding officer, brings in a CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter to a dusty landing at one of many training sites during a recent bilateral training exercise. Desens conducted a leader's recon of the entire training area, spanning three points more than 50 miles apart each.

Photo by Capt. Cailean D. Mcelheny

CO leads from air

17 Nov 2008 | Gunnery Sgt. Bryce Piper 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit


26th MEU commander conducts leader's recon

"Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown," wrote Shakespeare in Henry IV. Also uneasy lies the head ultimately responsible for missions, training, safety and welfare of thousands of Marines and sailors with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit deployed to the Middle East.

            When the Marines recently conducted a massive bilateral training exercise, 26th MEU Commanding Officer Col. Mark Desens seized an opportunity to personally conduct a leader's recon from the air to see firsthand the training locations, conditions, procedures and safety measures.

            As the commanding officer, Desens knows that plans and intentions do not always match reality, said Lt. Col. Jan January, executive officer of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-264 (Rein), who flew in the CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter with Desens. HMM-264 is the Aviation Combat Element of the 26th MEU.

            “He was interested in seeing if everything was working as advertized," said January, a Cleveland, Ohio, native, "because there's matching perception to the reality. What happens in the brief days earlier doesn't usually – the plan doesn't survive first contact with the enemy. I think he was more interested in the follow up. Was everybody doing the things they had told him they were going to do in the confirmation brief?"

Coordinated Cacophony

            During the exercise, several hundred Marines and sailors were spread across two training areas 51 miles apart and 50 miles from their origin aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima in the Arabian Gulf. With multiple ranges, landing zones and training areas, the subordinate and disparate units of the dynamic MEU had to synchronize efforts in a carefully-coordinated cacophony of movements. In the end, one man was responsible: Desens.

            "He got to see all the course rules going in and out of all the operating area," said January. "We got to run through the (Forward Arming and Refueling Point) site, so we got to see the FARP, which was a big concern … And (there were) no problems."

            In all, Desens observed the entire setup of the huge training area, according to January.

            Desens also flew to the final exercise site, where AH-1W Super Cobra and CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters, AV-8B Harrier jets, an infantry company with heavy weapons support, and host-nation forces converged on an "enemy" target.

            "He saw relative to where the reviewing stands were," January explained, "where the road was going to be where we were going to land and where the beach was. He saw what a great opportunity (it was) to jam all those aviation assets and ground pieces together."

Fleeting Opportunity

            Desens, a CH-46E Sea Knight (or "phrog") pilot, now leads the unit conducting the last deployment with the aged Sea Knight helicopters, which are being replaced by the MV-22B Osprey.

            "As an aviator, he's been so busy with his MEU commander responsibilities that he hasn't had many chances to fly with us," said January. "As a 46 pilot and the last 46 squadron on the East Coast, this was a fleeting opportunity for him to get one more shot in a 46 before they disappear. He'll probably never fly a 46 after this float. With that being the case, and twenty-plus years inside the 46, I’m sure it will be pretty powerful for him to bid farewell to the venerable phroggy."

            But January was clear that Desens’ mission was one of reconnaissance, not reminiscence.

            “That’s where people will go, 'Hey, what are you doing out there? You're a MEU CO, you shouldn't be flying. You're supposed to be riding a pine (desk).' But he's not that kind of guy," said January, reinforcing that Desens' hands-on leadership style is admired by his Marines.”

            "He got a lot of cool points with the crew chiefs," January said. "They were talking about this when we got back… It's a very challenging regime in the aircraft and his landing was as good as mine. The crew chiefs were very impressed with that, they were all kicking it around the flight line, 'Hey, the old man's still got it.' It goes a long way. It's like being a grunt, you've still got to be able to (march with a pack) and shoot. For aviators you've still got to be able to talk and fly, and he was very much able to do that. It goes a long way with your credibility. When the old man sticks (a landing) with no problems, word gets back through the corporal/lance corporal network that the boss can still fly."