Paul, like many aviators, dreamed of flying since he was a young boy. Airshows, trips to the local airport, and being part of the “Topgun” generation added to his desire to fly. Many people have this dream, but very few have the drive and determination to actually make their dreams a reality. Major Paul “Goose” Gosden is just one of those individuals who made his dream happen.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, Paul grew up with his Mom, Dad, two brothers, and sister. Paul’s dad was a World War II United States Army veteran who served during the island hopping campaigns in the Pacific (including Guadalcanal and three other opposed beach landings). When Gosden was 17, he and his dad were talking about him becoming a Marine. Paul’s dad was straight and to the point when he told him he wasn’t tough enough to hack military life! His dad told him, “I was on Guadalcanal and I knew Marines. You’re not that tough and there is no way you will make it as a Marine!” This conversation happened on a Sunday. The first thing Monday morning, Paul enlisted in the United States Marines Corps. The only hitch was that Paul was only 17 years old and needed his parent’s signature to enlist. On the spot, Paul drove home with the recruiter. Gosden walked in with the recruiter by his side and said, “Guess what Dad? I enlisted.” His dad’s first words upon seeing the recruiter and hearing Paul’s statement was “Where do I sign?” With that signature, Paul was on his way to becoming a second-generation combat veteran in the Gosden family.
In 1988, Paul completed boot camp at Marine Corps Recruiting Depot Parris Island. His first assignment as part of United States Marines Corps Reserves was in aircraft supply as part of VMA-321 Hells Angels located at Andrews Air Force Base, Washington D.C. Paul spent four years as a USMC Reservist, before going to Platoon Leaders Course and graduating as a Second Lieutenant in 1992. It was during his tour of duty as a reservist that he obtained his Bachelors of Arts degree in Communications from Marymount University. First Lieutenant Gosden spent two years in the 3rdAssault Amphibian Battalion at Marine Corps Base – Camp Pendleton, California while he applied, and waited for selection to flight school. In 1995, Paul was selected for the Naval Flight School in Pensacola, Florida.
As Paul told me, “Everyone in flight school wants to be a jet pilot.” There was only a few in Gosden’s class that wanted to fly another (non jet fixed wing) type of aircraft and that was usually because their fathers had flown that type of aircraft. Originally wanting to fly fighters, Paul soon realized the Marine Corps had other ideas for him. Captain Gosden was destined for the rotary wing community when he graduated from flight school in May 1997. Goose was fortunate though to have a choice of what type of helicopter he would fly. His choice would end up being the UH-1 Huey because of the utility missions it flew, and was a crew concept aircraft.
In May 1997, Captain Paul Gosden reported to HMLAT-303 Atlas at Marine Corps Base – Camp Pendleton, California for UH-1N (“November”) transition school. Goose completed his “November” training in late 1997, and was then assigned to his first fleet squadron – HMLA-367 Scarface. In January 1998, Captain Gosden went on his first six month deployment with HMLA-367 to Okinawa, Japan. His second deployment (April 2000) was with a CH-46 squadron HMM-262 Flying Tigers (REIN) as part of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. On this deployment, Captain Gosden was assigned to the Maintenance Department as the composite flightline officer.
After returning from his second deployment, Paul was assigned to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (3rd MAW) at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, San Diego, California. Most Marine Corps officers are assigned to some type of staff job (non-flying) and this was Paul’s. Assigned to the Operations Department as the “Frag” Officer, Captain Gosden was responsible for processing Fragmentary Orders. Translated, the “Frag officer” basically assigns missions to squadrons. A bonus to an otherwise non-flying assignment was that Goose secured himself an “Augment Instructor” position with HMLAT-303. As an Augment Instructor, Paul was able to return to Camp Pendleton two to three days a week and train replacement aircrews on the UH-1N.
After spending about 8 months at 3rd MAW, Goose returned to Camp Pendleton. He was assigned as one of many new pilots to HMLA-267 The Stingers. When Paul arrived at HMLA-267, the squadron began training for a possible combat deployment to Iraq. While a Stinger, Paul attended Weapons and Tactics Instructor School (WTI) at MAWTS-1 MCAS Yuma, Arizona. According to Major Gosden, “We trained exceptionally hard because we knew we were probably going to war.” I asked Paul what this training entailed and he sited this example.
We would leave Camp Pendleton in two – four ship elements on Sequential Attack training missions. Using no communications, flying low level, and operating in low light, one element would refuel at the Naval Air Facility – El Centro and the other element would refuel at MCAS Yuma. After refueling, both elements would rendezvous at a pre-determined coordinates and time and attack a simulated hostile target. This type of training honed Stingers aircrew’s air combat skills to a fine edge, skills that would soon be put to the test in the deserts of Iraq.
In January 2003, the Stingers, as part of Marine Air Group 39 (MAG 39), departed Camp Pendleton for Iraq. MAG 39 set sail in what was the largest amphibious movement since the Vietnam War. On the 38 day cruise to Iraq, the hard training the Stingers conducted on land, continued at sea. This training included chalk talks in the briefing room, shoot and don’t shoot scenarios on the hanger deck, and actual flight operations.
MAG 39 arrived off the coast of Kuwait on Goose’s birthday – February 23rd. At the time MAG 39 arrived, President Bush was still in the process of trying to negotiate peace terms with Saddam Hussein. I asked Paul what was his first thoughts when he arrived. “My first thoughts and concerns, as the Detachments Officer in Charge were getting my squadron’s supplies, Marines, and aircraft off the boat and to our assigned base – Ali Al Salem.” According to Paul, the off loading of Marines, aircraft, and supplies took about a week.
Three weeks after arriving off the coast of Kuwait, the Stingers began combat operations. Paul’s crew, like other Marine Corps Huey aircrews, rotated between four days in the forward area and two days back at Ali Al Salem. During these four day combat tours, Major Gosden and his crew conducted single ship armed reconnaissance, Medivac, re-supply, and Close Air Support missions.
Paul described the field conditions as “rough and crude.” There were no showers, he and his crew either slept in their helicopter and/or on the ground nearby, and were constantly in temperatures of 120-130 degrees. I asked Goose how you function in such extreme temperatures and he said, “You simply tolerated the heat, but never got use to it!” Huey crews routinely flew with the pilot/co-pilot doors off and the cargo doors open. As Paul described, “Flying with the doors off was like standing in front of a hairdryer blowing hot air on you.”
Goose said of his first tour in combat in 2003 “We were gypsies in the desert!” Paul remembers landing next to convoys and “bumming” fuel for his Huey. “We would get a 5 gallon gas can, cut the top off a water bottle, and use that for a funnel.” When Goose and his crew did find a Forward Arming and Fueling Point (FARP), the standard statement to the ground crew was “Give us a case of water, a case or MREs, and all the ammo this aircraft can hold!”
Major Gosden and his crew were finding themselves in three to five firefights a day. Goose told me that he fired so many rockets during these firefights, he quickly became very proficient shooting rockets to the point that he was routinely able to hit vehicles at 500 yards and this was without a sophisticated sighting system! The sighting system Goose and his fellow Marine Corps Huey pilots used was a grease mark on the front cockpit windshield. Major Gosden described the grease mark sighting system. “You would simply place a grease pencil mark on your windshield, conduct some test firing, make your adjustments, and you were spot on.” This system was used in Vietnam and has been used as a low tech yet effective sighting system ever since.
When Paul and crew returned to base, their first day was crew rest and chow! While on their four-day combat tours, his crew would eat MRE’s. While back in the rear, Paul and his crew would have some type of hot meal. What Major Gosden vividly remembers about these meals in the rear, isn’t the hot food, but the ice cream! Yes, in the middle of the Iraqi desert, in 130 degree heat was ice cream! Baskin Robbins had provided small cups of their ice cream to the Marine Corps. Another memory Goose shared was showering. It goes without say that spending four days in combat, in 130-degree temperatures, and in the desert can get a Marine exceptionally grimy. As Paul remembers his first shower in four days, “Black dirt came off me for five minutes straight. I didn’t think it would all come off!” The second day was aircraft maintenance, flight planning, intelligence gathering, and generally getting prepared to go back into enemy territory and combat.
I asked Paul what the scariest moment of going into combat for the first time was. “My ‘ah ha’ moment was when we crossed the Kuwait and Iraq border for the first time and then it hit me that this is very real. Unlike training, people are down there shooting back at you with the goal of killing you. It’s a terrifying feeling seeing tracers coming up at you, thinking each one is aimed at your aircraft” recalls Gosden.
When Goose and his crew took off from Ali Al Salem in the early morning hours of March 23, 2003, none of them knew they would be involved in one of the biggest battles of the Iraq War in the city of An Nasiriyah. Major Gosden’s mission for the day was relatively simple – provide a radio relay to a Marine convoy (Regimental Combat Team 5 or RCT5). Because the radios that were being used were “line of sight,” Paul’s Huey was to serve as an airborne radio signal relay. This allowed the front half of the convoy to communicate with the back half. As Paul described, “This was the biggest convoy I had ever seen. It literally stretched over the horizon.”
Flying with Goose (aircraft call sign Opah 76) was one of the squadron’s spare pilots First Lieutenant Mike “Stroke” Bersky. In pre-war planning, the Marine Corps expected to have a high causality rate with helicopter pilots and based upon that, staffed each squadron with extra pilots. Three weeks into the war, casualty rates were much lower than predicted however; the spare pilots weren’t receiving sufficient combat flight time. Because this flight was an expected “milk run,” Goose was assigned Stroke.
As Opah 76 flew up and down the convoy admiring the scenic landscape of the Iraqi desert, Paul noticed smoke plumes off in the distance. A short while later they landed to refuel at a newly established FARP. While refueling, Paul heard the radio call of “Broken Arrow.” Broken Arrow is the universal (all branches of service) aviation radio code for immediate help is needed, send all available air assets. Major Gosden and his crew were initially the second aircraft on scene and when they left hours later, recalls Gosden, “There were types of all aircraft stacked up from 500 to 20,000 feet.”
Also assigned to Goose’s crew was Wall Street Journal Reporter Nick Kulish. Kulish was embedded with Gosden’s squadron to cover the invasion of Iraq. Paul told Kulish, “This might be a mission you want to miss. It’s likely to get very hairy.” In a decision that he would later learn saved his life, Kulish reluctantly stayed at the FARP. Goose and his crew quickly scrambled and headed towards the smoke plumes of An Nasiriyah.
While enroute, Gooses’ wingman Captain Lonnie “Chivo” Camacho had a problem with transferring fuel from his auxiliary fuel tank and had to turn back. Paul told Chivo that if he ran out of fuel, land on the highway, and he (Gosden) would pick him up on the way back.
Major Gosden remembers that when they arrived overhead, 50 feet off the deck at 100 knots in An Nasiriyah, “Everything was burning.” “I mean everything, cars, buildings, trucks, and even concrete was on fire.” “In addition to the fire, we could see people running everywhere and red and green tracers being fired in every direction.” Goose quickly established contact with the Forward Air Controller (FAC), made several orbits to identify friendly troops from the enemy, and then started making gun and rocket runs. What Paul remembers as a fire fight that lasted maybe four minutes actually lasted 40 minutes. In those 40 minutes, Paul’s fired all his aircraft’s ammunition and his crew chiefs expended all their ammunition and had resorted to using their M-16s.
When Opah 76 final returned to base many hours later, they found a very angry Wall Street Journal Reporter. Like any combat reporter, Kulish was upset that he had missed what would be one of the biggest battles of the Iraq War. Paul then pointed out to Nick a very chilling fact. During the battle, Opah 76 sustained a lot of bullet holes in the aircraft. Ironically, there was a bullet hole that when you connected a string to the entry and exit point, the bullet traveled right where Kulish’s head would have been, had he been on board. Years later, Paul met Kulish’s mother who thanked him for having her son “sit that flight out.” Paul was awarded an Air Medal with a “V” (for heroism) for his heroic actions in the City of An Nasiriyah. In June 2003, HMLA-267 The Stingers returned home.
After returning home, Goose was assigned to Command and Staff College in Quantico, Virginia and after graduating in March 2004, attended Joint Forces Staff College. Goose stayed busy with staff assignments until the summer of 2006. In July 2006, Paul returned to Camp Pendleton and was assigned to HMLA-369 Gunfighters. He deployed to Iraq for a second combat tour in April 2007. It was during his second combat tour that Goose was awarded his second Air Medal with a “V” (for heroism) during the evacuation of wounded soldiers at Angel’s Canal.
July 26, 2007, Major Gosden and the crew (co-pilot Captain Kelly “Forrest” Hancock, crew chiefs Staff Sergeant Bigham and Sergeant Thomas) of his UH-1N were on assignment to orbit the city of Fallujah, prepared to provide close air support (CAS). This assignment was also called the “Fallujah 500” because most of the time you simply bored holes in the sky with little activity. On this day, Goose’s Commanding Officer (Lieutenant Colonel “Burner” Dunn – an AH-1W Cobra pilot) was providing CAS to an US Army Stryker Combat Brigade (a Stryker is a armored vehicle used to transport soldiers and/or a weapons platform) at a location called Angel’s Canal (approximately 5 miles north of Fallujah).
As Major Gosden recalls, “Enemy combatants had blown up a bridge at Angel’s Canal while a Stryker was crossing. A huge firefight ensued and there were wounded that needed medivac. My crew and I could see the smoke plums and explosions as we circled Fallujah. The ground fire was so intense that two CH-46’s, originally tasked with evacuating the wounded, were unable to land. Lieutenant Colonel Dunn requested my assistance to immediately evacuate several of the wounded soldiers who had life threatening injuries. When I arrived on station, I quickly oriented myself to the tactical scene and then landed. I was originally told that there were only several wounded soldiers that needed immediate attention. When the wounded started moving towards his aircraft, I counted eight and had to quickly evaluate the situation. The helicopter was fully loaded with fuel and ammunition. I had a full crew (two pilots and two crew chiefs), it was July in the desert, and a 130-degrees. Obviously, weight was everything, so I had the soldiers strip their wounded of their body armor, etc only leaving them with their personal weapons. Once that was done, the wounded were literally stacked in the back of the aircraft. With no room left, the crew chiefs actually had to sit on the gun mounts outside the Huey. Oh, and don’t forget that during all this time, we are under enemy fire. Now the hard part – Take Off! The landing zone was approximately 150 yards long and had telephone pole size palm trees at the departure end we had to clear. I pulled power and the Huey lifted approximately a foot and then settles back to the ground. I then conducted a “bunny hop” take off where I literally bounced the helicopter from one end of the landing zone to the other. Each bounce (that would be best described as bone jarring), a little higher than the last and by the grace of God we cleared the palm trees, actually scraping the tops of the trees as we flew over them. Once airborne, we flew the wounded to a nearby hospital and returned to Angel’s Canal.”
On their second trip to Angel’s Canal, Paul and his crew were tasked with recovering some critical Stryker equipment that had been inadvertently left behind during the previous medivac. US Army Stryker Combat Brigade offered up two of its soldiers to aid in recovering the Stryker equipment. Goose subsequently landed in a nearby landing zone and picked up the two soldiers. Once the Stryker troops were onboard, Major Gosden and his crew quickly noticed that these two soldiers were, as Major Gosden described, “exhausted.” Keep in mind that these soldiers had been in a firefight in 130-degrees for hours and were the “most fresh” of any of the Stryker troops available, recalls Major Gosden.
Under enemy ground fire, Goose and his crew landed at the same LZ they had evacuated the wounded Stryker troops from earlier. In addition to telephone pole size palm trees, the LZ had several mud huts and a small mosque that was approximately 300 yards off the nose the aircraft. Once on the ground, the Stryker troops got off the aircraft make their way to the Stryker gear. These soldiers, in their exhausted state, weren’t getting the job done and were so exhausted they were simply looking for their equipment and not providing cover and over watch. Goose granted Staff Sergeant Bigham permission when he volunteered to go forward and help the soldiers recover their equipment. Staff Sergeant Bigham grabbed his M-4 and ran the 50 yards to search for the equipment. In a search that seemed like hours, but turned out to be only minutes, Paul’s co-pilot Capt. Kelly “Forrest” Hancock volunteered to help out Staff Sergeant Bigham in order to expedite the recovery. When Captain Kelly and Staff Sergeant Bigham locate the missing equipment, they start making their way back to the helicopter. While returning to the aircraft, two enemy combatants emerged from one of the mud huts, each shooting from the hip with AK-47s. Forrest, upon hearing the gunfire had hit the ground for cover and was “belly crawling” back to the aircraft. Staff Sergeant Bigham armed with an M-4, returned fire.
Paul’s first thought when gunfire started and he saw Forrest go down was that he had been shot. Major Gosden now found himself the only crewmember technically left in the aircraft. Sergeant Thomas was outside the aircraft, suppressing enemy fire. Paul, although still at the controls of his UH-1N, was firing his M-4 trying to keep the enemy combatants, now emerging from the reeds of the canal bank, from literally over running the helicopter.
All during this firefight, Goose was calling in air support from his squadron’s Cobras to suppress the enemy fire. He explained that some of the explosions from the gun and rocket runs made by the Cobras were showering his Huey with debris and were by definition “danger close!”
With the Sergeant Thomas and Staff Sergeant Bigham back in the aircraft, Paul was waiting for Forrest before they could depart. Suddenly, Captain Hancock appeared at the co-pilot’s door and jumps in. Hancock didn’t simply jump into his seat, strap in, etc, etc…He literally dove across his seat, his head in Goose’s lap. Major Gosden wasted no time to lift off and departed Angel’s Canal. For the next few hours, Marine Corps air assets neutralized the threats of Angel’s Canal and subsequently name the area “Gunfighter’s Village.”
After returning home from his second combat deployment, Major Gosden returned to Camp Pendleton in November 2007 and in February 2008 was assigned to HMLA-367 Scarface. Paul returned to Iraq with Scarface in April 2008 in what would be his final combat tour. Paul explains that during his first two combat tours to Iraq, he and his crew were in three to five gunfights a day. During his last four-month tour, he and his crew were involved in only five gunfights total! Goose and Scarface returned from Iraq in October 2008. When Paul returned from his Iraq combat tour, he returned to Camp Pendleton. Instead of preparing for a fourth combat tour, Goose was assigned to the training squadron – HMLAT-303 Atlas. The first squadron he was assigned to more than 14 years ago.
Upon arriving at Atlas, Paul went to UH-1Y (Yankee) transition school and soon began training young Marine Corps aviators on how to “fly and fight” the Yankee model Huey. As Goose phrased it, “The Yankee is everything we wanted the “Novembers” to be and has definitely proved itself in Iraq and Afghanistan.” It was in a Yankee model Huey that two of Goose’s fellow Atlas squadron members (UH-1Y Pilot Major Trey “Grinch” Smith and UH-1Y Crew Chief Staff Sergeant Bart Davis) were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In addition to being the squadron’s Public Affairs Officer, Major Gosden is also the Commanding Officer of the UH-1Y Crew Chief School. During one of my many trips to HMLAT-303 over the last 12 months, I had the opportunity to speak with the senior instructor staff of the Atlas Crew Chief School regarding the impact Goose had while being an instructor at Atlas. According to senior staff, “Major Gosden had a unique style that was light hearted, yet professional. One of the crew chiefs remembers that when Major Gosden first assumed duties as the Commanding Officer of the Crew Chief School, he addressed the Marines in the school with a speech that included the following statement, “ I can make it rain longer than you can tread water!” He brought a lot of energy to even to the most benign training, had a ‘no BS’ attitude towards training, and challenged his students regardless of rank.”
Paul would spend what would be his last three years as a Marine Corps aviator, sharing his 1,000 hours of combat flight hours, the experiences of three combat tours, and 3,500 hours as a Huey (both Novembers and Yankees) pilot, training the future of rotary wing light attack aviators. Major Gosden estimates he has trained over 100 Huey pilots and helped train a like number of crew chiefs during his career. Goose told me the most rewarding part of being an instructor pilot was when a student would return from their first combat tour and thank him for “teaching him things that kept him and his crew alive.” I was fortunate to speak with many of the pilots that Goose had flown with while assigned to Atlas either as a fellow instructor pilot or student. All said that Major Gosden was exceptionally tactically proficient and could always be counted on to give solid, honest, and constructive feedback regardless of rank!
I asked Goose what was his key to a successfully 24 year Marine Corps career. At the top of his list was his wife of over 15 years, Debbie. “Without Deb, I wouldn’t be here. She is the one that managed our household and took care of our children, Brittany and Jack, while I was on deployment and at war.” Paul has been the recipient of many medals throughout his career, but as he told me, “The best medal I ever received was when I stepped off the plane and hugged my family.”
On December 22, 2011, Major Paul “Goose” Gosden flew his last flight as a Marine Corps helicopter pilot and I had the honor of being there. His co-pilot was a past student, a pilot he went to war with in 2003, and now a fellow Major – Stephen “Dutchboy” Painter. His crew also included crew chief Corporal Shawn Hrubesky and aerial observer Corporal Jeremy Bates. When Paul’s flight returned to the airfield at Camp Pendleton at 2:45 pm, no less than 100 fellow Marines from HMLAT-303 gathered in front of the Atlas hanger to greet him. Upon Goose’s exit from his aircraft, he became victim to a long standing tradition in Marine Corps aviation. This tradition is to be blasted from the crash/rescues’ fire hose in celebration of a pilot’s last flight. After a solid blast from the water cannon, a cold and drenched Major Paul “Goose” Gosden took his final walk back to the Atlas hanger to a round of applause, handshakes, and hugs from his fellow squadron mates and family.
I would like to thank HMLAT-303’s Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Morgan, Executive Officer Major Heuer, and all the Marines of Atlas who, without their incredible support, made this article on one of the Marine Corps finest Huey pilots possible. Lastly, a special thanks to Goose. Thank you for your patience over the course of many months and hours of interviews, your first hand education on Marine Corps light attack aviation, your support of my story telling of Marine Corps aviation, and most importantly your friendship.